One Army Reservist is making movies about women in combat, while Hollywood may be readying for a big battle

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One of the coolest stories I caught this week comes from the Military Times – not one of my usual reads, I must admit – and is all about Army Reserve Capt. Rebecca Murga, who is on a mission to tell the story of women in the U.S. military’s combat ranks.

Rebecca Murga. Photo provided

Rebecca Murga. Photo provided

Murga, a filmmaker, photographer and writer, is working on her latest short film, American Girl, which follows a young woman’s experience in becoming a soldier who eventually serves in Afghanistan, according to Oriana Pawlyk’s Military Times feature.

Murga, who recently was featured on NPR as the director of War Ink, a short documentary that tells veterans’ combat stories through their tattoos, is one of 10 applicants participating in this year’s AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women. She is the first service member to participate in the yearlong course, started by the American Film Institute in 1974, according to a news release on her website.

She said she hopes to turn her short American Girl into a full-length feature in 2016.

Her short film’s subject matter is timely, since opportunities for women in the military are changing rapidly. For the first time this year, women began training at the Army’s notoriously tough Ranger School, for instance. A total of 19 female and 381 male soldiers started Ranger School April 20, and a total of 195 students from the class – all of them men – will move on to Dahlonega, Ga., for the next phase in the grueling training, according to the Army Times. The women were part of what was initially thought to be a one-time, integrated assessment of the storied two-month school, but Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army will “probably run a couple more pilots. … It’s been a real success for us, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

In 2014, the Marine Corps opened up 11 military occupational specialties to female Marines.

“These women are not just soldiers, they’re mothers, they’re sisters and through storytelling and filmmaking, you can make that connection, and you can empathize in what some of these soldiers do,” Murga told the Military Times. “To me, that is something that has gotten lost over the years.”

Murga’s short film also explores what it means to be an immigrant serving in the U.S. military: The 12-year-old Guatemalan girl in the film must first reach the U.S. before she can begin to dream about serving.

“When I deployed, I met soldiers from all over the world, from Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines, and was surprised to learn how many members serving in the military were fighting for a country that wasn’t theirs,” Murga said.

The Military Times reports that since 2001, more than 92,000 foreign-born service members have become citizens while serving in uniform.

“I wanted to look at and tell that story of folks like my dad, who’s Guatemalan, and folks who come to this country and want to do nothing but serve it,” she said, adding that the central character in her film will have a personal journey, but also shed light on these cultural and political transitions.

That’s what film does best. Since I practically live in the shadow of the massive Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, I’ll be watching her career with great interest.

Hollywood prepares for battle in wake of ACLU probe

As previously reported, the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies earlier this month to investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies for what the organization described as rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors, and the ACLU of Southern California followed up by launching a petition demanding for formal government recognition of the problem and a call to action for equal pay.

Now, Hollywood is getting ready for a possible probe that could even come with a round of subpoenas.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has the power to bring what’s known as a “commissioner’s charge” and potentially serve subpoenas to entertainment companies to uncover more about the industry’s hiring practices. So-called “word-of-mouth” hiring, the legal term for hiring made without publicly advertising opportunities (like studios making selections from talent agency director lists), might lead to liability if men are given preference due to the belief that they have higher earning potential, USC law professor Camille Gear Rich tells the trade publication. If the EEOC determines there’s been a violation of equal-rights laws, government attorneys would look to find a remedy through mediation, and if that doesn’t work, a lawsuit.

In the 1960s, the EEOC actually held hearings on gender and racial discrimination in entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. A settlement between the Department of Justice, studios and unions provided for monitoring that lasted into the mid-1970s. Sadly, it didn’t seem to help much in the long term, now did it? The ACLU wasn’t involved in that effort, but it has cited the precedent in letters to the EEOC and two other government agencies.

Attorney Bonnie Eskenazi tells the trade publication she believes legal action could begin the path toward a consent decree in which studios would agree to take specific steps to rectify bias. Eskenazi says she’d like to see a “film czar” who would oversee a fund financed by settlement money from any suits benefiting female directors.

ACLU staff attorney Ariela Migdall tells the trade publication that one of the ideas floated has been to ask studios to adopt something analogous to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” in which minority candidates must be interviewed before a hiring decision is made.

Whatever the solution, it “isn’t going to emerge organically from the industry,” Migdall tells the trade publication. It’s hard to argue with that since apparently that settlement in the ’60s was forgotten as soon as the monitoring ended.

