A series of interviews with Women In Film.
Welcome to The Female Gaze, in which I talk with women from every walk of the creative process of film and television. Over the course of this series, we will explore every facet of the film industry, and go in depth into the thoughts and processes of women at every level within the film community, from writers, directors and actors, to editors, cinematographers, marketing consultants, PR, and critics.
Within every interview, you will be introduced to the experiences and unique perspectives of the legion of talented, professional women who shape the cinema that we love.
Film criticism is as much a part of the film making process as pre and post production. In many ways, itâs the final step in the marketing of the picture, and, as many directors and stars can attest to, a good review can mean the difference between a success or a failure. Critics are often praised or damned within the same breath, and none more so than the women of the profession. The towering figure, arguably, is Pauline Kael, the American critic whose words could raise or sink careers, yet never once sold out on her point of view. There are others too, Amy Taubin, Penelope Gilliatt, Janet Maslin and Bhawana Somaaya to name but a few.
This week, I spoke with Shannon Watson, whose name we can also add to that list.
Shannon is a film critic, freelance writer and life long film fan, who channels her observations into her work with a keen, intelligent perspective. At a time when female film critics are outnumbered by men at 2 to 1, she represents a minority of writers and journalists who struggle daily to have their voice heard, in a male dominated critical community, apparently blind to the statistics. Control is important, not just of your material, but of your personality. Cinema, that most subjective of art forms, cannot ever expect to grow when burdened with a male only opinion, and so, as Shannonâs writing illustrates, the real power to both change and appreciate the art form lies in diversity, within sex, race, religion, and all cultural outlets.
Q. First of all, letâs start with your website, What the Flick. Tell me a little about it.
What the flick is a place for film and television lovers to tell everyone exactly what they think.
I created it because I love film and TV and wanted other film buffs to have a place to showcase their work. Iâd long bored my family and friends by talking about film so decided to to bore everyone online too.
I have a team of regular contributors, but weâre always looking for new voices. We accept submissions throughout the year and weâre currently planning a themed collection for late 2019â keep a lookout!
Q. As a freelance writer yourself, what was the impetus behind creating your own platform for other writers?
I know how hard it is to find places to submit your work. And even when you do, often thereâs a lot of hoops to jump through.
Donât get me wrong, i think itâs good that editors have rules and set things you need to do to join the team, but I like a more relaxed approach. I want people who are passionate about film and TV to write, I edit for spelling, grammar etc but I want that passion. I want people to be proud that their work is on the site. And this relaxed attitude means people are more likely to submit.
Q. Where are you based?
Derby, East Midlands â born and bred! Derby is part of the reason I started my website and have a passion for film. Itâs a small(ish) town and there are few creative opportunities. But instead of leaving for London (I love london, donât get me wrong), Iâd rather create my own opportunities right here in Derby.
Q. You and I talk often on Twitter, mainly about films and filmmaking. Can you remember at what point you realised that you wanted to pursue the role of a film critic?
When I started my Film and TV degree at uni, I knew I enjoyed writing about film, but it wasnât until the last couple of years that I actually considered being a âcriticâ. Like they say, everyoneâs a critic, so it felt like Iâd already been doing it for some time.
Q. What are some of the films that opened your eyes to the knowledge that you could dissect the art behind the medium?
A few stand out in my mind:
- Rocky â the first âproperâ film I watched. I wrote about this for the Screen Queens anniversary zine
- Requiem for a Dream â Aronofsky’s use of editing blew my mind
- Fish Tank or any film really by Andrea Arnold â sheâs fantastic at layering with meaning
Q. You also work in digital content, what led you to this line of work?
It was kind of random! I was studying a BA Hons Creative Writing and Film & TV studies degree at Derby University. I was sent an email about interning and I figured that a creative career wasnât going to fall into my lap and that Iâd need as much help as I could get.
I interned at Crocstar â a digital marketing agency based in Derby. And Iâm still here three years, three months later! Itâs brilliant for improving my writing skills and creative thinking.
Q. What qualities do you think make a good film critic?
Be honest â if you did or didnât like something explain why. If it was bad, why? If it was amazing, why? As a critic I donât think you should shy away from a strong opinion. Of course, youâve got to explain why, thereâs no use in being negative or insulting. Be constructive.
Make it personal â I know some critics hate this, but I think itâs crucial to get your point across. It makes it relatable. If it reminded you of your childhood, mention it. If made you think of a particular bad time in your life (if you can), write it down.
Try to find a different angle â Thatâs not to say you have to change what you thought about it. But if everyone is focusing on one thing, what could you talk about to make it different? Itâll make your writing stand out and force others to think outside the box too.
Q. Do you have a process when you write? For example, do you prefer a deadline, or no pressure?
I need a deadline. If there isnât one I set one for myself. Otherwise life will get in the way â and Iâll let it. I usually find writing in the morning at the weekends works best for me.
