A woman stands in a dance club, holding a clipboard. It is a film set, and she is the director. Yet the crew is not listening to her. She’s just been told her producer, another famous filmmaker, has lost confidence in her. She huddles with her trusted cinematographer, wondering how things have gone so out of her control.
This scene could be one from the life of many female filmmakers, but in this case it’s director Joyce Chopra, the force behind award-winning documentaries like Joyce at 34 and Girls at 12, and the Sundance prizewinner Smooth Talk. But despite her many successes, Chopra continued to face challenges throughout her career similar to the one described above.
LADY DIRECTOR: ADVENTURES IN HOLLYWOOD, TELEVISION, AND BEYOND is a book about a woman set on making a career in pictures.
Chopra details her career’s long arc in her new book Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond. Raised on Coney Island in the 1940s, Chopra knew from an early age she wanted to make movies, despite having close to no female role models in the field. She proved early on that she was capable and headstrong—her first project after graduating college was the successful and famous Club 47, known for introducing the world to Joan Baez and other folk and jazz luminaries.
But despite her success at the business, Joyce wanted a career in pictures. She was able to gain footing as many women since her have—by entering the field of documentary filmmaking. She worked with D.A. Pennebaker at Leacock Pennebaker Studios, where she produced such work as Happy Mother’s Day.
But despite a proven record as both an original filmmaker and director-for-hire, Chopra was never able to get another feature film of her own off the ground. Her career is instead full of challenging situations that will be frustratingly familiar to many creatives, but women in particular. Imagine getting cut out of editing your own film and having to sit quietly while you watch two men debate your intentions right in front of you. Or being hired for your talents, but then consistently undermined by the very people who claimed to want you there in the first place.
Readers and audiences are left to lament what could have been, while admiring Chopra’s stubbornness to remain in her desired field, carving a niche for herself while paving the way for many that would come after her. Though her story will likely resonate most for people working in film, who will lament how little has changed, readers not in the biz will also marvel at what Chopra was up against and how much she managed to achieve despite it all. As a fellow female in the filmmaking world, this writer found her story fascinating and compelling, an important capsule of the importance of equality and what is lost when we force quiet on promising creative voices.
About the Author: Ryan Davis
Ryan Davis (@indieartsvoice) is a film publicist and communications professional with over ten years experience in the film industry and arts marketing. She is co-founder and Principal at Smarthouse Creative. Named by Media Inc. as one of Washington State's most influential women in film, TV, and media, Ryan has worked with outlets ranging from CNN and The New York Times, to community newspapers and local radio. She has worked in almost every aspect of the film business--from production and festivals to distribution, exhibition and sales.
Ryan worked for Arab Film Distribution/Typecast Films where she was part of the production and release of the Academy Award-nominated Iraq in Fragments. She has worked for a variety of nonprofit arts groups and organizations, including heading the marketing departments for Northwest Film Forum and Northwest Folklife, and was the assistant director of Couch Fest Films from 2010-2014. Ryan was on the jury for the International Documentary Challenge for 2012-3, and a juror for the 2015 Seattle Shorts Festival. Ryan currently sits on the board of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma, WA.