Tabitha Denholm is a woman on a mission. Since starting Women Under the Influence, the community ‘committed to celebrating the achievements of female filmmakers by applauding the trailblazers of the past while connecting the creative talents of today’, the British music video and creative director aims to raise awareness of the outwardly rare but on closer inspection, infinite number of female directors whose influence and talent deserve more than a blip on the moving-image radar. With the female-to-male ratio in Hollywood remaining as imbalanced as ever, WUTI stands as the culturally enriching platform celebrating female directors and storytellers in sharing their diverse, funny, powerful, genre-bending and inspiring perspectives through events, social media and video content.
Learn all things WUTI with founder Tabitha below and watch an exclusive video interview with Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne on their experiences stepping into the director’s chair and how working with female directors has shaped their careers.
What was the catalyst that made you want to start “WUTI”?
I watched a documentary about Frances Marion who is this wonderfully inspiring woman, one of the main players in the birth of Hollywood. Women directed, wrote, owned studios - all the things you would expect in the 20s that were pushed out of the industry when the big money “talkies” arrived. No one has heard of Frances even though she wrote nearly 200 films including The Champ and was the first person to win two Oscars amongst all sorts of other awards. It made me want to tell more stories of inspiring women like her who dispelled the myth that women couldn’t do certain types of jobs. Lack of visibility feeds into a lot of the negative misconceptions about female directors making it hard to get jobs and funding! Also it has been proven that positive role models encourage people to take up certain careers so visibility encourages more young women to take up the profession. But more profoundly, in a society where the majority of the population (women) continually have their stories told from a different perspective (mens), it leads to a distorted perspective of the world. Plus there are so many rad films and stories of kick ass women directors who have had to go the extra mile to get their voices heard - it is just great to share them! The most common comment people make when I tell them about the project is “Won’t you run out of directors? There are only about seven female directors, aren’t there?” It happens all the time and assures me of the need for the project.
Am I right in thinking it was initially an event? How did it turn into a video series?
It’s still a screening series, we are going monthly next year with Neuehouse in Hollywood and doing lots of collaborations with friends like MUBI. With film you can never beat that communal experience! In addition I always wanted to do a video series because I want to see these kick ass women talk about their work, not in a huddle at some film festival. But properly produced, not defending themselves in a segment about “women directors”, just talking about their work!
What films have changed your life?
There has been a number of separate occasions when I’ve seen films directed by women and realised that I responded to them very differently. It was a sensation like being able to breathe out and relax because you didn’t have to watch them through a filter. We have become so used to entertainment where the women are just impressions of women that really stand for something else - the love interest, the sex bomb, the mother etc. Like in most Hollywood movies, the women look and move a bit like women but I don’t recognise myself in them at all.
Desperately Seeking Susan was the first. For the first time, I was aware a woman was at the center of the story - totally doing things her own way, running circles around these guys, isn’t punished and doesn’t have to die at the end! It was iconoclastic, funny, punk. She was totally my idol. The first thing I did when I got to NYC for the first time was visit the shop she buys her jacket in the movie. I finally got to meet the director Susan Seidelman this year!
High Art was another, it just felt unlike any other film that was around at that time. It felt completely obvious to me there was a different way of identifying with the characters that I just wasn’t seeing in other films.
Morvern Callar resonated in a similar way. Even though the story isn’t typical, the way Lynne Ramsay and Samantha Morton brought it to screen made every woman I know who saw it feel like a part of them was on screen. In it’s purest sense, film is about connecting with emotions and ideas that can’t be expressed in text. It was just a very pure experience watching that film, capturing the feeling of how it feels to be on your own, a young woman’s internal life.
What shifts have you seen in the film industry lately that benefit women?
Well the statistics are still terrible especially with the main studios who just seem too monolithic to react! But seeing new companies that make mainstream content like Lakeshore, Or Ava Duverney’s distribution company or Reese Witherspoon’s new initiative are offering women much needed footholds. I also think this heightened awareness will lead to a cultural shift but is certainly not something that happens overnight. It is going to take a lot of nurturing!
Finally, who would your dream interviewees be?
Lynne Ramsay with Tilda Swinton or Sam Morton would be my dream first episode. Firstly, because I am so in love with her films but also because she is such a great character and completely unlike the big, brash, male stereotypical image of what a “director” looks like. This working class woman from Glasgow.