Q. What about genre? Is there a particular type of film that you gravitate towards?
Usually drama. Iâm a fan of most genres really, but I feel theyâre the ones that affect me the most. I love seeing relationships unfold on screen.
Q. You also talk about film on Radio Matlock. Tell me a little about that?
My friend Lucie and her boyfriend Ash kindly asked me to chat on Radio Matlock about the films playing in the local area including two independent cinemas: The Northern Light Cinema in Wirksworth and The Ritz in Belper as well as a Cineworld in Chesterfield. I waffle on about what films people should watch at the weekend, hopefully Iâve managed to convince people to see some goodâns!
Q. Do you find it a different discipline to talk about film, as opposed to writing about it?
I love both, but it might surprise people to hear I find it harder to write about them. I enjoy writing about film, but sometimes I feel a lot of pressure to not miss anything out! Especially if I really connected with the it. Iâd hate to do it a disservice.
The feeling of being happy with what youâve written is brilliant though â a real sense of achievement.
Q. Do you appear on any podcasts?
I sure do! Iâve featured in a couple of Filmotomy podcasts (one of which I had to do a little acting. Yes really.) and I chatted to Duane about the Netflix film, CAM for his podcast, Cinemania World. I was nervous at first, but now I enjoy it!
Q. You write for a handful of publications, primarily online. One of those is Filmotomy, which has a very strong focus on women in film. Given the statistics about the ratio of male to female critics, do you find that you feel a responsibility to be a part of that community?
As someone who loves film and enjoys writing about it, I feel I should have my voice heard like anybody else. And I genuinely think as a woman, Iâll have different takes and thoughts to a man because (in our society) weâre likely to have very different experiences.
Q. Have you ever felt marginalized within the film community or critics circles because of your gender?
Luckily I havenât, but maybe because thatâs because Iâm new to the âfilm communityâ? Iâve seen it happen to others, but I hope itâs something thatâs being called out more as outdated and completely wrong.
Q. What do you think a female perspective brings to the critical process, that a male perspective doesnât?
I touched on it earlier, but from experience, when watching films with male members of my family, theyâll be scenes that they just canât comprehend. Thatâs pretty interesting. Itâs times like this that Iâll have the upper hand in terms of knowledge â I can relate to both âfemale and male situationsâ.
I can relate to âfemale situationsâ because Iâm a woman and have likely experienced it. And I can relate to âmale situationsâ because of years of films written by, produced and directed by men, showing men experience these problems! I feel male critics would struggle to do the same.
Q. What about Film Twitter? We are both members of that community, but it seems like it also comes with as many cons as pros.
Again, Iâm a bit of a newbie, so Iâve managed to avoid it. But there does seem to be an elitist attitude throughout Film Twitter. I think the way to survive it is be honest about what you like and constructive about what you donât â you are allowed to like what you like.
Q. What is the toughest aspect, for you, in writing freelance?
Saying yes to everything! I end up feeling burnt out and have little creative energy left. Iâve definitely learnt to only say yes if Iâm 100% âintoâ it and havenât got too much on.
Q. Do you pitch to a lot of magazines and websites?
I started âproperlyâ doing it at the start of 2018. I probably averaged a pitch a month? But I didnât get accepted for everything, obviously. If itâs a good theme or something I know Iâm confident about writing, Iâll go for it. Iâm all or nothing so canât commit to something just because itâll get my work âout thereâ.
Q. Have you attended many festivals in a film critic capacity?
I havenât attended any yet! Iâd love to go to at least one in 2019. LFF would be a dream.
Q. Would you say that you watch the majority of films in the theatre or at home?
Probably at home, but Iâm a regular at my local independent cinema, QUAD in Derby. It does a Â£3.50 16-25 offer! Amazing.
Q. Do you think with all the streaming services now available, that the theatre experience is dying?
No. I think itâs opening it up for people that wouldnât usually be able to go to the cinema. And I think itâs nice to experience both.
There are some films that Iâve watched at home that I wished Iâd seen on the big screen and vice versa.
Q. What do you think an audience brings to the experience of watching a film?
Annoyance? I must admit, Iâm not a fan of watching with others. I love the experience of watching a film alone or with just one other person. It feels a lot more intimate and less distracting.
Q. Do you harbour any desire to write, say, a screenplay and put your film knowledge into practice?
Iâm a fan of short stories, so maybe a (very) short screenplay? I think the shorter the film, the more impact it should have. Itâs got a lot more to prove.
Q. Outside of cinema, do you have any other artistic passions?
I love reading (Iâm trying to make more time for it) and going to the theatre. Also, since I started taking my own website seriously, Iâve become more interested in coding â not exactly artistic but itâs definitely a new passion!
Q. And finally, what is your main focus for the future?
To keep doing things that I enjoy and that make a difference. As long as I can express myself creatively at work and in my personal life, Iâm happy.
You can follow Shannon on twitter @shazzzzakhan and at her website What The Flick.