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Categories: Jammers Of The Month

This month we chat with Isabelle Sieb, an award-winning filmmaker known for her films “College Romance: The Musical”, “How to Be Sexy” and “Mannequins”.


Who better to choose for our Jammer of the Month for this Women in Film issue than a female director who has directed five shorts, been selected for both Creative England’s iShorts+ Funny Girls scheme and Kate Leys’ and Edinburgh International Film Festival’s 2015 Network scheme, and is currently directing a feature film version of one of her award-winning shorts?

All of these things describe our Jammer of the Month, the German-born and London-based director and writer Isabelle Sieb, who we spoke with about her past, present and future in the film industry.

You were born in Germany, and also lived in Cape Town before moving to London. How did those places help shape your creative identity? 

I think anything that shapes you as a person will also shape your creative identity. I grew up in a tiny German village where the worst thing that could happen was your neighbour’s cat getting run over by a car. So going from a place like that and a very sheltered childhood to Cape Town was definitely an eye-opening experience. I don’t only mean in the sense of having to develop instincts for when you are and aren’t safe, which was completely new to me, but also in terms of being in a place that is so diverse, where there are people of so many different backgrounds and also where people who are very fortunate live in such close proximity to people who are much less fortunate. 

On top of that, I am part of the second post-war generation and the first generation growing up in a reunified Germany. Looking back on my teenage years now, there was definitely a slightly odd feeling of neutrality towards my own country, which I believe was unique to Germany and to that time. It wasn’t until the FIFA World Cup came to Germany in 2006 that it was kind of okay to wave your flag in your own country, and I think that complete lack of patriotism definitely played a role in shifting my focus onto other countries and developing a desire to travel and see for myself what life was like elsewhere. 

Isabelle on the set of "Three Women Waiting for Death"

Isabelle on the set of “Three Women Wait for Death”

I have now lived in London for 5 years and definitely feel more at home here than I have anywhere else. It is such an incredible melting pot of cultures and I love having friends from so many different countries living around the corner (or a short tube journey of 45 minutes away). I genuinely believe there is no better place to be, in Europe at least, to be working in the Arts.

So with regards to my creative identity, I think more than anything these experiences have given me a “nobody is right and nobody is wrong” approach to my work and have made me a very instinctive director. They have also made me incredibly strict with myself on what stories I think are actually worth telling.  

Who do you consider your main cinematic influences?

It sounds a little bit cheesy, but genuinely my main influence is my peer group in the industry. If I was to name a few established directors whose work I love, they would be Lone Scherfig, Caroline Link, Richard Linklater, Ava DuVernay, Sam Mendes, but to be honest, I have never been the one to spend all of her time watching films and be influenced by what I see on screen. What really inspires me to do better and to keep developing my own voice, is seeing what my talented friends are doing.

I feel fortunate to have a group of supremely talented and dedicated writer/director friends who are all doing such brilliant things and thankfully there is no sense of competition between us and we all really try our best to help each other do better.

I am also a very proud member of the Film Fatales, an incredible group of women directors who have either made their first feature or are gearing up to do so. The purpose of the group is to help each other make our films and become better at what we do and the list of things I have learned from these pretty extraordinary ladies goes on and on. 

Isabelle and Nat Luurtsema

Isabelle and Nat Luurtsema

How would you describe your personal approach to and style of directing?

I don’t think it’s possible to give an exact description of your own directing style, especially not if you’re still developing it, which for me is certainly the case. I think that I have a fairly visual style of storytelling and my films usually look quite glossy, but I do attempt to build the look around performance and character-driven material. Something I’ve definitely learned making short films over the past couple of years is that your film can look absolutely stunning but if there’s no story worth telling at the core of it, your film isn’t going to be any good.

Tell me a little about “Three Women Wait for Death”. What is the premise? 

Nat Luurtsema, who wrote the film, had a very lovely logline to start with, “three women wait for death and fold a table into a bed.”, which describes the film perfectly. It’s essentially about a mother and her two adult daughters being stuck with each other in a crappy old caravan while they wait for their father’s/grandfather’s final days to pass. However, his final days have now turned into weeks and the confined space of the caravan turns into a pressure cooker for the three women.

How did you first become involved in the project?

I first became involved in the project when I found out about Creative England’s “Funny Girls” scheme and asked Nat if she had any ideas we could apply to the scheme with. She pitched about 5 or 6 ideas to me and that was the one that spoke to me immediately because it was both a hilarious and a very real story and I felt like I could relate to the characters very well.

How far along in production are you?

We are now in the final stage of post-production and will be completing the film very shortly. 


A scene from Isabelle’s film “Mannequins”

I also read you’re turning your short “Mannequins” into a feature. Can you tell me a little more about this?

“Mannequins” is a thriller set in the fashion industry, about a young model whose life completely unravels when she gets her big break. 

I made the short film about two years ago and I’m now developing it into a feature with Northern Film & Media’s excellent feature development scheme RISE.