But the First Amendment could be cited by Hollywood in fighting off the ACLU and any legal or governmental challenges to its obvious diversity issues. Sony and CBS, in a recent dispute with a soap opera star, cited a judge presiding over alleged racial discrimination in the casting of ABC’s The Bachelor. The judge wrote that it was unwise to “embroil courts in questioning the creative process behind any television program.” (Brief pause while I double over with laughter at the use of the adjective “creative” being used to describe The Bachelor in any way, shape or form. Irony can be so hilarious! OK, I’m back.)

I’m a huge First Amendment advocate, but I’m unconvinced that ensuring that Hollywood doesn’t discriminate against women solely on the basis of their gender when it comes to hiring is interfering with its creative processes.

University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin, who wrote a book on bottlenecks to diversity, also tells The Hollywood Reporter a lawsuit “would be challenging for plaintiffs and for the government (especially because) courts are more reluctant to second-guess the hiring of high-level, highly skilled employees.”

It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how all this plays out. Hopefully, though, it will bring about much-needed change.

Quick hitters

– The Norwegians and Swedes are celebrating some big gains in gender equality in their film industries, as reported in ScreenDaily.com.

In Norway, the key staff (director, screenwriter, producer) of feature fictional films in 2014 was 53.9%. The figure is the highest percentage of women ever recorded, up a great deal from 27% in 2010.

In documentaries, the percentages was 34.4% and in short films a whopping 61.3%

In Sweden, the proportion of feature length, commissioner-approved fiction films in 2014 with a woman as a director hit 50% for the first time, with 61% as screenwriter and 69% as producer. But for fiction features qualifying for automatic funding, the stats were only 17% female directors, 33% for screenwriters and 42% producers. Stats for female directors of feature documentaries were 47%, 42% for short fiction and 55% for short documentaries.

The Swedish Film Institute came up with an action plan three years ago, including points such as making women in film more visible, working with educational opportunities, and tracking decisions one by one not just annually.

Anna Serner, CEO of The Swedish Film Institute, told ScreenDaily.com, “We’ve had our eyes on it all the time, monitoring it and raising awareness with our colleagues. … You have to be clear with the industry, you need a leader to say, this is important. As Salma Hayek said in Cannes, money talks.”

Serner nicely summed up why gender equality in filmmaking is so important, too: “We have heard the male perspective. The main goal is showing all perspectives from all voices. There are so many stories we haven’t heard yet.”

– Just when I thought I couldn’t get more excited about Academy Award-winning writer/director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wasp) lensing her new movie right here in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Film + Music Office confirmed this past week that American Honey marks the British filmmaker’s first feature film to be shot in the United States. Pre-production on the film, which stars Shia LaBeouf (Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) recently began in Muskogee.

“Muskogee and its residents couldn’t have been more generous with their support of our project,” said co-producer Julia Oh in a news release. “We are grateful to everyone we’ve line danced with and met.”

Though the film was not able to utilize the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program administered by the Oklahoma Film + Music Office based on the timing of the program’s application window and the film’s start of production, American Honey was able to utilize the Point-of-Purchase (POP) Sales Tax Exemption. Administered by the Oklahoma Tax Commission (OTC), the POP Sales Tax Exemption allows qualified film and television productions to be exempt from sales taxes paid for utilized properties, services or goods by providing their OTC tax exemption letter at the time of purchase.

As previously reported, American Honey tells the story of a teenage girl with nothing to lose who joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she travels across the Midwest with the band of misfits.

IMDB.com lists Muskogee, Norman and Okmulgee, Okla., as American Honey filming locations, along with Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.

– Although Dwayne Johnson’s disaster flick San Andreas rattled to the top of the domestic box office this week with an estimated $53.2 million in its opening weekend, a couple of movies showcasing women keep shaking up the box office, too. Elizabeth Bank’s directorial debut Pitch Perfect 2 finished at No. 2 this weekend, adding another $14.8 million ($10.4 million international) to its take, per reports in the Associated Press.

BoxOfficeMojo.com, reports that the musical sequel now boasts a U.S. estimate of $147.5 million, while the worldwide total is $228.2 million.

Mad Max: Fury Road, featuring Charlize Theron’s fierce Furiosa opposite Tom Hardy’s titular character, landed in the fourth position with another $13.6 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. Internationally the film made another $21.6 million, so its international cumulative is now $165 million and its worldwide cumulative stands at $280 million.

As an added bonus, Mad Max: Fury Road has spun off the best thing to come off Tumblr in quite awhile: the Feminist Mad Max Tumblr, which I’m going to have to insist that you check out this minute. In fact, I think this is probably my favorite Tumblr ever, and I mean it when I say go to it right now. In fact, I’m gonna finish this blog post so that you can click on that link right … now.

-BAM

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