When the actress Juliet Stevenson recently checked through the films listed in Time Out, she was shocked to find that only eight out of the 118 showing in one week were directed by women. This statistic is certainly cause for concern. The film industry is not self-contained. What goes on in this industry affects all of our lives, because the product is arguably the most powerful tool (or weapon) we possess. According to Beeban Kidron, director of Bridget Jones: the edge of reason, film is the telling of our stories, our collective memory, the stepping stones on the path of our society.
Film permeates all culture, says the director Mike Figgis, and has a huge influence on the way we behave. "The way young people learn to behave as they're growing up, their attitude to each other, to race, to sexuality, all those things, are completely influenced by film." Anthony Minghella agrees. For him, the purpose of film is that it leads to "an imperative towards compassion", giving us the chance to see the world for a moment through someone else's eyes. "Once you shift your perspective, you have to see that many points of view can be obtained at the same time, that from most people's perspective, how they see the world is correct, and yet all these correct positions lead to pain, hostility and conflict."
In short, it matters who makes films; it matters whose stories we listen to. It was with this firm belief that Stevenson, Figgis and Minghella agreed to be patrons of Birds Eye View, a platform for women film-makers, whose first annual film festival took place across London in early March. Helped by the sponsorship of Coutts, the festival showed a wide range of pioneering features, shorts and documentaries by female directors. They included Alice Guy-Blache, who in 1896 became the first person, male or female, to put a narrative on screen; Lotte Reiniger, the first to make a full-length animated feature film; Mabel Nor- mand, who co-directed films with Charlie Chaplin; and Britain's newest Oscar winner, Andrea Arnold, with her phenomenal film Wasp. That's not to mention the documentary-maker Kim Longinotto, the artist Tracey Emin, the Bafta-nominated feature director Shona Auerbach and a dazzling selection of innovative short films.
By showcasing such talent, the festival made clear how wrong it is that women make up only 7 per cent of all film directors. Given the state the world is in, Stevenson believes there is a real need for more films made by women. "I think we need to see stories on our screens that are born out of women's imagination," she says, "shaped by their experience of being alive, reflected in their images, told with their kinds of language, shaped by their sense of humour, their wit, their sexuality, their compassion, their vision."
This is not to attempt to classify a "woman's film". To classify is to marginalise and to miss the point entirely. Perhaps the most important thing demonstrated by the Birds Eye View festival is the range of films that women can produce. However, without making the mistake of defining what women might bring to cinema (since when, after all, has anyone defined what qualities men bring to film?), we can insist on the need for balance in a dangerously unbalanced culture. So what are the causes of this imbalance?
A notable feature of the film festival was that it was not a platform for women to complain about discrimination or marginalisation. Most of those who spoke about their experience of directing were positive. The producer Sarah Radclyffe, also a Birds Eye View patron, is optimistic: "I think that where there's a will, there's a way. All the young female directors I've met coming out of film school can, I think, make it. There's no doubt that they have the confidence, the tenacity, all the characteristics you need, as well as original stories to tell."
Shifts in technology have undoubtedly created greater access to the industry. Gone are the days when a crew had to be the size of an army, with the director marshalling the troops. Gone is the need for excessively heavy kit. And no longer do women have to progress through a painstaking apprenticeship scheme up the ranks of a very male crew in order to be able to direct.
"There is absolutely nothing right now that would prevent anybody from any background making a film," says Figgis. "The technology exists, the equipment is much cheaper than it was, the post-production facilities are on a laptop computer, the entire equipment to make a film can fit in a couple of plastic cases and be carried as hand luggage on a plane."
Yet despite this increase in opportunity, very few women do make films. Radclyffe goes so far as to suggest that fewer women seem to want to make them. As a producer, she is simply not approached by as many women as she is men. The gender ratio in film and television production, on the other hand, is nearly fifty-fifty (though TV fares better than film). Radclyffe understands from her own experience why women are more likely to take on roles in production than in direction. "When you've just had a child, you can go back to the production side of things relatively easily. You can be reactive to problems that are coming towards you - that's fine. Whereas if you are directing, you are giving part of your inner self, your psyche, call it what you like. You're giving your all, and that's hard if you've got a young child.
