SPOTLIGHT June, 2024: ANDRIA WILSON MIRZA, Producer, Gender Equity Activist, Head of ReFrame and the ReFrame Stamp

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Producer and media advocacy leader Andria Wilson Mirza has been very busy, and it shows in her success. For the last three years, she has led ReFrame, Hollywood’s gender equity coalition created by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film. The initiative works to advance gender equity in the screen industries through their programs, which include ReFrame Rise, a 2-year program to help accelerate the success of mid-career directors and cinematographers, the award of the ReFrame Stamp, and other important resources to help bring about a more gender-representative industry. Frankly, that would be more than enough to put Andria on the AWFJ’s radar.

In April of 2024, she made news when she was tapped to lead WIF’s international initiatives in partnership with Women in Film and Television and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Only weeks ago at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, she stepped fully into her new role by announcing the international expansion of the ReFrame Stamp, which will soon recognize gender-based hiring in features in Canada, the UK, Ireland, India, and Australia. The stamp, which has been awarded to more than 600 features in the US that have women, trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming individuals in at least 50% of key above or below the line roles, will be offered to qualifying productions in the new countries as early as this fall.

Andria is also co-founder and CEO of Baby Daal Productions in partnership with her wife Fawzia Mirza. They are co-producers of award-winning indie feature The Queen of My Dreams, which Fawzia directed and wrote. As it makes the rounds on the festival circuit, the movie has been collecting praise from audiences and critics alike, the latest fest screening of which was at Cannes, in their category “Queer Screen Goes to Cannes”.

Still from THE QUEEN OF MY DREAMS

In an exclusive interview for our June Spotlight, Andria shares a lot about her life and career, So, folks who are movie fans, aspiring intersectional female filmmakers, and people who love to watch a good success story in the making, buckle up.

A FILM LOVER IN TRAINING

Andria was born in Canada into a movie-loving family, one that operated within the context of her father’s career in the military. Constantly on the move and landing in new towns or cities, it was movies and tv that consistently offered her a kind of stability. She remembers learning a lot about life through stories onscreen. For example, A League of her Own, an early favorite, taught her everything she learned about baseball. It was, in fact, Penny Marshall’s movie that made the first impact on her about women directors.

“That was the first film I remember knowing a female filmmaker was in charge, because it was actually something that was talked about,” she recalls. “Everyone already knew who Penny Marshall was, and she was promoted as part of the package of the film. I remember clearly understanding that a woman made the movie, and that had a huge impact on me, because the only job I really understood a woman could have in the film industry was an actress. I loved actresses, and I was obsessed with their stories and lives and work, but she was the first director I remember really understanding. Then, moving through the 90s and early 2000s, that’s when I really started to seek out who was telling these stories. The indie film boom started to happen in the 90s, which made some of those films accessible, even in a small town, and they really moved me and helped me to make sense of the world. I felt the lack of representation, and the need to find something to cling on to in whatever I was watching. I identified with tons of characters with whom I share no characteristics or background or experience, but it was completely clear that most of these stories were being told by the same group of white men.”

VENTURING INTO THE INDUSTRY

Loving the world of film and fascinated by filmmaking, she entered the industry in the only career she thought was open to her, acting.

“I did and do love performing. I danced growing up, and I really connected to the physical body as a vessel for storytelling. That always made sense to me. I had great teachers and bad teachers, and learned from both, because sometimes the lesson is about pushing against challenges and learning who not to work with. But it ultimately didn’t feel like the right fit, as if I was wearing someone else’s clothes. My experience as a young woman in the business was seeing a lot of harassment, harm, and abuse. As an actress, I didn’t have a voice to make a difference. It felt disempowering. I wanted to help my friends and all the talented people who were creating great art, who needed financial support and to be taken care of, so I moved from acting to producing without even really understanding what producing was. I just knew talented people who needed resources and people who had resources and wanted to associate with talented people/ I started learning the language and relationship-building ways to bring those things together,” she says.

By 2006 Andria was working in the film festival space, after having produced in theater and for events. She took a job with a fest in Canada in operations and events, then gained experience working with HotDocs, TIFF, and the Atlantic Film Festival in Nova Scotia. Through those experiences she was beginning to make sense of how advocacy had a direct impact on film and filmmakers.

“It was my first experience having day to day interaction with filmmakers. There was this common shared language and experience globally, and a fest was this 10-day experience with an incredible exchange of ideas and culture and conversation and resources.”

MAKING SPACE FOR QUEERNESS IN FILM

In 2012, that led to her creating a new regional queer film fest in Canada with a few colleagues called Out East, and a few years later, in 2016, was approached to take a leadership role in Inside Out, Canada’s largest LGBT film festival. She was able to use her own experience both personally and professionally to make a difference for other queer filmmakers.

“I had started to be more visible in my queer advocacy. As an actress, I had been told unequivocally by a wide variety of people in different roles in the industry that I could not be gay and do the job. That was really hard, because it was also a message I was getting from society and family. That definitely factored into my wanting to change the system. I knew I was good at my job and what I wanted to do, but was being told I couldn’t do it because of an important and integral part of my identity. Hearing all that, when in these queer film spaces specifically, served to triple or quadruple my desire of wanting to connect artists with resources and change the rules. Members of my own community were facing these challenges, so when I was offered the opportunity to work at Inside Out, I knew it was what I had to do,” she comments.