Do you have any other projects lined up for the future?

Yes, many. But none I can tell you about at this stage, I am terribly sorry!

This month’s issue is all about Women in Film, so naturally we’ll be talking a lot about the perceived lack of opportunities for women in the industry, especially behind the camera. From your own experience, do you perceive significant inequality of opportunity? 

I really wish this wasn’t still a topic in 2015, but sadly I don’t know a single female director who hasn’t experienced some sort of sexism or discrimination in their careers. 

You hear of young male directors who have made one or two successful short films and go straight into directing high-end television and I think it’s brilliant that chances are taken on young talent with a fresh perspective, but I don’t know of a single female director who has had that opportunity. 

I have one female director friend who finally got offered a continuing drama after making it down to the final two for TV shows for a couple of years, only to be told by the producers that they thought she’d be “too nervous”. This is someone who has won a BAFTA.

Equally, I know several older and more experienced female directors who “tick all the industry boxes” – they have had award-winning short films, they have been Screen International Stars of Tomorrow, they have done Channel 4’s “Coming Up” and yet just don’t get the same kind of job offers as male directors with the same qualifications.

Isabelle and crew behind the scenes on "Two Women Waiting for Death"

Isabelle and crew behind the scenes on “Two Women Waiting for Death”

I myself have had several meetings with producers and production companies telling me how “desperate” they were to work with female directors, yet didn’t want to discuss any projects with me. With commercials production companies my experience has been even worse. I would literally be told they couldn’t take me on because they already had a female director on their roster (even if their reel was completely different from mine) or that they would only consider me if I worked with children. 

How does the female perspective influence your choices and style as a director? If more women directed blockbusters, for instance, how would mainstream cinema change?

I can only speculate at this point because not nearly enough women get to direct blockbusters, but what I do think would certainly happen is that the stories and characters would become more diverse. Blockbusters wouldn’t be limited to the white male hero coming to save the world anymore. I genuinely think that’s a change that is long overdue and would be welcomed by female AND male audiences because, let’s be honest, it’s getting very old. 

I don’t think that being female has any influence on my directing style at all to be honest. The only difference it makes compared to some, and thankfully not all, male directors is that it gives me an awareness of how few compelling female characters make it to the screen and it makes me want to tell their stories more. 

Watching films growing up, I would always identify more with the male hero than his female love interest, because the female characters were in most cases quite two-dimensional and I just wouldn’t see myself in them. Plus it simply does not reflect real life in any way. I take my hat off to directors like George Miller and Paul Feig who recognize this and have been great examples in demonstrating that having interesting female characters in lead roles – huge surprise – can actually lead to major box office success as well as critical acclaim and you do not have to be a woman to tell their stories well.    

A scene from Isabelle's short "Hymn to Beauty"

A scene from Isabelle’s short “Hymn to Beauty”

How well do you think the industry is progressing in that regard as a whole? What more has to be done to make sure women are fairly represented both on and off screen?

I can see the beginning of change and I can see efforts being made, especially coming from public funding bodies such as the BFI, Creative England, Northern Film and Media and I am very grateful but I don’t think it’s quite enough yet. If you look at the statistics from the mid-90s, there was actually a higher number of female directors working then than there is now. So over the last 20 years it has actually been getting worse and that’s incredibly depressing. 

It is crucial to make sure that real progress is being enforced now that this is a current topic, because I think there is a real danger it will end up just being “this year’s trend” to talk about the inequality of opportunity for women in film and in a year’s time there will be a new trendy topic to debate about and nothing much will have changed.

The BFI, as an example, introduced their new diversity regulations last year, which are a great step in the right direction. However, in those regulations women are in the same diversity pool as people with a disability, LGBT, ethnic minorities and people of a disadvantaged social background. And please don’t get me wrong, I am 100% behind supporting each of these groups and I know much more needs to be done for them beyond this diversity pool. However, women make up 51% of the UK population and in my opinion should not be treated like a minority. There should be a separate regulation and a separate quota for employing women in film, particularly as HODs, writers and directors. 

College Romance - The Musical screenshot

A scene from Isabelle’s short “College Romance: The Musical”

Creative England and Northern Film and Media have done very well with their schemes for female filmmakers, which I feel very lucky to have been a part of and which have definitely made a major contribution to my career progress. Film London will be launching a similar scheme shortly, so on the beginner to emerging filmmaker level, there has definitely been a positive change for women directors and it has been greatly appreciated.

Where there hasn’t been enough support and progress is at the level above that – feature film funding and directing jobs in television and commercials. The current statistics are really quite appalling – only 9% of the working directors in the UK are women. And what upsets me is hearing producers and production companies say “there aren’t any female directors out there” because it is simply not true. There are currently 45 of us in Film Fatales alone and there are many more highly qualified female directors out there waiting to be given an opportunity.

Find out more about Isabelle’s work on her website. Visit Three Women Wait For Death on Facebook for updates on the film. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelleSieb

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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