Ivana Massetti, founder of Women Occupy Hollywood, interviewed by Niger Asije of The New Current UK.
Every now and then the hundreds of hours that we spend locked to our computers screens all becomes worthwhile when we get to meet a filmmaker like Ivana Massetti. Passion, drive, and commitment to her craft are just some words I can use to describe such n inspiring filmmaker.
With a new TV show and founding Women Occupy Hollywood 2016 is beginning to bring the voices of women filmmakers at the forefront where it belongs.
tNC shares our exclusive interview with Ivana who talks about her filmmaking and inspirations as well as what she hopes to gain from WOH.
Hi Ivana, many thanks for talking to tNC, how’s things going?
Hi Niger! Everything’s going very well! So many things are happening right now that make me euphoric! Not just in my life but in the entire world. Women are in the spotlight. The world is talking about women and gender equality. Awareness about the injustice women are suffering not only in the entertainment industry but in every field of society, is spreading everywhere. Awareness brings change. And we need change. We can’t continue to accept a narrative that is coming from just one point of view, that of the male, and to be more exact, of the white male.
Women must participate equally in the cultural conversation of our society!
Great to hear about your TV/Digital Series One Day In America, what does it feel like to be working on the pilot?
One Day In America is a passion project. It’s a reflection through narrative fiction of the States of Justice in the U.S. A series of intertwined fictional stories, linked together by the common denominator of Justice, all happening on the same day. The series deals with the most controversial issues that divide the country. The Pilot is seven intertwined stories about Americans who are dealing with immigration, an eviction, the death penalty, their sexual identity, the danger of guns, violence in video-games and sexual abuse in the Church. Those are some of the issues we are facing in the Series. The kind of social issues that we confront every day in our communities, work places and personal lives. The tone is dramatic but with hints of humor and each one of the stories ends with a twist.
How did the series come about, have you been working on the idea for awhile?
I have made films and lived in many places, and wherever I lived, I wanted to participate in social advancement and social awareness with my work. Because there are issues that were and are very close to my heart, like sexual violence against women, women’s rights, child abuse, elderly rights etc, from the very beginning of my career I created series of short films about those themes. From the beginning, I preferred the fictional medium, the film medium. I believe that the filmmaker’s eyes, heart and mind must filter reality, and give birth to something that reflects her or his point of view.
In Italy and in France I created a series of short films called Cinema Against Violence. They examined many aspects of violence in our society.
I wrote, directed and produced those stories for different European networks. They were very edgy. Some of them were censored after being aired for a few days (like the one about homosexuality or another one about experiments on animals, or another about violence against disabled people.) But the buzz created by the censorship contributed to the success of the series, and in the end I made more than 18 shorts, all of them aired by public and/or private networks. I worked closely with specialists in the different areas I dealt with, and with the organization Medecins du Monde, who fact-checked my stories. I wanted the films to be accurate and believable, but I also wanted to be free to use my imagination in the reinterpretation of the reality. Those stories were important tools of awareness in Italy and France on themes that were considered taboo, especially on television.
After living here in the U.S. for a few years and witnessing so many contradictions, I had the urge to create something similar that could raise awareness and provoke a conversation about the many controversial issues that plague the U.S. I profoundly believe that a conversation is essential if we’re going to face our problems and eventually solve them.
Justice & Injustice are my themes as a filmmaker and as a human being. They are the motor of the emotions that drive my storytelling. I need to break the silence. It was always like this for me. It’s part of my story. Revealing, shining a spotlight on certain fundamental divide, is a way to help others and heal myself. Two years ago I started working on a short story about Pedophilia in the Church in the U.S. Then I thought that I couldn’t tell just that one isolated story. That issue was just one of the many that wound this country. So I wrote other stories, and the project of One Day In America was born.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced putting this series together?
When you deal with serious stuff there is always resistance. You can’t look for partners on big networks and corporate media. Even though One day In America is fictional, it’s political. It’s about the reality we face every day in our lives. The content is not watered down, it’s not sugar-coated. It’s raw and tough. Like our lives. So the big challenge was and still is where to look for money. I’m also producing this project. I’ve always produced my own projects. I always have to look for people who share my vision. Though it’s a struggle, I have found people who are participating in this vision, who share with me the need to have this conversation about Justice in America. I’m shooting one of the stories soon and we’ll use that to promote the project. Right now, there are so many ways to produce content and so many platforms on which to distribute it.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I was born into a family of “contadini”, country farmers, in a little medieval town in Italy. When I was seven years old, my father decided to move to the city, Rome, to give me an education and a better future.