Indeed, one of the things she is most proud of in her work at Inside Out was in establishing a fund for queer women and trans filmmakers that has since supported over 100 recipients.
 
STEPPING INTO REFRAME

When the pandemic started in 2020, it began a very challenging time not just for the world as a whole, but for the film exhibition and film festival worlds within it. Her interest in advocacy was eclipsing what she could do as an operational leader of a nonprofit organization. She was called to be part of the bigger picture of advocating for artists and filmmakers wanting to create and show their work out in the world. That made the opportunity in 2021 to become director of ReFrame particularly compelling, and she went all in.

“I was really inspired by the opportunity at ReFrame, because of the legacy of the Sundance Institute, as Sundance just turned 40, and that of Women in Film LA, which just turned 50 this year. Even for me growing up all over, and not having these formative experiences in major city centers in the US, I still knew about these institutions, and the artists they incubated and the impact that they had on film and television as we know it. I was really called to the idea of trying to dig into the systemic change needed to shift culture and behavior around gender and gender bias in our industry. I think from working in queer advocacy I could really see and understand that this was just one piece of the puzzle that, like so much of what caused bias against LGBTQ people, was actually rooted in misogyny. It was rooted in these really binary ideas around gender and gender roles and how that correlated to roles that were appropriate for people of certain genders in our industry. At the same time, I was starting to nourish the part of myself as producer that hadn’t been possible when leading a film festival. At ReFrame, I had really supportive collaborators in leadership positions there saying “build your life with the things you want to have in it, and build your career in the way that that makes sense for you.” That offered a huge opportunity for growth in so many ways,” she says.
 

 
REFRAMING THE PICTURE FOR FEMALE FILMMAKERS

ReFrame has been in existence since 2017. It was formed as the Systemic Change Project. Originally based on a meeting of 44 top Hollywood insiders in which a four-point plan was designed that involved gender bias training, a mentorship program, an ambassador program, and a gender parity stamp that would be given to films and TV shows that showed gender equality in hiring above and below the line. Since then, ReFrame has continually built on their 14-point culture change and production roadmap through tools and resources, the ReFrame Rise Directors Program, which has impacted the careers of the women who have taken part, and the ReFrame Stamp, which has become a mark of distinction sought out by both major and independent studios and production companies.

Andria stepped into her role as director of ReFrame in April of 2021, excited to continue the work started before her tenure.

“I loved coming into an organization that already had some institutional workings and memories and asking, “what’s the thing that wants to happen next?” I came in literally in the middle of a pandemic, and so we asked, “what do we need to build coming out of this moment?”, because the industry has had some really significant challenges for our business and our communities. One thing I was grateful to have been part of was ReFrame Rise, which started as as not just mentorship, but sponsorship for mid-career women directors. We were able to expand the program to include female cinematographers, which is the most underrepresented role that women occupy in film and television. Less than 7%. this past year of the 100 top films had a female DP, despite the fact that some of the most awarded, recognized, beloved cinematographers in the business are women. Advocacy and support for female DPs, directors, writers, on camera talent, and producers is incredibly important to the future success of our industry, and breaking down these barriers that we’re talking about. A dream to me would be to see other institutions adopt a similar model.

“I’m also proud of the growth we’ve had around our ReFrame Stamp program. It came out of the question, “How do we reward productions that are doing a great job in terms of hiring, but also hold companies accountable for where their numbers are improving or not improving?” We’ve developed reports that now come out twice annually looking at the top 100 films and 200 TV shows and a doing in-depth analysis, particularly for below the line roles.

“When you are on a set and 90% of the crew is just white men and you are not, it impacts your quality of life as a worker. You can take that example and relate it to a number of different cultural examples, and I think the dominance of men in these roles below the line has had a real impact on so many of the issues that we are doing advocacy around, at the core of that being behavior and culture. The research we’ve been able to do at ReFrame gives that shape in terms of saying, “with cinematographers of these 100 films, 96 of them had a man in this role, who was then responsible for hiring the entire camera department”. It’s important to see those numbers and then ask “How does that impact what we see onscreen?” If there was truly equal opportunity in our industry, what would that look like and feel like? What types of workers’ rights would receive more attention? Considering these questions really offers the potential to make work spaces safer and allow for the best work and the best art.

As to the ReFrame Stamp, it’s really become a badge of honor for studios and partners who apply and are awarded the stamp. There are production companies that have totally systematized the process of getting the stamp and are committed to getting it in time to include in their end credits.”

PRODUCING WITH A PAKISTAN/CANADIAN PARTNERSHIP

with Fawzia Mirza
It’s been quite a journey for Andria to bring The Queen of My Dreams, the Canadian/Pakistani film she co-executive produced with writer/director Fawzia Mirza, her wife, to the screen. Fawzia had first released the story as a short film, then toured it across the world as a one woman play called Me, My Mom, and Sharmila. Fawzia had no idea how to expand it to a feature film, especially where financing was concerned. Since both women were born in Canada, Andria suggested they apply for funding as an artist in Canada. They got some funding through the Canada Council for the Arts to develop the screenplay, and from then the production slowly came to fruition, even filming during the pandemic.

