Panel interview: SEA entertainment leaders who are changing the industry

Reta Lee
Editor-in-Chief, Lifestyle
(PHOTO: Getty Images)

Women are moving the needle in the global entertainment industry. Today, we’ve seen more women in the business raising the bar, ranging from acting (Awkwafina’s breakthrough role in The Farewell) to directing (Anna Boden for Captain Marvel). So when Netflix presented me with an opportunity to interview three female heavyweights in the industry, at the same time, I couldn’t say no. 

The three women on the panel are: Cindy Bishop, Fatimah Abu Bakar and Mira Lesmana. 

Model, actress, activist and host on Asia’s Next Top Model, Cindy Bishop is a multi-faceted personality from Thailand who is a strong advocate for women’s rights. She had previously worked with UN Women APAC to dispel misconceptions about gender-based violence through a project she launched in 2018 called #donttellmehowtodress.

Fatimah Abu Bakar is a Malaysian actress, journalist and acting coach. She’s also the mother to Malaysian actresses and entertainment talents: Sharifah Aleya, Sharifah Amani, Sharifah Aleysha and Sharifah Aryana. She is known for films such as Maria, Love, J Revolution and Nur.

Filmmaker and producer Mira Lesmana comes from a family with a creative legacy in Indonesia. She’s best known for producing films such as Petualangan Sherina, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, Gie and Laskar Pelangi. She also became one of the founding members of the Indonesian Film Society (Masyarakat Film Indonesia), which has worked towards changing censorship laws in the country.

We discussed their personal struggles, female representation in the industry and the defining moment of the #metoo movement that has helped more people to come forward and fight sexual harassers. Here’s part of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity. For the full recording:

Reta Lee: It’s really amazing to be able to get together and share some thoughts about some topics surrounding empowerment, female leadership. So I do have a couple of questions that I’d like to get your thoughts and let's keep the discussions mature and open, and one we all can learn to grow from. So let me start off by asking one of you ladies, do you remember your first step into the entertainment industry? Was it an audition? Or was it a script you've written? 

Cindy Bishop: My first introduction to the entertainment industry was through modelling. I did my first real commercial job at age 13. I started modelling quite young and I was doing a lot of commercials, fashion shoots, things like that. And then at age 16, or 17, I entered and won the national beauty pageant. I went full-time doing lots of other things, including acting. So I've been in the industry for quite a while. I've seen a lot of things and in many different areas too. So modelling, hosting, acting, mostly being in front of the camera; it's only recently that I've done more of my own, producing content on my main social media, (pauses), that's pretty much my introduction.

Fatimah Abu Bakar: I'm probably the oldest here. The most senior; I started like a long, long time ago. Okay, to cut it short, one of the first TV dramas I’ve acted in is actually a short film called Maria. And it was directed by a woman, an upcoming woman director named Shuhaimi Baba, who is now a big name in Malaysia. I actually started in theatre. So I went from theatre to film and television and right now (pauses) I was a journalist for many, many years too. Right now I am acting and coaching actors; at the same time, I’m also training various people in soft skills.

Mira Lesmana: I’ve always loved film since I was a teenager, and I think maybe at the age of 17 I decided that I wanted to study film. To put it, I went to film school, and graduated as a film director. Then I did my masters as a producer. But basically, only around early to late 80s, early 90s, nobody was producing Indonesian films. I first worked in an advertising agency, and then in a production house, doing commercials, and then by ‘95, I decided that I have to make a film. So together with three other colleagues, we produced and directed the film. We broke a lot of rules at the time because we weren't supposed to make films before the Reformation period. 

Who encouraged your passion earlier on?

Cindy: My parents, always, from an earlier age.

They would always encourage me to just do whatever it is I wanted to. So I've now become an advocate for women's rights in my country. That's always a question - it's like, Okay, well, when did you become like what? Who knows when that happens, but looking back, I realised that it's definitely because of my parents and that early upbringing that I was given and the fact that gender was never mentioned in our household. 