I was eight years old when I went to the movies for the first time. My aunt, who had money for just one ticket, brought me to a little movie theatre, an annex of the local Catholic church where they showed only scientific, historical, and religious films.
I was forbidden to go near a church, as my father was an atheist. My aunt made me promise not to tell him or anyone where we were going. I promised, and sat on a hard wooden seat while she waited outside. That day the film was the “Ten Commandments”. The actors, the colors, the music, and the exotic landscapes made me tremble with excitement. When the Red Sea finally parted, allowing Moses and his people to escape to freedom, I was stunned. That was a miracle, the miracle I was looking for. In the movies, miracles can happen. People can change their lives. So I had to be in the movies. To change people’s lives and save my own. It was a horrible period for me and my family that one in that big city. I felt isolated, alone. We were poor and everybody looked down on us.
Sixteen years later I began to make movies. My movies. Stories I urgently needed to tell that represented my vision of the world, my quest for the truth, and my sense of justice. Justice is a theme that has resonated with me since I was that little girl. The Justice thing was already the motor of my life and work.
Since your debut, Domino, how has your style and approach to filmmaking changed over the years?
I never studied filmmaking, I learned on the ground, being a gofer, an assistant. I learned from important directors. I learned technique from them, and little by little I developed my own vision and sensibility. I was too timid to ever imagine myself as a director, but I wanted to be a writer since I was 11, when I wrote the ‘epic’ story of my family’s emigration from the country to the city. I worked as an assistant doing everything and anything for a woman director on a feminist TV show, the first and the last feminist TV show we ever had in Italy.
The director, a woman named Alessandra Bocchetti, was a great human being. She gave me the first opportunity of my life to shoot a scene. I was terrified but also inebriated by the sophistication of the medium. She really empowered me. I was 18 years old. A few years later I started my career as a director in the music video business. I loved that. I learned everything about technique in that period. I made more than 40 music videos. Then I wrote my first script and made my first film, Domino. I worked with extremely talented people on that project. The approach I chose with that film was to build an imaginary world where fantasy and reality coexist. I shot the whole movie in a studio. I always felt more at ease re-creating a reality than shooting reality. For that film, at that time of my life, I wanted to be in control.
In Domino everything was prepared, like in an operating room. Now, with time, I let lots of things go, and in particular I let go of the idea of controlling everything. Now I look at people and subsequently at my characters in a more realistic way. I oblige myself to put aside metaphors and symbols and deal with real people and their real lives. I feel and I’ll probably always feel a huge fascination with re-creating everything, exactly as I see things in my imagination. Certain works needs that approach, but not everything. When Domino came out, it was censored by the Italian censorship. It was too scandalous, it talked about sex too much. Domino’s heart and body didn’t function. She was numb, I’d say now. So she went on a journey to find the ideal man who could offer her not only love but also pleasure. On this journey she encounters 5 different men and with them she discovers different parts of herself. The censorship didn’t like that freedom. They hated that she was living her sexuality in such a free way. So they decided to take the film out of the circuit. They censored it. They gave it the equivalant of an X rating, so the film never had it’s rightful public. That was brutal for me. I felt betrayed and at the same time I felt that I had failed.
And that I failed big. It took lots of strength for me to get over that, and to be able to re-conquer people in the business to give me another chance. In the film business you don’t get so many chances. Men have more chances than women. Even they fail, the failure is lived with pride. For a woman to be able to do that you have to go through hell. I can say that I went through hell and I came back. I didn’t lose who I was before. I tried to maintain the same passionate and raw approach to my work. The same integrity. And the same honesty.
Looking back at your film work is there anything you’d now do differently?
