Rome Film Fest: Sally Potter on Political Filmmaking and a Changing Industry

Nicola Dove
Sally Potter

The British director discusses how working as a female director has changed over the decades.

Sally Potter’s latest film The Party is a black-and-white biting satire filmed in just two weeks in London. Its all-star cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas as Janet, the newly appointed health minister who is throwing an intimate dinner to celebrate her victory.

Timothy Spall plays her comatose husband in another unforgettable role. As rambunctious guests played by Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, Bruno Ganz, Emily Mortimer, and Cillian Murphy arrive, everything starts to go downhill.

The Party played to overwhelming applause at Rome Film Fest after its international debut in Berlin earlier this year. Roadside Attractions is planning to release The Party stateside in February.

Hollywood Reporter spoke to Potter in Rome about why she made a political film now, how she paved the way for female directors, her experience with harassment in the industry, and why she thinks the current news is a reminder for people to look at the big picture when it comes to tackling sexism.

The core of this film revolves around politics. What drove you to write this film?

I tend to feel that politics is everywhere. It’s most obvious in its manifestation of actual politicians, either working in congress or senate or parliament or wherever, to make laws and change policies that are going to affect everybody’s lives. But I also think that outside of that we live in an incredibly complex web of relationships: personal relationships, social relationships, that are actually full of political issues. So we have a political responsibility whoever we are, to think about that and to work with that, whether we like it or not; we don’t have a choice.

Why is Janet described as a woman who thinks like a man to get ahead?  

It’s a cliché. I wrote it, but I think it was Queen Elizabeth who said it first, when she said she has the mind of a man in the body of a woman. And I think women in power are often perceived, if they are clever, oh then it must be because they have a male brain, and the other bit, the female bit is all the hormones and weird stuff. But it’s not like that. A good brain doesn’t have a gender. It’s simply intelligence, human intelligence.

What was your experience as a woman, beginning to direct in the ‘60s?

I started when I was 14, but it was somewhere around 16, 17, 18, I remember feeling this sort of revelation that no one would ever give me an opportunity. I was going to have to make my own opportunities, and to do that I was going to have to give up ever blaming anyone and take total responsibility.

So I absolutely refused the role of victim. So although, of course, like every other woman, I have faced an obstacle or two, a problem or two, a bit of harassment here, a bit of humiliation there, whatever it may be, that has never been where my focus is. My focus is always on my next film, what I can do, where I can find the brilliant people to work with: always forward looking.

What has changed for female directors, since when you first started working?

It must be a bit different because when I started there weren’t really any other women, or very, very few. After I had already a decade or more working, there was Jane Campion as well, and we would often get confused for each other. There were literally two of us. People would come up to me and say, "I love The Piano." And I’d say, "Thank you very much. I’ll tell Jane next time I see her." They couldn’t tell us apart. So that’s changed.

Even in just the U.K. I can say there are not just female, but extremely good directors who happen to be female, Andrea Arnold, Lynn Ramsey, Clio Barnard, to name but three. So this is a different situation. We are still a minority, but that is significantly different.

Do you think your work has made it easier for the next group to come forward?

I hope so. Logically I would think so, just as the suffragettes did when I wasn’t even alive yet, but they made life easier for me. We are all each standing on the shoulders of the previous generation and we should all be giving thanks to all the ones who went before, actually.

Did you face harassment within the industry?

I think it’s different for a director. I think actors face very specific things because they are always looking for a job. I’ve always made my own work. I write and I direct my own films. I think it would be different for me maybe if I was always going to people trying to persuade them to give me a job. On the contrary, I’ve turned down all the things I’ve been offered because I found I’m more passionate about the things I’ve written.

But like every other woman, I’ve faced harassment or molestation in everyday life- on public transport, or in the street, those kinds of things. In the industry it’s been more subtle. I think, subjectively I feel not so much recently, but in my earlier life, I was bullied critically. Critics criticized me in a way that was disguised misogyny. Now if I look back, it’s clear. At the time I wondered if I was just being paranoid: is it because I’m a woman they are saying this stuff about me? Now I look back and I’m like, oh my God, it definitely was.

What was an example?

There was one critic at the beginning of my career in the early '80s, who said, watching this woman make a film as a female director, to quote Dr. Johnson, is like "watching a dog walk on its hind legs, only remarkable that it happens at all." And that was considered an OK thing to say.

Do you think the current discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the industry can bring about real change?

It’s useful because it focuses everyone’s minds on, "Oh, is it not OK to invite somebody up to your room"… no it’s not OK. So it does raise consciousness. I think the only problematic side of it, I think, is if it pushes women back into a victim place.

It’s all about, "Oh, I got hurt this way, and that way, and the other way." So I think the strongest way forward is look, if women don’t get to use their full powers, and their full creativity, and their full glory, it’s a waste for the world, it’s a waste. That’s the issue. I think the most important thing to say is it’s not just Harvey Weinstein; he’s just a very, very visible symptom of the problem.

I don’t think it’s about individual men. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a whole patriarchal society. It’s about a society in which men’s voices are valued above women’s, men’s bodies are valued above women’s, white people are valued above black people, a certain age is valued above both children and older people. It’s all of these value systems, which are disrespectful to the essential, total human being. And harassment is just one example of a lack of human respect.