Malory Graham is the founder and Executive Director of Reel Grrls, a Seattle-based nonprofit that teaches young women and girls how to make films. Graham, who grew up in New York City, caught the filmmaking bug as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, where she studied under the feminist researcher and author Susan Douglas. “They gave me a camera on day one and said ‘create your own major,’ so for four years, I made films.” Once she graduated, she worked in the film industry, but found that teaching filmmaking was her real passion. She founded Reel Grrls in 2001 with the goal of teaching young women how to work behind the camera as well as in front of it, and how to make films about issues that matter to them.
Reel Grrls offers day camps, weekend programs, after-school programs and bootcamp workshops where students focus on just one aspect of filmmaking. They also run an apprenticeship program, where advanced students are placed with nonprofits in the Seattle area, to provide video production services. In other words, Reel Grrls teaches girls filmmaking skills, and then creates opportunities for them to use those skills for a good cause. And while only 3% of cinematographers in Hollywood are women, Graham says that the 120 girls who come through Reel Grrls every year are starting to make their voices heard and their viewpoints seen. If you know someone who would benefit from becoming a Reel Grrl, you can check out the different programs available here.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Malory Graham.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to combine teaching and filmmaking, and what led you to found Reel Grrls?
Malory Graham: I founded Reel Grrls about nine years ago, because I was a filmmaker myself. I graduated from college with this idea that I wanted to use media to change the world, and I ended up getting my first couple of jobs in the industry, and I was really disappointed. I ended up working for Turner Broadcasting for a short stint, doing sports coverage, and then I did fashion show coverage for Nordstrom’s, and I thought, “Wait a minute, this is not why I got into media to begin with, so I really need to totally change the game and do things on my own terms instead of thinking that I need someone to give me a job.”
From that point on I started getting offers to go into classrooms and to talk to students about how to get into the film industry, and I realized that I loved being in the classroom. I loved teaching and I loved being able to speak to students. So that really was my shift from working in the industry to teaching. I started out, in the nineties, teaching mixed gender groups, and I was really shocked that the boys totally took over running all the equipment and doing all the filming, and the girls ended up being the pretty faces in front of the camera. And even with myself as a role model, a filmmaker, it was so classic walking into classrooms and having that happen, and having that be the case in all the schools I went to. The media programs were run by boys, and the girls were tentative about technology, and really kind of fearful to touch anything in case they might break it. That was my experience of realizing that the media industry kind of had the same stigma for girls that getting into math and science did, and I thought, “Wow, this has to change.” And that was when I had a bunch of girls come up to me, and asked them what was going on, why they were so scared. And they said, “Create a program for us that’s all girls.” And I thought that was an interesting idea.
So that was the founding of Reel Grrls, in 2001. It was a group of 20 girls who all came together for the course of a school year, and it was such a profound experience, because the girls just thrived when it was all girls. I brought in all my filmmaker friends who are women, to mentor. The Reel Grrl model is partnering girls with adult women filmmaker mentors. The process is as much about collaboration and community as it is about learning the technology, so a lot of it is the relationships that girls build with their mentors. And then also figuring out how to come up with topics that are really empowering, how to take the lens and point it at yourself and tell a personal story, that’s usually the first project, making a film about themselves. Then they point the lens outward and make a film about an issue that’s important to them. So we’ve been going nine years straight, and every year we have about 120 girls come through the program, and some of them just drop in for a three-day media bootcamp or a workshop in animation, but some of them stick with the full year program, because they get the filmmaking bug. And because the program is now nine years old, it’s really exciting to see a bunch of girls who have gone on to film school, who are graduating and coming back to become instructors, or who are making their own films. So we’re starting to see a shift, we’re starting to see our girls get out in the world and into the industry, which is really exciting.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
MG: My favorite fictional heroine is Pippi Longstocking. I was Pippi when I was eight years old. I dressed up and put wire in my pigtails, and totally did the Pippi Longstocking thing because out of all the options that were given to me as a young girl, all the fairy stuff and the Barbie stuff, Pippi was the one person who was rebellious and adventurous, she was a little pirate, and she was a little scrappy too. I identified with her a lot more than with any of the fairy princesses in little girl heroine world.
I look up to a lot of women who are in the film industry. Of course, I’m thrilled that Kathryn Bigelow just got the Academy Award, so she certainly goes down in history as a film heroine for having done that. But I think that the woman who really speaks to me is [choreographer] Martha Graham. I am really intrigued by women who are not necessarily using the medium of politics for her empowerment. She was such a visionary in terms of dance and movement, and to see a woman who was so connected to the body, and who has left us these lasting quotes about finding meaning in your life, she was definitely a heroine for me.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
MG: Just yesterday, I read a New York Times article that I just wanted to scream at. It wasn’t a feminist issue, but it was a front page article about pitting climate scientists against meteorologists, saying that 50% of meteorologists don’t believe that climate change is real, and they’re the ones on television talking to Middle America. And they have absolutely no education or credentials to be making that claim. And it really pissed me off that the New York Times was basically pitting these two groups against each other, the meteorologists against these elitist climatologists, without really looking at the major issue of climate change.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
MG: It’s been interesting watching the girls that we get enrolling in Reel Grrls. I saw girls come in nine years ago who were really eager to talk about media literacy, and how women were portrayed in the media, and body image, and over the course of nine years, that has really changed. The girls now are so jaded and so, “Oh, that’s such an issue of yesterday, that’s a 1970s feminist issue, and we’re so beyond that.” So I would say that the biggest issue facing feminism today is complacency. I think a lot of young women feel a false sense of equality that really isn’t there. I’m always shocked when I’m talking to a group of 13- or 14-year-old girls here at Reel Grrls and I tell them that we live in a country that hasn’t ratified an Equal Rights Amendment, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I’m shocked at the complacency that I see in young women. In some ways it’s fantastic that they don’t feel inequity, but I’m also a little bit like, oh, girls, wait until you enter the work world, or open your eyes to salary inequity.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
MG: A bottle of homemade limoncello, a chocolate tart and my husband.