It was never, you know, topics that we talked about, you can't do that because you're a girl this and that. Actually my father even said, ‘when you graduate high school, don't go to college yet. Take two years off, you don't know what you're doing at 17, you don't know where you're going to go. Take my advice and take two years off to travel and work and see where you ended up before choosing what you're going to learn in college.’ So it was very simple. Not traditional, by any means. I was always going around with this freedom and independence. 

But that was always backed up with ‘make sure you work hard.’ So, you know, a good dose of empowerment, but also with some level-headed work ethic as well. 

(PHOTO: Fatimah Abu Bakar)

Fatimah: I remember even as a child, and this is something which I think I passed on to my daughters; I live in the world of make-believe, because my brother came (into the world) three years later. It was like I grew up more or less on my own. I remember I cried because I didn't have friends. But most of the time, my friends were my make-believe friends with make-believe words. And I remember my parents, my late father, he would play along with me. He played along; he came into my world, and he sort of encouraged me. And I think that was how I grew up, believing in my world that girls were always the heroes, the girls would be the winner of everything. 

I think I was lucky enough to have people to encourage me. So yeah, I would also have to say my parents and of course, friends who were like-minded, who believe, who enjoy sharing our stories, who have stories to tell. It also helped that I was a journalist. My degree was in journalism, and even when I was working as a journalist, I would take time off to go and dance and act. My heroes would be my parents who encouraged me, from very young, that it was not wrong to want to believe that you can be anything you want to be.

Mira: That's amazing. It was my two parents; I was brought up in a musical family. My dad was a musician and my mum was a singer. I was the only one who could not play music.

My dad was the person who said, ‘here's a camera. You can take this one last thing.’ He was actually the first one who encouraged me, that you could be a part of music without having to sing. And you can be a part of an art activity, by being a part of it.

That's when I decided I love movies as well, because they love movies and Sundays are for movies and discussions. Until I was off to high school I said, I want to be a filmmaker. The first thing he said was, ‘go to school, don't think that (it’s easy) being an artist.’ He was always supportive towards that (ambition).

Cindy, I'm gonna pass the baton back to you. You mentioned earlier on about your initial struggles when you first came into the modelling world. Could you share what were those personal struggles that you had to face?

Cindy: First of all, I was very young and I had (faced) a lot of pressure. But my parents, we didn't come from a well-to-do family. So I was very conscious of not burdening them with unnecessary expenses. When the opportunity came at such a young age to make money, that was great, you know? I told them at age 13, that, other than my tuition, room and food, they didn’t have to worry about it. 

I actually paid for my first trip to the US with the money I made from a commercial. I've always been quite self-sufficient. In fact, I've had to help out with household expenses. I’m very much of a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best, and so when you own the combination of youth and drive in an industry where they are very focused on how you look and behave, it can get to you.

I don’t think I realised it but looking back now, there's a pressure to be perfect all the time and I was like regular teenage girls going through body identity and image (changes), but magnified on the level that is all over the country. 

(PHOTO: Cindy Bishop)

So yes, I went through eating disorders and probably not making the best decisions (then).

But I look back now and I realised, wow, I'm lucky to have had that solid, loving family foundation that taught me what their values are, even though I made some mistakes along the way. I knew better, but it didn't come without a price. 

I can imagine, and I know exactly how a lot of the young models are starting out in the industry now. And not just models; everyone can be a model with social media. Everyone can be a celebrity. So, that's my personal challenge; I came out strong, I have an insight into that and I'm using my platform (#donttellmehowtodress) now to hopefully, give some insight to girls who are going through that (experience).

“I don't know if it's a reflection of society or a toleration of violence against women; you can sit at home and watch this drama series with parents and a woman is being slapped around or worse, raped. Worst is that she ends up marrying her rapist or falls in love with him.”

Being in a male-dominated industry, Fatima, Mira, do you feel pressure or the sense of having to achieve more than your peers?

Fatimah: The situation has been for many, many years, very male-dominated; the men call the shots, the males have the decision-making power. We need to address our infrastructure in the first place. It is really very sad but you still have people struggling to make good films, and with basic infrastructure like contracts, which is basic.

But I do have faith that there are many people out there in Malaysia, who are still fighting to make those conditions better. There are women in decision-making positions in the entertainment industry, but not as many as we would like to. 