“The story is so personal to Fawzia, but I felt incredibly invested in it as well, because it centers on a queer woman who is shaped by the media she consumed growing up. Her understanding of the world and love and what she deserved as a woman was deeply resonant to me. Most of the film was shot in Pakistan, in Karachi, but it was a Canadian production in terms of financing. The production was collaborative in every imaginable way. It’s a story of a girl who grows up between two cultures, and the film was made with the full participation of people of both cultures. There was no world in which we could just roll into Karachi and hire a crew and do it all ourselves. It was about identifying the right partners based there that connected to the material. People ask me if it was challenging to film in Pakistan, and I say shooting anywhere is challenging. Try getting a permit to shoot in the streets of New York. Film production is always incredibly challenging, but I loved every minute of it.”

The Queen of My Dreams has wowed critics and audiences, winning the Audience Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. It just screened at Cannes, and will be playing the film opening weekend at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival just before their Pride weekend.

ADVOCACY ACROSS THE GLOBE

Her new job is with Women in Film, is as Director of International Programs. She will be working very much in deep collaboration with ReFrame, as exampled by its expansion of the ReFrame Stamp to a number of countries worldwide.

“We have heard consistently over the years a real desire from producers working in other markets that they need to be able to do the same thing in terms of creating a reward and creating an accountability metric. In the broader picture, Women in Film is part of a global network called Women in Film and Television International, which has more than 40 different chapters in countries around the globe, including several in the global south, and the work that I’m going to be digging into first is working to set up and establish some new chapters for regions and markets where we’re really interested in building collaborative programs. We’re also wanting to really strengthen that infrastructure of the international network, because there’s no denying that our industry is getting more global every day, and there’s way more shooting, not just outside of Hollywood, but outside of the US.

“With the format of the streamers and their mandates, we’re also seeing a lot more acquisition of content being developed and made in other countries. Something I feel really passionate about is when we think about the inherent challenges within the system, there is a history of exploitation in our industry of countries and regions that do not have the same infrastructure that exists here, and I don’t want to be a part of that kind of extractive or exploitative practice. We are looking at this work in a global context and thinking about how we are part of a global movement of advocacy for women in film,” she says.

APPROACHING PROJECTS WITH AN ABUNDANCE MINDSET

Andria’s ability to make quick connections, which has been essential every step of her career, is the result to her experiences in childhood as a “military brat”. She has been able to leverage that skill to great advantage.

“I think about it a lot when I think about the qualities that not just made me a producer, but even made me comfortable in this industry at all. It gave me the ability to dive in immediately, very quickly absorb context, clues, and get all the information necessary to safely navigate any situation, to make the people around me feel calm, safe, and understood. There’s also a learned diplomacy, and diplomacy is such a huge part of advocacy, which is key to making art when not part of the dominant culture.

“Also there’s the need to very quickly become an expert of a topic is something that comes our way a lot in this business. The first day on the job we’re expected to speak with authority, and we are held to a higher standard of that, as women in the business. We have to be ready and stay ready. There’s always this undercurrent that whatever project we’re on has to succeed, because who knows when we’ll get another chance? That’s a really common theme I hear from women, queer people, and people of color I work with, that a threshold for failure doesn’t exist. and pressure to do exceptional work at all times, and even then it might not be enough. We are in an industry that wants to pit us against each other and tell us there’s only one spot, and this is particularly true for people who hold multiple intersectional identities. That means fighting with everyone else who holds one of those identities. It’s scarcity driven, and the best antidote for that is that abundant mindset, the belief that there are many communities aching to see themselves onscreen, and they do support projects that speak to that. There are so many more stories we can and should be telling, and they have proven successful time and time again.

“Systems driven by patriarchy are still in force today, where competition trumps collaboration, but then you think about filmmakers like The Daniels who are working in a way that is outside the norm of a powerful patriarchal system, and they are succeeding. I think of Sarah Polly, who talked about collaboration being central to her vision for Women Talking, and that it made her not weaker but stronger as a leader. It may be antithetical to how things have been in Hollywood, their hierarchical structures, but it’s so aspirational and it’s the direction in which we all need to train our vision,” she says.

WHY WE CHOSE HER:

It’s always the right time to celebrate women doing the hard work of advocacy and amplification for women in film. Reaching parity for female filmmakers and women above and below the line, as well as working to raise the number of trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming individuals in Hollywood and around the world is one of the most challenging jobs in the film industry. It’s also a formula for a better world. Seeing ourselves onscreen, having men see us onscreen, impacts our acceptance not only in film but all aspects of society. As an intersectional filmmaker herself, and former executive director of Inside Out, Canada’s largest LGBTQ+ Film Festival, we feel Andria is the perfect subject to spotlight for June. She should, indeed, be very proud of her place in bringing more voices of all kinds to the screen. Thank you Andria, for all you do! — Leslie Combemale

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.