"The majority of women give that part of themselves to their child - it's a natural fact of life."
And so we are back at the biological basis for inequality. Can this ever change? Kidron managed the post-production of Bridget Jones: the edge of reason by getting up at 5am in order to be home in time to see her children. But if she were offered a job shooting a feature that involved spending nine months overseas, she simply couldn't accept it. If men shared the role of child-rearing with their partners, women might be more free to pursue their own careers and creativity without guilt - but only up to a point. When it comes to directing feature films, we will never get fifty-fifty because women will never be content with having to decide between not having children and leaving them for days or months at a time.
Unless, that is, we find new ways of working. Nora Ephron (the director of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, among others) is said to run her sets like a normal working environment: you work a day and you go home - no macho insistence, if that is what it is, on wrapping at midnight. Kidron told me that on the Continent, directors shoot films between 8am and 3pm. Are we stuck in a pattern that was created by and for men, and which can be adapted?
On the question of how to effect real change, Susie Orbach says: "You don't just want an apprenticeship that's done in a form where you have to learn those particular ways of relating on set." The problems women face are also internal. "To feel confident to the extent that you can bring your vision to light, argue with your producers, and have the cast and the crew really listen to you, when you're coming from a position where women haven't had that job or been seen to have that job routinely, is a hell of a big leap," says Orbach. "It's no disrespect to women to say that this is our current struggle."
Because it is films that most shape our view of ourselves, they need to offer more rounded, complex, empowering images of women in order to inspire the next generation with the confidence, optimism and authority to make their own films.
Rachel Millward is the director of Birds Eye View. For more information, see www.birds-eye-view.co.uk
Ones to watch
La Fee aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) Alice Guy-Blache, 1896
Alice Guy-Blache, a secretary, was given licence to make a short film as long as it didn't interfere with her work. In 1896, she wrote and directed La Fee aux choux. Based on an old French fable about a fairy who makes children in a cabbage patch, it was the first narrative film ever made.
The Blot Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, 1921
The best-known film by this husband-and-wife directing team. Weber was one of the first women directors to tackle serious social issues such as abortion and poverty. By 1916, working at Universal, she was one of the highest-paid directors in the world.
Olympia Leni Riefenstahl, 1938
This undeniably powerful piece of Nazi propaganda was shot by Riefenstahl at a time when women were not encouraged to be artistic. So frightening and potent was another of her works, Triumph of the Will, that it was banned for more than 30 years.
Seven Beauties Lina Wertmuller, 1976
The first film made by a woman nominated for an Academy Award in direction, Seven Beauties is the story of Pasqualino, an Italian everyman who deserts the army during the Second World War. The Germans capture him and send him to a prison camp where he does just about anything to survive.
Point Break Kathryn Bigelow, 1991
A thrilling action movie in which an FBI agent goes undercover to catch a gang of bank robbers who may be surfers.
The Piano Jane Campion, 1993
The second film made by a woman nominated for an Academy Award in direction. A moody and erotic film about a woman who is sent with her daughter to New Zealand for an arranged marriage, and who refuses to speak except through her piano.
I Shot Andy Warhol Mary Harron, 1996
Based on the true story of Valerie Solanas. A 1960s radical preaching hatred towards men in her "Scum" manifesto, Solanas shot Warhol in a fit of rage when he refused to produce her screenplay.
Monsoon Wedding Mira Nair, 2001
A stressed father, a bride-to-be with a secret, a smitten event planner and relatives from around the world create much ado about the preparations for an arranged marriage in India.
Lost in Translation Sofia Coppola, 2003
The third film made by a woman nominated for an Academy Award in direction. A movie star with a sense of emptiness and a neglected newlywed meet as strangers in Tokyo and form an unlikely bond.
Monster Patty Jenkins, 2003
Based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, a Daytona Beach prostitute who became a serial killer as a consequence of her traumatic life.
Wasp Andrea Arnold, 2003
Oscar-winning short about Zoe, a poverty-stricken young mother who is guilty of neglecting her children, but whose desperation and neediness make this a deeply involving, poignant short film.