Ending the 'sausage party' of Australia's film industry

Women stage a 'sausage protest' on the red carpet Image copyright Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Image caption Protesters were dragged away by security guards at Australia's AACTA awards

Actress and director Sophie Mathisen never imagined that for her very first ACCTAs ceremony she would be dressed as a giant sausage.

Stars including Isla Fisher and Mel Gibson arrived in Sydney for the Australian film industry's glitziest annual awards on Wednesday night. On the red carpet Mathisen, however, squeezed herself not into a glamorous ball gown but a jumbo frankfurter.

She was one of 16 "sausage" protesters who stormed the AACTAs to highlight gender inequality in the film industry.

To chants of "end the sausage party!" the protesters, all members of the non-profit Women in Film and Television (WIFT), were forcibly dragged away, some rolling around on the floor, by security guards.

Out of 28 feature films pre-selected for the AACTAs Screening Tour, just two were directed by women. The event is, according to WIFT president Mathisen, "Australia's biggest sausage party".

WIFT's demonstration was tongue in cheek, as is their accompanying Sausage Party online music video. In the recording, the female sausages gyrate to a Peaches song while waving bananas and spraying whipped cream.

Revealing statistics

But the protest highlights a serious issue. In 1979 Gillian Armstrong became the first Australian woman to direct a feature film in nearly half a century with the classic My Brilliant Career.

Today just under 50% of film school graduates are women. Yet only 16% of film directors, 23% of screenwriters, and 32% of producers in Australia are female according to Screen Australia.

The numbers reflect what Deb Verhoeven, a professor of media and communication at Deakin University, sees as "systemic and persistent discrimination" in the film industry. It exists "at just about every level - wage equality, participation rates (inclusion), levels of funding for projects, sexual harassment".

The AACTAs, in particular, benefit men who have "become adept at ensuring their ongoing success". Australia is not alone. Hollywood, too, favours men, with just 1.9 percent of 2013's 100 top-grossing films directed by women.

At stake is not only career advancement but the kind of stories that we see on screen. Despite the success of franchises starring strong women such as The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect, female-led content is "still considered to be speaking to a narrow minority of audiences rather than 50% of our population", says Mathisen.

She is adamant that "we need to make space for different stories".

Image copyright Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Image caption The AACTAs are Australia's top film and television awards
Image copyright WIFT
Image caption The protesters prepare for their red carpet stunt

In order to do this, Mathisen, 29, not only wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in her 2015 debut feature, Drama, which has an 8.1 rating on IMDb and 4.5-star rating on iTunes. She insisted on a 50% quota for her crew.

Her decision came after realising the only section that consistently hired women was makeup and costume - often derogatorily dubbed the "glamour department" on film-sets.

For Drama - in which the protagonist Anna tracks down a former flame in Paris, disrupting her gay best friend's own relationship in the process - Mathisen made sure to hire equal numbers of women in technical roles, too.

In the US just 3% of cinematographers are women, according to a 2015 Celluloid Ceiling report. In Australia since 1958, only 10 female cinematographers have received accreditation by the Australian Cinematographers Society.

Yet Mathisen discovered "there's absolutely no shortage of women who want to work. There's just a shortage of opportunities. You have to break down the assumption that film is a male space."

Calls for quotas

Some organisations are making headway. Australian actress Rose Byrne formed an all-female production company, Sydney-based The Dollhouse Collective, in 2015.

This July, Screen Australia announced $3 million of funding towards Gender Matters, which will spearhead new film projects by women. The new initiative is hoped to help creative teams become 50/50 male-female by the end of 2018.

"Ultimately things like charters, guidelines and specific funding opportunities are the foundations of change," says Lucy Fisher, director of the Gold Coast Film Festival.

Fisher offers free childcare for industry panellists, insists that over 50% of speakers on festival talks are women, and deliberately showcases films with female content.

She insists that gender equality "doesn't will itself into existence - you really have to plan and make deliberate choices".

WIFT, too, believes that actual, rather than tokenistic change, will only occur with a rigorously enforced quota system - and that this is particularly important in an industry largely run on government subsidies, paid for by public tax dollars.

Image copyright Drama
Image caption The film Drama was staffed by equal numbers of men and women

Crucial is changing the narrative about how we talk about women in film. In November Sally Caplan, Screen Australia's head of production, created controversy by stating the funding body wanted to make a "a system whereby organically we'll get to 50/50" once women are able to "believe in themselves".

Verhoeven believes such "strategies focused on bringing women 'up to speed' simply reiterate the belief that women are somehow the source or cause of their own failure".

Instead, she says, the lack of meaningful change is down to the fact that it is in the industry gatekeepers' interests - the majority of whom are men - to maintain the status quo that keeps them on top.

Male producers also tend to hire in their own image: on average male producers have creative teams which are 70% male. In one Australian study done over 10 years, roughly 40% of male producers worked with no women at all.

As journalist Scott Mendelson wrote in a Forbes article last month: "Men are offered the presumption of competence regardless of experience. Women are considered a risk regardless of experience."

Mathisen, for one, is done with "just been flat out ignored" and the feeling "of shouting into the void".

With the sausage party footage now doing rounds online, she hopes people will finally listen. Her message? "Enough talking. We want action and we want it now."