“Don’t define yourself by your gender. Define yourself by your work.” – Cady McClain
by Annette Palmer
The WEHO Women and Leadership Conference and Mini Film Festival was held at the Council City Chambers on March 11th, 2017. The events Keynote Speaker was the director/producer of a new documentary series about women directors, “Seeing is Believing: Women Direct,” Cady McClain.
The first episode of SEEING IS BELIEVING: WOMEN DIRECT is a proud recipient of the Harnish Foundations “Awesome Without Borders” grant, and will be premiering at the 2017 NEWPORT BEACH FILM FESTIVAL in April.
McClain’s two short films are the award winning THE WORLD OF ALBERT FUH and FLIP FANTASIA. She recently directed season 5 of the Emmy award winning web series VENICE THE SERIES and is now directing and producing another short film called BUTTERFLIES, which explores the issues of bullying and race.
The two-time Emmy Award winning actress is often known for her work on the now defunct “All My Children.” There, McClain found work as an actress on a soap opera to be, “a place where women’s stories were valued in the 1980’s and 1990’s.” She chose to work on “All My Children” particularly because (as written by Agnes Nixon) it was a place where women characters could explore important social issues both as a topic and from an emotional perspective.
It was on the set of one of those soap operas where McClain met female director Penny Bergman, who was working on the soap as a stage manager. Bergman’s 1997 theater production of “Hana, The Bandit Princess” by Kati Kuroda was a life changing experience for McClain. It was the moment she first saw a woman directing a unique and important piece of work, and it inspired her to start studying directing.
McClain found a mentor in artistic director Curt Dempster of the Ensemble Studio Theater in NYC, but was discouraged by her family to pursue directing as a career path. McClain’s mother had cancer and died three years later. It took a long time for McClain to dive into film directing but when she finally did, she said she discovered incredible fulfillment.
However, after her second short film began to make the festival rounds, McClain noticed few women directors being represented there and often found herself confused with being the producer by festival staff. Then after the hiring statistics for women directors began to go public, she knew that in order to proceed with her chosen career path she needed to connect with other women directors to discover how they persevered despite the odds. It began to feel like an important calling that this time she did not have to defer. McClain said, “I needed to talk to women who direct.”
In order to keep costs to a minimum, she bought a camera, mic, and lights, taught herself to use them and went on to interview 70 women directors.
McClain shared, “it was so fulfilling to hear these women’s stories of perseverance. I didn’t realize how much I needed them. Now I feel a huge responsibility to make sure this information gets out there.”
McClain wants to make sure this documentary is encouraging, especially to young women. “That we have to be perfect before we try, that’s a real misconception.” As much as a female director might want to set aside her gender, McClain feels, “We always have to return to what it is to be female and discover what it is for ourselves, which other women help us learn.”
Being influenced by male directors for the majority of her career, McClain feels that women have been “dominated by male voices in their storytelling.” McClain admits that it was not easy to find her own voice, as she often “struggled to find permission within herself without looking for it from without.”
While Lesli Linka Glatter counciled, “Know what you want, “ McClain discussed with Kimberly Pierce the issue of permission, which McClain felt could be a major issue for women. Pierce encouraged her not to seek permission from others, stating, “You don’t need permission.”
When discussing the state of women directors today, McClain is optimistic, “Women are no longer a niche or a genre. We’re starting to be valued. It’s a big deal and it’s important to recognize the generations before us who’ve been fighting for that.” When asked how women can continue to foster change McClain feels that focusing on bad news can be “discouraging, and sometimes does not reflect the truth of the situation. There are literally thousands women directors out there.” McClain feels that women directors need to continue to seek places where they can come together to find support and mentorship. She mentioned writer Maureen Murdock and her book “The Heroine’s Journey,” stating, “Men go to the cave to fight the Minotaur. Women go into the cave to sit in a group of other women and seek wisdom. Sometimes women decide to put on the mantle of men and fight with a sword and shield, but ultimately we return to what it means to be a woman. And sitting in a group can help women find that answer for themselves.”
When discussing the challenges against women directors at this time, McClain stated, “There’s a sense that there’s only room for so many women and that’s just not true.” One action women can take is an adjustment in the way they relate to one another. “Women need to lift one another up as opposed to thinking of each other as competition. That’s not going to help move things forward.”
McClain feels it’s important that, “This issue of women directors doesn’t become a blame game against men.” Instead she advises, “We as women can take the lead in solving the problem.” One of the things I find helpful is when you’re a woman in a situation leading a majority of men, you have to give them a context to understand you.” But she warned, “Don’t define yourself by your gender. Define yourself by your work.”
When asked what gave her hope recently, McClain stated, “The statue of the little girl put up in front of the bull in New York City brought me to tears because it’s like… they recognize us. And that girl child lives within every woman, like the boy does in every man. And now there she stands, with a pony tail, no less! Totally un-sexualized and strong. That is something that gives me a lot of hope.”