Courtesy Penka Kouneva // From left to right, Jeremy Borum, Penka Kouneva and Nathan Furst working on the Dreamworks feature “Need for Speed”
At six, Penka Kouneva was playing piano in her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. At 12, she was composing music for children’s theater. At 17, a song of hers won a Japanese competition for young songwriters. Standing on a stage in Tokyo, singing her song, Kouneva knew: she was going to be a musician and composer. Today, her determination and talent have helped pave her way to Hollywood, where she is a composer and orchestrator. But as a woman in a male-dominated segment of the industry, she is also experiencing what she refers to as the “celluloid ceiling” — fewer than 2% women composers scored Hollywood top 250 features in 2013.
“In Hollywood, I intuitively felt that I had to be much better than the expectation, to even have a chance to survive,” Kouneva explained over email, shortly after the closing of her Kickstarter campaign for “The Woman Astronaut,” an original score designed to show the world that a woman composer has the right stuff. (Kouneva raised $25,000 from backers, and raised $34,616 of her “stretch goal” of $40,000 — all of the funds will go toward production costs for the album.)
“The film industry or any high-risk industry across most departments views women as inferior,” Kouneva said. “In film composing the gender difference is extreme, because historically composing was considered ‘not a woman’s profession,’ and for centuries remained inaccessible to women.”
It was this very clear celluloid ceiling that inspired the theme for “The Woman Astronaut,” Kouneva explains, citing her passion for sci-fi, fantasy and the cosmos as inspirations for her musical journey. At an event honoring renowned composer Nan Schwartz, Kouneva found herself thinking about the gender imbalance, especially with films in the genres she loved most. She decided to investigate the numbers and learned that women accounted for 11% of astronauts, but less than 2% of composers for Hollywood scores.
In an interview with the Forward, Kouneva shared some of her observations on the success of her campaign and the state of the Hollywood music industry, particularly for women.
It’s called “Meet My Rapist.”
The short satirical film is a response to Kahnweiler’s own rape, which occurred almost eight years ago, when she was 20 years old and studying abroad in Vietnam. In the video, Kahnweiler plays herself. After she runs into her rapist at the farmer’s market, she can’t shake him. He appears to be following her — more like, haunting her — everywhere she goes: on a job interview, on a run with a friend, to dinner with her parents, to her psychotherapy session. Kahnweiler feels she has to take cues from everyone else as to how to relate to her rapist. However, that changes by the end of the piece.
Kahnweiler spoke with the Sisterhood about the realization that catalyzed her to make the video, her use of satire in dealing with the subject of rape, and how “Meet My Rapist” relates to her understanding of herself as a young Jewish artist.
Secular Israeli documentary filmmaker Efrat Shalom Danon made “The Dreamers” as a way to better understand her sister and a close friend — both of whom are artists who became Haredi. She wanted to better grasp the conflicts these women live with in trying to express themselves creatively while operating within the strict confines of ultra-Orthodoxy. So she made a film about Haredi women making films for Haredi women.
In an interview conducted in Hebrew (and her first with the foreign press), the first-time director explained that filmmaking by Haredi women has grown in the past several years, with one specialized film school for them in B’nei Brak, another in Jerusalem, and also film electives being added to the curriculum of Haredi women’s seminaries. “There are about six films being made by Haredi women every year now,” Shalom Danon said. “Some are even considered relative blockbusters.”
These films, however, need to be put in perspective. First, they do not play in movie theaters, which are off limits to the Haredi sector. Instead, they are shown only to female audiences during holidays, when the films’ producers are able to rent event halls for screenings. Second, the films must be solely for educational purposes, and they are produced with the permission and under the strict supervision of rabbis. “You have a conflict. On one hand, you are an artist. On the other, you are a Haredi woman. You don’t have creative freedom,” a mentor tells Ruchama, one of “The Dreamers’” two main characters.
While we have been busy looking at women in magazines, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has been tracking the rather sluggish growth of women in Hollywood. The Center just released its annual report, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2010” and the numbers are dismal.
According to the report, women made up just 7% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 18% of editors and 2% of cinematographers. That means roughly that only 16% of Hollywood bigwigs are women — sadly, a 1% decline from 1998.
In her report made public on the Women’s Media Center website, Lauzen writes that some industry insiders explain this disparity by saying that fewer women are interested in working in film, but she says that simply isn’t true and has film school enrollment to back her up. Others explain the lack of women by suggesting that men are, well, better, as evidenced by their bigger box-office success. Lauzen says men earn more at the box office because their films get bigger budgets, and that studies show that films with similar budgets, regardless of who makes them, fair similarly at the box office.