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Reel Grrls students develop their video production chops. Photo: Reel Grrls.
Reel Grrls students develop their video production chops. Photo: Reel Grrls.

The video recording and editing capabilities of smartphones and tablets have made it easier than ever for would-be filmmakers to create all manner of videos. And yet the world of movie-making is still overwhelmingly dominated by white, straight men.

At least for now.

Seattle’s Reel Grrls is working to empower young women and LBGT youth to find their voice in filmmaking and learn to use everything from simple smartphone technology to high-production cinematic tools.

With the help of Reel Grrls, youth are discovering “my voice is important and I have the skills and technology available to me,” said Malory Graham, who founded the nonprofit in 2001. They realize that they have something essential to say and that no one else can say it as well as they can.

Malory Graham, Reel Grrls founder and board vice president. Photo: Reel Grrls.
Malory Graham, Reel Grrls founder and board vice president. Photo: Reel Grrls.

“They’re making their own media,” Graham said. “And that’s going to change the face of the media we see.”

For many, that change would be welcome. Sunday’s Academy Awards drew criticism and boycotts by movie stars upset by the absence of black, Hispanic and other non-white awards nominees. And a university study released last week measured the lack of women, racial minorities and LBGT people in movies, TV and digital series — both behind the camera and in front of it.

Fewer than 16 percent of directors for film and TV were women, and only 13 percent of directors were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, according to an analysis of hundreds of recent releases by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Film and show writers were 29 percent women, while the movie and program creators were 23 percent women.

Likewise, women had far fewer speaking parts in media, but were more frequently sexualized in their portrayals. Racial and ethnic minorities were similarly underrepresented. Of nearly the 11,200 characters in movies and shows who were analyzed for sexual orientation, only 2 percent were gay, lesbian or bisexual; fewer than 1 percent were transgender.

Video is such an important form of media to target for improved diversity, say supporters of Reel Grrls, because of its relevance and its reach. It’s also a great way for young women to become comfortable with technology.

“Women have this sense that they’re not good at technology,” said Lila Kitaeff, a Reel Grrls board member who has been active with the group for more than a decade.

But after taking some of the organization’s classes, “we see a huge increase in confidence,” Kitaeff said. “Technology is a unique way to get people to understand what they are capable of.”

Reel Grrls program manager Stephany Koch Hazelrigg, far right, working with students. Photo: Reel Grrls.
Reel Grrls program manager Stephany Koch Hazelrigg, far right, working with students. Photo: Reel Grrls.

The students have made videos on a variety of topics — some humorous, like a story about an old man robbing the tooth fairy; others tackling serious issues, such as a video called “Black Beauty in the White Gaze” about black women’s bodies and exploitation; and a promotion for Viva Farms, a group supporting new farmers in the Seattle region.

Graham started Reel Grrls after experiencing discrimination from her male peers in the film industry, and after seeing female students shy away from the technology in media classes.

“They always ended up being the pretty face in front of the camera,” Graham said. So she rounded up some friends in the business and held the first class with 20 girls in her living room.

“It was transformative,” she said, seeing the young women gaining the skills to express themselves. “I was like, OK, I’ve got to keep doing this.”

Reel Grrls works with dozens of volunteer and paid mentors and instructors, offering a variety of classes for girls from roughly middle-school age and up. The group is partnering with different organizations including Seattle and King County library systems to offer courses around the region. The current emphasis is on south Seattle and Central District locations, but there are plans to expand their reach and the group is even working with partners outside the state.

The curriculum covers a range of topics including video blogging, or vlogging, in which students study camera shots, basic editing, storytelling and where to post their videos. There are classes in stop-motion animation using clay, Legos and other materials. And they cover social media skills.

In the summer, Reel Grrls is holding more intensive, two-week classes in video production, including an apprenticeship program with a career focus.

Many of the Reel Grrls classes feature instruction in media literacy, which addresses sexism and discrimination in media and teaches girls to watch media with a critical eye. The courses discuss how media can be a tool to promote social justice. One goal is to help girls recognize problems with how they’re being portrayed — problems that can fuel violence against women and other minorities.

From much of the media available, there are “unintended social lessons about what women and girls are supposed to be,” said Stephany Koch Hazelrigg, Reel Grrls’ program manager. “The videos that they see and their peers see and their elders see that shows how to treat them are dangerous and deadly.”

Students working on stop-motion animation video. Photo: Reel Grrls.
Students working on stop-motion animation video. Photo: Reel Grrls.

A prime objective of Reel Grrls is to help young women build networks and make connections in the video and film industries. The group has a program called Reel Grrls Pro that partners their most accomplished students with media professionals to produce high-quality videos for nonprofit groups and local businesses.

Graham said they’re tracking the education and careers of Reel Grrls graduates, some of whom have gone on to attend New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles. The grads are posting on Facebook, looking for crew members and shared housing in LA.

“They’re starting their own ‘old-girls network’ — or ‘young girls’ at this point,” Graham said. It’s a smart strategy. “The way to fight the ‘good-old-boys club’ is to start the ‘good-old-girls club.’”


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