Not really, because I learned huge lessons. When my first film was censored I felt betrayed by everybody. I spent the next year closed up in my house without ever going out. Eventually I emerged from the pain of that brutal experience with a lot of projects that I had developed during that voluntary reclusion. Looking back on everything I went through then and also later, I think everything I went through was part of my journey as a cineast. We are not people fixed in time, we are people in evolution, and that is also the beauty of what we doing. I never stopped creating, even in the most horrible moments. I never tried to fit. Now I know that I am an outsider and that I was always an outsider. In every country I lived and worked I was never part of a system. I never belonged to a circle. It gives you a great sense of freedom but is also a very solitary path.
What was your first time like behind the camera, was it a steep learning curve?
When I began my career in music videos I didn’t have so much resistance from the artists who hired me. I always had great relations with every artist I worked with. The resistance was always from the milieu of the business. At that time in Italy there were only male directors in the music video world. They were furious and they tried everything they could to stop me. But I didn’t care. I didn’t even see that war against me. I always went right on down my road without looking around me too much. The path to my first film was natural. Everybody knew that after more than 40 music videos and commercials I would be able to handle a film. Domino attracted many people. A big American agency asked me to shoot the film in the US with a big actress as a protagonist. I met her, one of my favorite actress in the world, but I had to say no to them. They could’n tolerate that freedom in Domino’s choices, so they asked me to change the beginning of the film. They wanted her to have cancer in order to justify her going on this path of self-liberation. I said no to them, because for me the reason she was going down this path was because she wanted to live. We were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Later on I was punished for that decision. The second film was very difficult to put together. But at that time I was living in Paris, and France has a different approach to women directors. They appreciate the value of women’s storytelling. But I felt all throughout my career that men were in control and that that element, the gender element, was always there. I had a horrible experience with an important Italian producer. One day, less than a month away from shooting, when the producer and I were alone reading through my latest rewrite, he told me he loved me and made an advance. I didn’t have any such feelings for him and told him so. The next day he shut down my film. I sued him and I won, but after 5 years, that’s how long the trial took, he went bankrupt and I couldn’t collect anything from him.
You are also the founder of Women Occupy Hollywood (WOH), how did this come about?
I was a feminist from when I was very young. I grew up with a wonderful group of Italian women intellectuals with whom I worked for various causes for women and girls. I was very very young and that felt so good. In helping them I helped myself too. I had a vey difficult childhood, and I was fighting for justice, to change the world and make it a better place. At a certain moment I started to focus on women because the suffering they endure, the injustice, the inequality was unbearable. Over the years I have remained faithful to the women’s cause.
My first movie, Domino, and her quest to bridge love and sexuality, was a cry to give value to a woman’s sexual discovery as part of her journey as a woman.
I came to the United States several times before coming to live here. I pitched very important projects. I was considered for very important films, but nothing really happened. I met very interesting producers who were blown away by my visual style and by writing capacities, I was attached to scripts projects with A-lists producers attached, but for one reason or another nothing ever happened. So I thought that it was my fault. Because I was European. With a complete different way of envisioning projects and their realization. But after a while, talking with more and more women writers and/or directors, I understood that that modus operandi was part of the norm. So I went back to Europe several times to work in other projects, and I told myself that after writing the miniseries The Life of Luciano Pavarotti, which took me two years to complete, that I’d come to live in the US. And so I did.
What was it about your experience in Hollywood that led you to creating the WOH?
I think that lots of things changed in Hollywood over the last 15 years. The producers who were willing to spend their own money on projects and were willing to push a film just because they believed in it are disappearing. Their companies have been absorbed by huge media corporations where the executives know more about algorithms than storytelling. They know more about numbers than stories. Independent producers’ projects are increasingly dictated by the laws of the business. And the industry is completely invaded by sequels, remakes, prequels, pre-proven content that “can’t fail”.
In this new paradigm, women have less opportunity and less space to exist, and in fact instead of flourishing, the situation for women is more and more miserable.
Since the economic crisis of 2008 this all has become so much worse. Male writers & directors circled the wagons and took all the jobs themselves. It has become in some way a war against women. White men are more and more closed to women as well as to all the other diverse voices: African American, Latino, Asian, First Nation, not to mention LGBT! They want the pie all to themselves. And now, a few years after the crisis, white men fight not only to keep the writing and directing jobs out of the hands of women, but the power too. In the end it’s always about power and money. And when it comes to gender discrimination, Hollywood is the worst offender.
