Through a woman’s eye: Ari Wegner and the rise of our female cinematographers

The UK-based agents of Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner often forward job offers via email. “We’re just enquiring about his availability,” they say. Nothing unusual in that – except Ari is a woman.

Ari Wegner is one of the youngest members of the group of Australian female cinematographers making a big mark in feature films both here and abroad.

“Ari isn’t short for anything, it’s just my name,” says the Melbourne-raised director of photography, whose latest work, on the stunning low-budget period drama Lady Macbeth, is now on the big screen. “People always associate it with the [Arri] cameras. ‘Oh, yeah, I haven’t heard that one before’.”

At 32, Wegner is one of the youngest members of a little-noted group making a big mark in feature films both here and abroad – Australian female cinematographers.

Their numbers are small, but growing. The Australian Cinematographers Society has 272 accredited members, of whom just nine are women, but more than 13 per cent of student members are female. “That’s still way too low,” says the ACS’ Warwick Field.

“But it’s going the right way.”

If it had never occurred to you that women were increasingly calling the shots behind the camera, don’t worry too much. You’re not alone.

“It feels like there’s a lot more of us now,” says 40-year-old Katie Milwright, who shot Looking for Grace and has just wrapped Ben Elton’s forthcoming rom-com Three Summers. “But when I say that, even this year I was out on a shoot and a bunch of people said, ‘Wow, I’ve never worked with a woman doing this job before’. It’s definitely not the case that every second DP is a woman.”

The first accredited female member of the ACS was Jan Kenny, admitted to the society in 1988. The second, Mandy Walker, was accredited in 1999 – slow progress indeed.

Of course, women have been shooting movies since the earliest days of the Australian film renaissance. It’s just that few people noticed, and even fewer remembered.

Justine Kerrigan is determined to do something about that. She is working on a documentary about the pioneers in the field, women such as Jan Kenny, Erika Adiss and Martha Ansara.

They are far from household names, but what inspired Kerrigan to make her film was that few of the women in a filmmaking class she was teaching a few years ago had even heard of them.

And as a result, none of them had even thought about becoming cinematographers.

“They didn’t really know why they’d never considered it,” says Kerrigan, 48. “But there were no visible role models for them to suggest it was possible, because they just didn’t know about that first wave of women.”

Kerrigan says many of the pioneers have now left the industry, and few of them ever got the opportunity to work on big feature films. (For a variety of reasons, female DPs have tended to work more often in documentary, commercials and low-budget features.)

She cites the case of Jane Castle, who shot videos for Prince in the early 1990s and made some feature films in the US (including the schlocky horror flick Leprechaun 2) before dropping out of the industry in frustration. Now, Castle is back, making a documentary about another Australian female cinematographer – her mother.

Lilias Fraser knew early on that she wanted to be a director of photography but was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t women’s work. So she became a director instead. She made her first film in 1957, and is perhaps best remembered for directing the land rights documentary This is Their Land (1969).

The notion that cinematography is not appropriate woman’s work has largely subsided, say the women I spoke to for this story, though most had encountered it at some stage.

“Film sets have changed since I started,” says Bonnie Elliott, 40, who shot These Final Hours and the television series Seven Types of Ambiguity. “I very rarely see any real sexism on set, there’s a very good culture to work in now. I haven’t seen anything overt for a very long time, though there are always subtle things that go on around gender. But I try not to dwell on them too much because I feel there’s a lot of positivity about working with a female cinematographer now.”

Like many others, Elliott cites Mandy Walker as a major inspiration in her career. “It was incredibly important for me that Mandy was out there shooting features when I first studied film,” she says. “Knowing there were women out there, doing that work, made it feel tangible and possible.”

Walker, 54, remembers that when she started out there was only one woman shooting drama regularly, Jan Kenny. “So I went to see her when I was about 18 and told her what I wanted to do.”

Walker, who grew up in Melbourne but now lives in Los Angeles, where she shot the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, approached Channel Seven looking for work and was told “we don’t really have girls” in the camera department. “That’s OK,” she says now. “I didn’t want to do TV anyway.”

Her break came when she attended a film class at the CAE run by the legendary John Flaus. After class, she and her father stopped to talk with their teacher, who asked the 18-year-old what she wanted to do. “I told him I really wanted to work in film, and he said he had a friend who was making a film, he’d give him a call.” Days later, she started working as a runner.

At 25, she shot her first film, Return Home, the 1990 feature debut of Ray Argall, a former cinematographer himself. In 2008, she became the first woman anywhere to shoot a film with a budget of more than $100 million, when Baz Luhrmann picked her for Australia.

In 2013, she shot Tracks, in which a gruff old character actor named John Flaus had a small role. “It was so nice to connect again,” she says.

Walker attributes her success to having never allowed her gender to be an issue, and to always being confident and ready to take opportunities.

It probably doesn’t hurt either that her husband gave up his career as a chef to become a stay-at-home dad when their daughter was born 19 years ago. Because more than sexism, it is the issues around work-life balance that present the biggest challenges to female DPs.

Few film sets have child care, the working hours are insane (for everyone), and DPs are often on set for at least as long again as the shoot, all of which pose immense challenges to a healthy home life.

“What’s hard for women as cinematographers is that there’s a certain momentum for careers and that makes it very hard to know when to stop and have a baby,” says Bonnie Elliott.

“For men or women it’s really challenging to make time for your family,” says Katie Milwright, who has a four-year-old daughter and a partner who is also a DP (they try to alternate assignments).

“I’ve done quite a few long projects since my daughter was born – and I do sort of sign off for a couple of months, and parent on the weekends, which is kind of tough.”

For Wegner, those issues are yet to arise. She’s single, doesn’t have children, doesn’t have a mortgage. “I’ve got a lucky window at the moment where I feel I have the freedom to be wherever I need to be, wherever the most interesting project is.”

I ask her, as I do the others, if she thinks there’s a “female eye”, a way women see the world through the lens that’s different from the way men see it.

“I’ve thought about this a bit lately,” she says. “I don’t think there is. I think men and women operate on a spectrum of female and male. I think everyone’s got a bit of both in them.

“I certainly don’t wake up in the morning and think about being a woman,” she adds. “When I look through a camera there are plenty of other things there as questions.”

Karl Quinn – SMH – July 2 2017

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