Patricia Rozema’s truth barometer

The veteran Canadian director brings 25 years of advice and anecdotes to Women Making Waves.

Robin Hart Hiltz
While she’s proud to be speaking at the Women Making Waves conference, Patricia Rozema had no fear facing the old boys’ club as a young director.

Patricia Rozema has never felt that her gender held her back in her own career, so her participation in this weekend's Women Making Waves conference for female filmmakers isn't particularly motivated by politics. That doesn't mean, however, that the Canadian director doesn't appreciate the importance of the event hosted by the Atlantic chapter of Women in Film and Television.

 "Some women are more comfortable learning in the company of other women. I understand that," says Rozema. "I guess I wasn't like that myself, but for those that are, why not tailor the program to them?

"I really do believe in something like Women Making Waves. Learning in the context of only women is good for people who aren't entirely confident in their craft yet."

Rozema, whose diverse resume includes small feature films such as Mansfield Park and I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Hollywood products like Kit Kittredge: American Girl, the HBO movie Grey Gardens and television work on shows such as In Treatment, certainly has that confidence. It's one of the reasons she's the star attraction at the inaugural Women Making Waves conference, which will take place at Mount Saint Vincent University and in other venues around Halifax.

Her very presence as a veteran of more than 25 years in the business should provide a confidence boost to the event's attendees. Rozema, after all, began her career in the 1980s, when movie-making was even more of an old boys' club than it is now. "It's so, so much more hospitable to women than it was when I began," says Rozema. "Not that I ever felt a struggle, because I'm one of the happy, happy people who gets to live in Canada.

"Canada, I think, is a much more progressive environment that is used to having intelligent female artists, trailblazers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro in literature that really charted the course. So the idea of a woman being an artist is not so strange."

Rozema does allow for the possibility that her path may have been easier had she been a man. But it's not something she dwells on. "I can't say I've ever suffered for being female," she says. "I may have, but I don't know it. I may be the kind of person who just chooses to believe I'm so lucky and it's all working out so well. Thank goodness there are people out there who see inequity and point their finger at it. I'm not that kind of person."

Nor is Rozema the kind of person who believes that making bold speeches and pronouncements is the best way to serve as a role model for female filmmakers. She'd rather show than tell and, to that end, the Ontario-born director will, after a Saturday morning discussion onstage with reporter Christine McLean, conduct a directing and acting workshop in front of a live audience.

Rozema will put local actors Jim Fowler, Lise Cormier, Anthony Black and Kristin Langille through the paces of scenes from Blue Valentine. She believes that the simple fact of watching a female director at work will be valuable for the would-be filmmakers in attendance.

"Even if I don't say anything particularly revolutionary or earth-shattering, just the fact of me there, directing actors, helps people imagine it," she says. "If you're a young filmmaker figuring out what to do, just that very physical fact of a woman having that role makes a difference."

The way Rozema sees it, one of the biggest remaining reasons for inequality in the movie business is that far fewer women attempt to make a career in the industry. It stands to reason, then, that if more women try, more will succeed, and crews like the ones Rozema assembles for her projects---split evenly between men and women---will become more commonplace.

Women whose ambition specifically involves directing will do well to pay close attention to Rozema's workshop and her tips on working with actors. "Actors are all very, very different, so the whole point is to work differently with each of them," she says, pointing out that she's shooting for re-interpretations, not imitations, of the Blue Valentine material.

"Not that I'm god's gift to anything, but I feel like I do have a little bit of a nose for authenticity and I can notice fakery, and that's really what it is to direct. It's to be able to be a kind of truth barometer."

From a less professorial and more professional point of view, Rozema is currently applying her truth barometer to two new films. The Lizard Cage is an adaptation of a book about Burmese prisoners by Canadian author Karen Connelly, while her other, yet-to-be-announced project involves a major Hollywood actor.

True to form, Rozema keeps tackling a wide range of subject matter. This emphasis on trying new things is encapsulated in a theory she first heard elucidated by Kids in the Hall actor Mark McKinney. "I don't know if he made this idea up or if he heard it somewhere, but he said, there's the beginner's mind and the master's mind," she explains. "The master's mind, they have an idea of what they want to achieve and they go and they work and rework and finally master it and present it. That can be a spectacular kind of filmmaker, but often they peak early. 

"Then there's the beginner's mind, where the person loves to be in the role of beginner and loves to be learning something entirely new. That person often matures later, because they're acquiring skills that often aren't combined until later."

Rozema considers herself the owner of a beginner's mind and for that reason feels that, at the age of 52, her best work is still in front of her. "Absolutely," she says. "I feel very strongly about that."

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