Then I discovered that the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) was never ratified. In 1972, it passed in 35 states, but to become a law it needed to pass in 38 states, so it was never ratified. So women aren’t equal to men in the Constitution of the United States of America. I was horrified. This country that wants to be a model for democracy for people around the world doesn’t constitutionally guarantee women equal rights. That was unacceptable to me. I understood that this lack of equality translated into every field for women in America, and Hollywood wasn’t an exception. Hollywood is one of the US’s worst transgressors in term of equal rights for women, gender bias, unconscious bias etc.
So I decided to start a movement for all women in the industry: Women Occupy Hollywood. I wanted this political nuance of “Occupy”, even though what we really want is to occupy our rightful place that we don’t presently have in this industry. We want the same opportunities to work as men, to support ourselves and our families. At the same time we want to participate, as the 52% of the population that we are, in the film/TV/media narrative that speaks just a white male vocabulary. We are the 52% of the population. We need to tell our stories with our own words and imagination. At the moment, white men make culture and women are largely excluded from that. This is not only unfair and unjust. It’s damaging all of us, and especially the young generation. The media that white men control influences values. When women and girls are portrayed as a smaller part of the work force than they actually occupy, as always sexualized, as a smaller percentage of the population in general than they really are, that influences how girls see themselves!
That is a kind of tyranny!
Have you been surprised but the reaction you’ve gotten so far?
Creating Women Occupy Hollywood was really a spontaneous act. I believed that we needed a place that had a certain political connotation that could embrace all women, of all colors and other diverse voices who suffer the same ostracism, to come together and fight together for a common goal. The goal of Equality. I thought that we needed a place like that for all of us, but I was surprised anyhow when I saw all those women from all over the world, a lot from England, Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland, who started to interact with me on the social media. Internet represents a place of freedom where our voices interact and we unite under the same ideals. This is incredible. This is revolutionary
What are some of the challenges women filmmakers still face in Hollywood?
The main challenge for women is: bias, unconscious and conscious. Men and to some extent also women think that women are less qualified than even mediocre male directors to get the things done. We have lived prisoners in the narrative that the male, I’m always talking about the white male, is the guy for the job, whatever job is. Then there’s conscious bias. They don’t want us sit at the table because they don’t want lose their power. Hollywood is about millions and millions of dollars. Men don’t want to divide the pie with us, pure and simple. WOH has several goals to achieve, and one of these is to develop, produce, finance and distribute films made by women. Women need to talk from their unique voice, and write and direct their films from that unique point of view instead to mimimc or adjust to a male vision. Women need to stick together, to help each other because together we are stronger. Women need to rebuild a new independent cinema where our films, our stories are the protagonists. 52% of the moviegoers are women, and women also bring men to the movies. Women need to be more aware about their power, their power in this industry. We need to reflect and own that power and decide what we really want to do.
Who have been some of your biggest influences?
In my life I had three women who influenced me most. One is my grand-mother who raised 5 children by herself, who thought me that nothing was impossible. The other two are two women directors. One is the first woman who gave me the opportunity to shoot my first scene. I was 18. She was generous. She empowered me. She saw me. We always need somebody that sees us! The second was Ana Simon, a Romanian director, who has an amazing knowledge about everything. She taught me that you need to cultivate yourself, to study, to grow intellectually, in order to tell stories because to be a director, let’s say a cineast, is a great responsibility.
Artistically I was influenced by Louis Buñuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Wells, Marguerite Duras, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Cassavetes, Carlos Saura, Ettore Scola, Vittorio De Sica, Ridley Scott.
And finally what advice could you offer filmmakers trying to get into the industry?
Be fearless, be bold, develop your own voice, your own point of view. To women I say the industry needs our voice, it’s unique, it’s original, it can make a lot of money. Don’t believe the male narrative that women’s films don’t make money. It’s wrong. It’s not true. It’s propaganda they invented to keep us out of the industry. Go girl, go get your place.
Originally published in the UK by The New Current http://www.thenewcurrent.co.uk/#!tnc-interview-2016-ivana-massetti/cwfx
Many thanks to The New Current and Niger Asije.