In a tiny 1960s art-deco beach motel, a team of college undergrad filmmakers are setting up their equipment and preparing for the day’s shoot. The motel sits on the Ocean City boardwalk, but it does not draw much attention from any passersby who might be visiting the beach on a gray April morning.
To Aimee Schubert and Bethany Michalski, electronic media and film majors at Towson University, the motel might be run-down but has a certain charm that makes it the perfect set for their senior thesis film “When a Wave Comes.”
But their biggest challenge yet in producing the film hasn’t been location scouting, or making the 3-hour drive from Towson to the Eastern shore. Along with their co-director Yasmin Zellipour, the three women are the only women in their 18-student film III class. And as women in a male-dominated department, just being allowed to make their film was a struggle.
“I feel like we’ve had to prove ourselves more because the boys don’t trust you to like, do whatever technical side or physical side of the film industry until you prove yourself,” Michalski said.
The trio also had difficulty when sharing initial story ideas with the 15 men in their class—16, including their male professor.
“Almost every class we turned in a new draft of our script, and then we go over it with everybody…And we get [criticism],” Michalski continued. “And is it because we’re doing a bad job at writing? Or is it because you’re a dude, and you don’t get it?”
Back in Towson, EMF professor and director of Women and Minorities in Media (WAMM) Elsa Lankford sits at a folding table in the media center lobby. She, along with several student WAMM volunteers, are encouraging the students passing by to get their free tickets to the university’s annual WAMMFest—a 3-day screening of short films made by women and people of color.
Throughout her career, Lankford says she has faced issues similar to the ones that Michalski, Schubert and Zellipour have found themselves struggling with throughout the semester. Out of the department’s 15 tenured professors, Lankford is the first and only female faculty member with tenure.
“I feel like I’m constantly running into issues, I just can’t be 100 percent sure if they’re gender-related,” Lankford said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised…Everyone’s guilty of doing this: from your own perspective, you’re going to understand somebody that’s like you. You’re going to better understand someone that’s your own gender, someone that’s your own race.”
Through her efforts in WAMM and the audio classes she teaches at the university, Lankford is encouraging more women and minorities to step up in production, writing and even acting roles.
“On average, Americans watch like four hours of TV a day,” Lankford said. “Which is crazy. And if we’re doing that, and we’re not seeing ourselves on screen, it makes you wonder…I think everybody should be able to tell their stories and see stories that feature people like them. Otherwise, you have generalizations of men writing for female characters, white writers writing for characters that are African American.”
Before they’d packed up for the beach, Michalski, Schubert and Zellipour worked to hire a diverse cast of actors and crewmembers. They made a point to not only reach out to women who haven’t always been represented in male-dominated production roles, but also to younger students who haven’t yet had much experience on a set.
Schubert summarized a quote from one of her film professors that resonated with her during their hiring process. “He was like, it’s not a diversity issue, like all of the races, all genders represented in film, it’s an opportunity issue. There’s not as many opportunities given, so we’re trying to keep that as equal as possible throughout all of our film.”
To Lankford, a lack of opportunities for women often means being surrounded by men.
“I’ve chosen multiple career paths that have made me typically the only woman in the room. So I completely understand what it’s like. I don’t love it. And if I can make it easier for women to get involved, then that’s awesome.” She laughed, and added, “It really kind of sucks when you’re the only one there.”
Although there are currently only three female EMF professors total, Lankford says that the department is, slowly but surely, diversifying itself. Even small changes have made a big difference to female film students.
“Madaline Tomlinson is the professor of visual arts and she was nominated for an Academy Award last year,” Schubert said. “It’s pretty cool to have these people who were nominated, or who have been in big festivals and stuff like that, especially if they’re women and encouraging us to do that.”
“[The department] just brought on Jenna Richardson, she’s the new lighting professor, and that’s cinematography where it’s like 95 percent male,” Michalski said. “And she’s a badass bitch, making her name in the Maryland film industry.”
Although she thinks the department is currently doing a fantastic job in diversifying its staff, Michalski added that they could use a female writing professor. That way, when female filmmakers share their plot ideas in the future, they won’t be met with blank stares from an all-male audience.
The story that the three female filmmakers are telling is about a woman who loses a child and takes a trip to the tiny 1960s art-deco beach motel. There, she meets a pregnant woman, and the two share and rethink their conceptions of motherhood.
The Friday morning that Michalski, Schubert and Zellipour begin filming on-location is chilly and overcast. The gray sky perfectly frames the introspective, sometimes bereaved nature of the film, but stands in contrast with triumphs the women have made in getting their film produced.
“When a Wave Comes” may be written by and about women, but the filmmakers want it to be accessible and relatable to everyone. Just like the short films screened at WAMMFest. And just how the filmmakers and professor Lankford think all modern filmmaking should be.