So that is why it is so difficult to get more and more of our stories out there. Many of the scripts that I get in the past, many of the stories that we see, are very male-centric. It’s always the men who get to save women. Women are still depicted as victims, having the need for somebody to come and save them.

Mira: It's actually quite different than when I started because basically, the Indonesian film industry was dying in the ‘90s. And yes, I heard of stories that during the ‘70s and’ 80s, it was a very male-dominated industry. A lot of women have been objectified in stories and events. As the new generation of the digital industry, we’ve started to make films in the late ‘90s. But it was actually women who dominated the movement. And it was also women who, through the early 2000s, that pushed the industry forward, who called all the shots.

But lately, the industry has shifted to become a very male-dominated industry. We all know capitalism is natural, and more of the films that sell are male-oriented.

(PHOTO: Mira Lesmana)

I’m going to read you a statement, and I would like to hear your thoughts: A study conducted shared that in 2018, only 35 percent of films included 10 or more female speaking roles. However, the percentage of those movies that feature female protagonists increased to 31 per cent – a remarkable increase from the previous year's measly 24 per cent. What are your thoughts?

Cindy: That's true across this medium, all over the world as well. We need to address this idea of women in film, but not just as a supporting role or as a decoration where it just perpetuates stereotypes; I've been in about 20 plus Thai drama series and these can be very, let's say, stereotypical roles. 

It's also a question of supply and demand. At the end of the day, they want to make something that people want to watch. And sadly, there's a lot of the same gender norms, stereotypes and messages being circulated in drama series. 

I'm speaking out more now and I've actually had to turn down some roles; the perpetuation of violence against women onscreen here is a problem. I don't know if it's a reflection of society or a toleration of violence against women; you can sit at home and watch this drama series with parents and a woman is being slapped around or worse, raped. Worst is that she ends up marrying her rapist or falls in love with him.

But there aren't enough people speaking up against that. Again, here (in Thailand) most of the filmmakers, with the exception of a few, are all men. And when you have men telling stories, our stories, it's not always representative of what we are going through.

Fatimah: I work with people who write scripts, as more of an advisory role. My little contribution is when I get scripts that portray the stereotypical role of a woman, I turn them down. I tell them I cannot accept this because this is not the way to go. China's depiction of women is also just so old-fashioned, and it's only going to generate more harm. 

I think one of the ways that we can try and combat this is definitely to work together. We cannot do it alone. It has to be teamwork, a buy-in that there are other stories where women can be depicted: our inner strength, compassion and wisdom.

Maybe we need a platform both locally and internationally to showcase these Asian films. This is for women directors, producers, writers and actors. As I said, we cannot do it alone. We need collaborations among fellow women workers in different countries. We also need collaboration with men who can help us to understand the need for us to tell our story.

Mira, is that something that you faced as well?

Mira: I think what we need to do in Indonesia at the moment is making sure that we are still watching the growth of women in the industry. I think we have very strong female directors that have aired their films in Cannes, Berlin, Venice festivals. We also have female directors who’ve made big box office success. 

We also have Indonesian women producers who are very strong as well - the new generation needs to feel empowered - demand good parts and make sure you read your contract carefully. I have heard women telling me what had happened on set. We have a strong Indonesian Film & TV Producers Association, Indonesian Film Society and the Indonesian Film Actors Association where half of the women are part of. So we are telling men, we are watching you.

How has streaming/technology helped shift or improve attitudes towards seeing more Asian women on screen, if at all?

Fatimah: Definitely. For one, it allows us to keep abreast of what's going on. It keeps us updated, as to how our sisters are doing in other countries - with the stories they are telling, they inspire us. But we have to be careful with this technology as it also allows for stories that we may not want to be told, gets shown too. 

For the full panel interview, listen to the audio recording above.

Because She Watched is a collection launched by Netflix and UN Women comprising films, series and documentaries picked by 55 women in entertainment, across America, Europe and Asia, including Southeast Asia in conjunction with International Women’s Day. See Mira, Cindy, and Fatimah’s picks here.