How I won the Women's Voice award at a major film festival.
And why it makes a lot of sense.
Not to gloss over the other news…
We also won the supreme award for Best in Festival, too!
But winning the Women’s Voice award is the big one for me.
Because it really validates my new approach to wrighting.
The Women’s Voice award is the second-to-last gong to be awarded on the night. Just before the the supreme award.
That reflects how much the award means to the Beeston Film Festival. They take it very seriously. It’s a long-standing award, and it helps them differentiate their festival from others in the same top-tier.
This year, they gave the Women’s Voice Award to a film with a male director (Nathan Morris) and a male co-writer (yours truly).
That can’t have been easy. They certainly didn’t make a mistake. There was no sleight of hand on our part. We never made any attempt to hide our involvement.
Though I was left off the credits when it screened at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival in March. Honest mistake, I’m sure.
In my last newsletter, I hinted that I’ve spent the last 10 years making some big changes to my approach to writing. Or my approach to wrighting, as I prefer to call it for genuinely unpretentious reasons that will hopefully become clearer…
I know a lot of my subscribers are very good writers. I’m also conscious many others are not involved in the daily grind of conceiving story in words. So, at the risk of oversimplifying things, here’s an attempt to make a clear distinction between where I’ve been as a writer, and where I’m trying to go.
There are two possible approaches to what and how one writes.
Explore one’s self
Explore places, times and people other than one’s own
Both are really difficult. Both take a ton of hard yakka. Much great artistry starts with 1 - and is perfectly content to end there. Autofiction is probably the most popular form of non-fiction literature, because by conceiving 1, writers are feeding audiences hungry to receive 2 - that is, to explore places, times and people other than our own. I mean, that’s pretty much why we read, hear or watch anything, right?
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But how does one credibly conceive 2?
As an writer my task is not to passively receive. My task is to conceive. To credibly conceive 2 is a real challenge. In fact, to conceive 2 with any level of competence, I suspect one has to have a particularly refined sense of 1.
To get where I want to be as a writer, it’s imperative that I learn to nail 2.
But here’s where it can all go wrong.
One thinks one is doing 2, but one is really doing 1.
Example: Sex & the City.
It’s a landmark series, and lots of people have seen it. That’s one reason I’m using it rather than dozens of other examples that immediately spring to mind. The other reason is that it also demonstrates that ‘wrong’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘unsuccessful’.
You may or may not know that the series was created by a gay man. Many of the other key creatives are gay men. Once you do know that, the show makes a whole new type of sense. Basically, the women talk and behave like a close-knit group of gay men who live in NY. In fact, I propose that if you replaced the female actors with males and shot it again, the show would make the same or more sense.
Sex & the City expresses the experiences, worldviews and mannerisms of the key creatives via bodies and voices other than their own.
And to reiterate: Sex & the City does what it does very well.
Most of the time, the aesthetic effect of meat-puppeting other people is cringe.
That’s why why there is great skepticism of, say, a short film about a disabled woman of colour directed and co-written by white, able-bodied men.
And fair enough.
Imagine if Nathan and I simply took our views and experiences of a particular scenario, and asked Jillian Mercado to mouth our words? She probably wouldn’t do it. But if she did, the result would be shit, right? Eye-rollingly shit. Even worse: what if we knew the dangers, swore to avoid them, and then went and did it anyway - unconsciously?
That’s the big and very real risk very few gatekeepers are willing to tolerate. That includes gatekeepers like my co-writer Aminder - who had never been involved in screen work before I proposed we work together on this project - and the star Jillian - who at the time we cast her had never acted.
Getting it right is one of the many reasons this short film took so long to make.
One reason was that Aminder and I wrote the script that attracted the team, - and the star - based on Aminder’s body and experience of the world.
The original working title was Crutches.
But we were adamant that we weren’t going to force the actor to inhabit the physical reality described in the original script. That’s how able-bodied people usually end up getting cast in disabled parts. Cos it’s too late/hard to change the script, and too hard to find a credible actor with matching physical characteristics.
That’s another example of shoehorning 1 into the guise of 2.
So we had pre-committed to completely adapt the script to reflect the reality of the as-yet-unknown star. We first encountered Jillian through her awesome instagram channel.
Jillian, Nathan and I all lived in New York at the time. We pitched Jillian to Aminder, got Aminder’s thumbs up, got in touch with Jillian, showed Jillian the script, met in person, and knew instantly that she was the actor that would anchor this story.
But Jillian’s experience of life includes a 300 lb. wheelchair.
Virtually all the story beats had to change. Aminder is from a particular part of London, and speaks like that. Jillian grew up in New York, and speaks like that. Virtually all the dialogue had to change. That meant the nuances of the relationship with the love interest had to change, too.
Note that none of the changes we made altered the original scenario of the story, but EVERYTHING else had to be revisited by the key creatives, which now expanded to include Jillian.
Our first port of call for funding was the New Zealand Film Commission.
I have a track record with them. Nathan’s a kiwi too, as were several of our producers at the time. NZFC loved the script and the star - but they had to pass because they couldn’t commit to it in good conscience with Nathan as director.
And fair enough.
Traditionally, the director is considered the primary creative voice of a film.
In fact, Nathan was not just the right director for this project, but the only possible director - for reasons to do with his unique skill set that I’ll describe at at a later time.
But, they were scared he was proposing to do 2 as an unconscious means to do 1.
Added to that, the location of the film was fluid.
Aminder and I reframed the story from London, to New York and finally back to London again based on a giddy mix of accessibility, where the money was coming from, and Covid.
There were a ton of practical considerations, but the unwavering focus of the creative team was to protect the authenticity of the voice of the film: that of a female, disabled, protagonist of colour.
And the Woman’s Voice award tells me that all the trouble, effort and innovation was worth it.
This Women’s Voice awards signals that we did what we said we would and could do, in the face or understandable skepticism and outright disbelief.
We wrighted something in a way that very few people believed was possible.
And we couldn’t have done it without the trust, belief and hard, hard work of the small group of people who found it in themselves to back the vision, and stick with us.
At the centre of it all, Aminder took the biggest flyer on this, at the earliest stage, by taking me at my word that I would endeavour to do something I had never done before - and by constantly challenging me to stay the course.
Then Nathan did. Then Jillian did, and our producers Katie, Naomi and Vanessa. And- once my drama school acting tutor and now an on set acting coach for people like Nicole Kidman, and Jillian. Then the BFI, then the BBC, and Pippa Blake. Then everyone who agreed to crew and act and post-produce it for the token money we could offer.
And ultimately, of course, the Beeston Film Festival and it’s jury for understanding what we’d achieved.
This award isn’t the end of anything.
But it’s a really lovely signal that I’m moving in the right direction. I can’t tell you how much it helps with the grind - nor how heartening it is to have you, my subscribers, follow me on this unconventional wrighting journey.
Thank you too.
There’s a whole separate essay’s worth of discussion about how attractively presenting 1 as 2 often encourages the objects of 2 to adopt the values and mannerisms of the subject of 1. The name for it is colonisation! But like I say, that’s food for another thought…