Stephenson shares both history and wisdom
Helga Stephenson (left), former chief executive officer for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and former director of the Toronto International Film Festival, shared her story with a local audience at the annual Canadian Federation of University Women scholarship luncheon. She is seen with CFUW members Pauline Janitch (centre) and Barbara Jean Taylor. CECILIA NASMITH/Northumberland Today
Born at a time when everything seemed to be changing worked out well in allowing Helga Stephenson to pursue her passions for film and television — in spite of being a woman.
Stephenson shared her story last week at the Canadian Federation of University Women Northumberland luncheon, their annual fundraiser for scholarships that help the young women of Northumberland pursue the post-secondary educations that will result in the careers of tomorrow.
Her own career highlights included being former chief executive officer for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and former director of the Toronto International Film Festival.
“If you had told me 40 years ago about how it would be today, I would never believe you — in four decades, you could get into a man’s world and leave it, in many cases, a woman’s world,” she told the audience at the Cobourg Lions Centre, a group that included two tables of students from local high schools.
Stephenson grew up in Montreal and attended a French-Canadian school, where the career expectation for a woman was to marry an important man or perhaps to teach.
Young people at that time were not allowed into movie theatres in Quebec because of a disastrous movie-theatre fire where many children had been lost. As a result, she said, “movies became forbidden fruit, very highly sought after.”
It was a time when film was beginning to change, young people were beginning to change, and everything seemed possible. And without pausing to consider the fact that one could study such a thing, Stephenson decided to get into film.
Inspired by films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, she recalled, “I was a goner.”
She moved to Ottawa, she said, “because Montreal no longer was right for a woman named Helga Stephenson.
“I worked in communications because that was the girl’s way in,” she said. And her spare time was spent haunting the art-house theatres and taking in movies with her film-critic boyfriend.
She took time out to teach English in Havana — where she continued to devour films, she said, “because there was not much else to do” — and settled in Toronto upon her return in 1976.
“It seemed the only place left in the Golden Triangle, and I am a very devoted easterner,” she said.
Working in film and television publicity was a heady world, she said, “and almost completely male. Needless to say, we all worked like slaves, had a lot of fun making our way in these new worlds of film and television, and increasingly appeared on the professional teams of more and more interesting jobs.”
Stephenson steadfastly refused to learn to type (though she reversed that position with the advent of computers). And when someone mentioned coffee and all eyes turned to her, as the lone woman in the room, she would just say, “Me too, please, with milk.”
She thrived on the challenge of tough work — “not impossible, but certainly tough.
“We had to move ahead by winning the trust and confidence of our male bosses. They were not all bad, but very few actively sought out women — until they figured out we worked harder. I think they figured this out first at CBC Radio.”
She was encouraged to see a new rank of queens in the media, like Doris Anderson, June Callwood and Betty Kennedy — “women who, out of sheer strength of character and heart, changed the landscape for women.”
At CITY-TV, Moses Znaimer was beginning to nurture future eminences like Jeanne Beker.
In the literary world, Margaret Atwood was producing work that would find successful adaptation into film.
And Stephenson was making her decision to throw her lot in with the Festival of Festivals, starting in 1982 as their director of communications.
The position of director became vacant a few years later. Though she was made interim director, the board could not countenance the idea of a permanent woman director. She later learned that a large section of the board had threatened to quit if she got the job.
She did get interviewed for the job, but was asked if she thought being a woman would be a handicap — in spite of the fact that, even then, it was frankly illegal to ask such a question. But she finally got the job.
“I became one of two women film-festival directors in the world,” Stephenson said.
“It was a very tenuous moment. The festival was in pieces. We had to rebuild.
“The good thing in such a situation is, you get to build what you want. We began the work of building the film festival into an international event because we knew we could go there.”
Now, she said with pride, the renamed Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premiere film institutions in the world.
Becoming a mother in 1994 inspired Stephenson to leave the post for a job that left her with more time at home.
Post-festival work included helping to bring Human Rights Watch to Canada and establish the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. She also went back to her Icelandic roots to join the Iceland Film Festival for a time, then revisited her Cuban connection by serving as senior advisor to the Havana Film Festival.
She also went back to work as chief executive officer for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.
“I stayed for five years, and got a bird’s-eye view of the film and digital world. We were climbing the management ranks in TV and making serious money, which was great,” she said.
Film has lost some of its mystique today, with young people growing up with screens in front of them and creating their own moving images (though a lot of them will be lost, she noted, because they don’t make negatives).
“I can tell you cinema owners are tearing their hair out trying to figure thing out,” Stephenson stated.
As the digital world is almost exclusively male, she said, you’re still getting a high degree of action hero-car chase films (though they’re starting to include women superheroes and drivers, she allowed).
And TV is changing ever more steadily to a streaming model that bypasses traditional broadcasters.
Broadcasters are now owned by big corporations, and you see a patchwork of management patterns — mostly women for CBC and Global, mostly men for CTV and Rogers.
Content is becoming very female-friendly overall, she said, with popular offerings like Anne of Green Gables in a 2017 edition.
“She’s back — stronger and mouthier and better too,” Stephenson said.
And The Handmaid’s Tale not only offers a good story from a woman’s point of view, but also a cautionary tale about what can happen if they fail to protect their freedom.
After producing Transparent, she added, Jill Soloway has become a powerhouse who can make anything she wants.
Stephenson likes the fact that women are being recognized as “the market,” the ones who go to more movies, more theatres, more restaurants, more concerts. Television just reacts to those discoveries faster than film, she said.
Summing up, she said, “I have had a great time over these years. Women are doing just fine right now.
“I had great success, great recognition, and I was happy to be there, along for the ride.”