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Women in the arts: an interview with director Chanya Button

by Maja Bayyoud on

We sat down with film director Chanya Button to ask her for an insight into the film industry, as part of our International Women’s Day series on women in the arts. 

Having started her career in theatre, Chanya has explored various genres, from period dramas like recently released Vita and Virginia, to contemporary indie comedy Burn Burn Burn. The film industry has undergone seismic change over the last few decades, and it’s no secret women are rarely seen in directorial roles- though this doesn’t mean they’ve not played important roles in filmmaking in the past. Despite progress being made in recent years, only 14% of British films have been directed by women- which still compares favourably to 3% in the US, according to this study.

International Women’s Day is coming up, and it feels like the conversation on women in the arts and entertainment industries has really progressed over the last few years, with a lot still needing to be done. Does it feel the same way from the inside out?

I’m naturally drawn to exploring interesting female characters on a granular level, as well as taking a closer look at female relationships. My last film was about Virgina Wolf and her relationship with Vita Sackville-West , and my next project is set in the world of politics. I can sense there’s more of an appetite for women’s stories across TV and film, but there’s definitely more progress to be made- both in terms of women telling stories, and featuring in them.

Funding for arts and creative access initiatives is consistently being slashed. Can you already see the effects of this on under represented groups in the industry?

Yes, It’s definitely noticeable that public funding towards independent film and television is being cut. As a filmmaker I’m having to be more creative about how I source my funding, and it is a great shame that public funding to the arts is being cut overall as there’s a chance great work will be missed. As artists, we now have to think much more laterally about how to get our work seen and explore different platforms to work with. 

I sold my first film to Netflix, and it was one of their first independent acquisitions ever. It was new at the time, but doing so gave the film a long life in terms of reaching a global audience. I made my last film with BBC 1 and they were fantastic about giving me the opportunity and resourcing to make World on Fire as an independent female director.There’s no doubt things have definitely changed in the industry in terms of funding opportunities, and the ways in which people can watch what we make. 

Your mum worked in the film industry too. Has she ever shared stories of her time in it, do her stories feel relatable or distant?

Definitely. My mum was working on the production side of things, and worked on the original Star Wars films, the original Indiana Jones movies, Bond movies and plenty more. She worked directly with prolific directors like Spielberg, and was in incredibly senior roles from an early age,  though she never worked with a female director (but did work with female producers). She’s proud to see me fulfil a role women just didn’t do when she was in the industry. That’s not to say they weren’t important or influential- women have been in the industry a long time, but not in spotlight positions. For instance, the first editors in old Hollywood were all women- they came into those roles from the costume departments, because it required a similar skill set. So women have been in incredible roles in the industry for a long time- just not front and centre.  

Favourite female director, past or present? 

I would say I don’t have to look very far for a fantastic mentor in the world of film- I take a lot of inspiration from my mum, and all that she achieved across her career. Her CV would be the subject of envy for many, and she pulled together productions internationally all while being a fantastic parent. There’s tonnes of female directors out there, unfortunately they’re just not in the spotlight as much as male directors. 

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