Doing the Work: Kirsten Schaffer, Women In Film LA

by Ersi Danou July 8, 2020
Kirsten Schaffer

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy

The Executive Director of Los Angeles-based Women In Film LA – Kirsten Schaffer – was an LGBTQ activist from her early youth. Programming film festivals was a way to channel her energies since she quickly realized that “stories have the power to change hearts and minds, and that cultural change precedes political change”. Before long, she was recruited by the burgeoning Outfest in Los Angeles, one of the biggest LGBTQ festivals in the country, where she worked her way up to becoming head of programming and then executive director – her acute talent for organizing and strategizing shining all along. “Through that work, I learned not only the power of story but the ability to build community,” she mentioned. “That was a lot of the power behind Outfest, where all these people were coming together to experience different lives and cultures and get a window into worlds that otherwise they would not have access to.” Even though for outsiders the LGBTQ community may seem pretty cohesive, it hasn’t always been so and Schaffer’s unique knack was for uniting different populations and fostering a common understanding among them. “I was always trying to get gay men to come and watch lesbian work,” she said pointedly. “Over time they started to come more and more to watch movies about a population they knew nothing about, and would end up not only loving them but also learning.”

Within her 14 years of leadership at Outfest, there had been progress made with the queer and trans communities, and Schaffer felt her “work was done”. At the same time, she was observing that her filmmaker friends, particularly female directors, “were really struggling, not getting the same jobs as their male counterparts”. She was then motivated to bring the skillset she had acquired at Outfest, to the nonprofit organization Women In Film, and “help thread the needle”. She joined WIF LA at a fortuitous moment in May 2015, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – referencing the data collected by Women In Film and Sundance Institute – asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate gender discrimination in Hollywood. “It was an incredible time to join this movement, and be a part of putting the industry on a different path, to get us to gender parity, giving a necessary priority to women of color. My goal and the goal of the organization is to have an industry that at least reflects the population. We are still far from that, but we are steadily moving towards it.”

To Schaffer and her team at WIF LA, gender parity is never just a transactional affair. It has to do with “cultural transformation”. She finds value in the perspective that there is no significant difference between the work of women and men since it stems from the female creators’ rightful desire to be seen as equally capable of being “auteurs, Golden Globe and Oscar winners”. Yet, personally, she believes that women hold a subtler perspective. In films that women direct, “there is less gratuitous sex and violence,” she explained. “There is often action and some amount of violence, but my perception is that there is nuance to the way those things are dealt with that isn’t the same with the many male-directed films.” She was careful not to discriminate against men, emphasizing the fact that she was talking out of a personal sense, a sense that is not backed by objective research. But “because women haven’t had the same opportunities to tell their stories, there’s a whole realm of storytelling that is just coming to the forefront – and that is culture-changing”.

Schaffer’s effectiveness, nevertheless, lies in her grasp, not of the thing that is already changing but that which is about to change. Her focus is not just the support of women filmmakers but of women of color in the industry. “That is where the biggest gap is, and where we have to concentrate the most amount of work,” she said. The recent protests against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement “has increased the speed at which we are working on it and has deepened our commitment to it”.

The battle between the agents of social change and those who resist them is fierce as we all know well. “I think that those who are having a hard time supporting the movement of Black Lives and resisting resistance,” she added poignantly, “in a lot of cases [it has to do] with people holding on to privilege – white privilege, class privilege, etc. I think what’s needed is for people to open their hearts and to see that there’s room for everybody. It may require some sacrifices but [we will have] a stronger culture, stronger cities and states, and countries if people can figure out how to make room for everyone”. “There’s a kind of scarcity-thinking,” she continued, “and I think we need to move to the mindset that there is enough to go around … and there is enough water, food, land, jobs … We just have to learn how to use it all differently, so it serves everyone”.

And she doesn’t stop there: “The other thing that happened particularly in the US since the ‘80s is that we prioritized corporate power over individual power. There are so many policies that put corporate interest first, and that really has to change. We have to prioritize people over money!” And where do women come into play in this necessary and transformative shift? “Prior to Trump getting elected,” she answered, “I would have told you that women would do it differently, but to a large extent white women are responsible for putting him in office”. “Unless we take an intersectional look and unless women who are in power constantly bring in women of color, queer, differently-abled women, we won’t get to the place we need to be. Our industry has a real opportunity to make changes not only in the kinds of stories we tell but also in the ways that we do business … taking a close look at pay equity, not just equity in numbers but also equity in power.”

Ultimately, Schaffer ‘s responsibility as the Executive Director of Women In Film LA is to create programs that align with the direction things are and should be going. Justly, she sees her line of work as “culture-driving” and “in the mindset of looking forward”. Her goals are intertwined with practical considerations, like how to create sustainable careers, an issue that is “particularly challenging in the documentary and independent space”. While television offers a sustainable career path, and festivals help promote new filmmakers and works, there is a gap that divides independent creators from financing. And though everyone is more or less aware of the inequities in the media world, Schaffer perceptively ties the problem to excessive corporate power. “At this point,” she said, “it is on the corporations to move from models of a few people making a lot of money to greater, sustainable careers for more people”.

Now, in the time of the pandemic, Schaffer wishes that the US matched the European governments’ commitment to the arts and culture. The National Endowment for the Arts, the American version of national support, however, has been underfunded too long to assume a salvaging role in the grand scheme of things. On the positive side, the crisis will bring innovation, on the negative, it will affect the most vulnerable creators – women and people of color. For now, when the industry gets back to work, WIF focuses on staying “on the path of hiring women, and specifically women of color”. Their latest campaign “Hire Her Back” aims at exactly that.

Kirsten Schaffer’s total commitment to the WIF LA cause is inspiring. It is rare to find leaders who are equally endowed by a comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done as well as the courage to execute the vision that comes with it. But she’s got it. And in the place of a missing network of support with the aim of a better and more equitable world, we have warriors like her to keep us on track.