The Female Gaze
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, it’s 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 Shannon’s 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, let’s 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. I’d 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 we’re always looking for new voices. We accept submissions throughout the year and we’re currently planning a themed collection for late 2019– 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 there’s a lot of hoops to jump through.
Don’t get me wrong, i think it’s 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 – born and bred! Derby is part of the reason I started my website and have a passion for film. It’s a small(ish) town and there are few creative opportunities. But instead of leaving for London (I love london, don’t get me wrong), I’d 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 wasn’t until the last couple of years that I actually considered being a ‘critic’. Like they say, everyone’s a critic, so it felt like I’d 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 – the first ‘proper’ film I watched. I wrote about this for the Screen Queens anniversary zine
- Requiem for a Dream – Aronofsky’s use of editing blew my mind
- Fish Tank or any film really by Andrea Arnold – she’s 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 wasn’t going to fall into my lap and that I’d need as much help as I could get.
I interned at Crocstar – a digital marketing agency based in Derby. And I’m still here three years, three months later! It’s brilliant for improving my writing skills and creative thinking.
Q. What qualities do you think make a good film critic?
Be honest – if you did or didn’t like something explain why. If it was bad, why? If it was amazing, why? As a critic I don’t think you should shy away from a strong opinion. Of course, you’ve got to explain why, there’s no use in being negative or insulting. Be constructive.
Make it personal – I know some critics hate this, but I think it’s 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 – That’s 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? It’ll 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 isn’t one I set one for myself. Otherwise life will get in the way – and I’ll 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. I’m a fan of most genres really, but I feel they’re 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 I’ve managed to convince people to see some good’ns!
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. I’d hate to do it a disservice.
The feeling of being happy with what you’ve written is brilliant though – a real sense of achievement.
Q. Do you appear on any podcasts?
I sure do! I’ve 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, I’ll have different takes and thoughts to a man because (in our society) we’re 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 haven’t, but maybe because that’s because I’m new to the ‘film community’? I’ve seen it happen to others, but I hope it’s something that’s 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 doesn’t?
I touched on it earlier, but from experience, when watching films with male members of my family, they’ll be scenes that they just can’t comprehend. That’s pretty interesting. It’s times like this that I’ll have the upper hand in terms of knowledge – I can relate to both ‘female and male situations’.
I can relate to ‘female situations’ because I’m a woman and have likely experienced it. And I can relate to ‘male situations’ 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, I’m a bit of a newbie, so I’ve 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 don’t – 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. I’ve definitely learnt to only say yes if I’m 100% ‘into’ it and haven’t got too much on.
Q. Do you pitch to a lot of magazines and websites?
I started ‘properly’ doing it at the start of 2018. I probably averaged a pitch a month? But I didn’t get accepted for everything, obviously. If it’s a good theme or something I know I’m confident about writing, I’ll go for it. I’m all or nothing so can’t commit to something just because it’ll get my work ‘out there’.
Q. Have you attended many festivals in a film critic capacity?
I haven’t attended any yet! I’d 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 I’m a regular at my local independent cinema, QUAD in Derby. It does a £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 it’s opening it up for people that wouldn’t usually be able to go to the cinema. And I think it’s nice to experience both.
There are some films that I’ve watched at home that I wished I’d 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, I’m 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?
I’m a fan of short stories, so maybe a (very) short screenplay? I think the shorter the film, the more impact it should have. It’s got a lot more to prove.
Q. Outside of cinema, do you have any other artistic passions?
I love reading (I’m trying to make more time for it) and going to the theatre. Also, since I started taking my own website seriously, I’ve become more interested in coding – not exactly artistic but it’s 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, I’m happy.
You can follow Shannon on twitter @shazzzzakhan and at her website What The Flick.