Cíara Dempsey chats to British film critic Hannah Woodhead, one working-class woman writer to another, about the media industry and finding your own voice.
Hannah Woodhead is the associate editor of Little White Lies magazine, and has also written for The Guardian, BBC, GQ, Vulture, Nylon, DAZED, NME, and is a regular contributor to Picturehouse Recommends magazine. Hannah speaks about her experience as a younger critic frequently on Twitter, and her passion for film and writing, and her urge for the industry to change, resonates with any younger critic or indeed, any film fan who can recognise the need for new voices in the industry. Hannah’s work comes from a place of passion. Like many of us here at OTwo, she “always wanted to go into writing in some way shape or form...As a kid, I was constantly scribbling stories... Then as I got older I spent a lot of time off school, because I was very ill when I was a teenager and one of the things that I did, because I didn’t have any friends or anything to do, was watch films. So I guess it was kind of that natural progression of going from, well I want to write and I really like films, so maybe I could write about films. I was exposed to a lot of journalism from an early age, and knew that that was something that I wanted to do. I had no idea how...Film journalism, when I was growing up, was dominated by men. I didn't see anyone like me writing about films. I didn't see any women, I didn't see any working-class critics. So it was something I would have loved to have done but never really knew where to start with.” At university, Hannah tells of an experience that likely resonates with many student writers; she jokes “I said to mum that I wanted to do film and she said ‘over my dead body, go and do a real degree.’ So I did English and History and had in the back of my mind that I wanted to work in film journalism but I just didn't really know how to do that. It seemed to me that the first thing I could do was get involved in the university paper and write as much as I could for that.” Me and my film degree are shaking, Hannah’s mum, but you have a point.
Having come from an eerily familiar experience to my own baby-steps into film journalism, Hannah is welcomingly upfront when asked initial forays into the “real world” of film writing. “Oh god yeah, it's impossible when you’re starting out. I mean it’s hard enough if you are a journalism student, but if you're not, it literally is like you don’t know where to start.” Speaking about the steep learning curve of her early work in film criticism, she reveals that she quickly learned that “everyone can write reviews. Not everyone can write them well, but everyone can write a review and it's really the least value as a writer. I can write a review and it's like, okay great, anyone can do that. It's really about what you are bringing to the table. What is your unique life experience, why do you deserve to be here more than someone else? Which is the hardest thing to pin down; what I wanted to say and why I was the right person to say it.” Finding your own journalistic voice, amidst all the potential varieties of film criticism, is really the central thing. For Hannah, it was “ looking at the kind of things that I was passionate about and figuring out where the gaps were; what wasn’t being talked about, and what was interesting to me was what I wasn’t seeing anywhere else...if you can really zone in on something and find this nugget at the centre of film that no one else has considered, or if you can bring something to a film that no one else has, whether that's lived experience or perspective or knowledge that you have, then that's the thing that is going to make you stand out as a journalist.” For the younger and inexperienced critics among us, it really is our stance as something as an outlier that may lend itself to our value as journalists and critics. As so many of us may soon try and carve a space out for ourselves in the media industry, it is apt to note that “in journalism, there's a real kind of lack of experts at the moment, and a lot of people who know a little about a lot. It has to be that way to some extent because there are not a lot of jobs and you need to make yourself as employable as possible but at the same time, I think there's so much to be said for really owning something and really doing your homework and making yourself indispensable...a great example is Bong Joon-Ho, because Parasite doing as well as it has means that everyone is interested in Korean cinema at the moment and if you’re the person who has had the wherewithal to be interested in that from the start then you're at a massive advantage.”
Speaking of Parasite, and particularly of its recent success at this year's Oscars, Hannah, like many of us, feels “disillusioned with awards seasons in general, and I think that the Oscars are so slow to change and so resistant to change that I was really expecting the bare minimum… I think seeing Bong Joon-Ho and the Parasite team pick up so many awards was really soul-lifting and it does make you think maybe change is coming no matter how slow it is...
It was absolutely the right call to win, but I’m approaching it with caution because we had the same thing three years ago with Moonlight when we were all so excited [but since then], what's really changed? I do believe that these institutions can change and should change, but I just want to see it happen before I get too excited.”
Change in the industry more broadly is really a key issue for any young critic, particularly those of us who are somewhat outside of the usual journalistic demographic. “It's just little things, like you go to a screening and you could be surrounded by men old enough to be your father, your grandfather; you'll be the youngest in the room by a good fifty-year margin and often the only woman or one of two women...Being a working-class critic is even more galling because you go to a film festival...where everyone's talking about diversity and creating great art and what it means to get these voices out there yet you're surrounded by the same group of Oxbridge educated elites who can afford to drop three grand on a film festival without worrying about making that money back. Both of these things, gender and class, and sexuality as well, really shape the sort of films that only get made but that we get to see, the kind of films that are picked up for distribution, the kind of films that get awards, the kind of films that are added to the canon as time goes by. I think the most frustrating thing to me is the complacency, where people don't even really realise it's an issue.”
Of course, Hannah is an Associate Editor of Little White Lies, and her voice there can certainly be seen as an important voice in turning the tide towards a more diverse and refreshingly honest film journalism. She remembers her start in Little White Lies as a “perfect storm of having the knowledge and the love of film, but also the job I had [previously] was very much in the sphere of social media... It wasn’t a job I could have walked into if all I was doing was film... it needed to be the marrying of knowing film stuff but also having more world experience. One of the things I'm always very keen to highlight to younger critics and students is that even if your first job, or your first few jobs, in the industry are not exactly what you want to do, there is always so much you can take away from it and that will inform you for later on...It is a case that if you can find something that is adjacent or slightly in the realm of what you want to do, grab that with both hands... Working in the media, you're only ever two steps away from someone who works in the right industry.” However, that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of work to be done to claw your way into those spaces.
When asked about the multitude of films blogs that exist, Hannah notes that although they work as “a portfolio, as a jumping-off point, as something to demonstrate you are passionate and you are willing to do the work...But I do think if you want to be a film journalist there's a point where you have to stop doing things for free, whether that's blog posts or writing for smaller outlets. There really has to be a target you set yourself where you say okay, if this is my career then there is no other industry where you would take a job and not get paid for it.” Most importantly, Hannah makes the astute point that applies to us as writers, but also to photographers, make-up artists, graphic designers and every other young and talented creative you know; “From a very practical point of view, the longer that people keep doing journalism for free then the harder it is to make the industry less exclusive because the only people that can afford to do journalism for free and the ones who don't need to pay the bills to live.”
Hannah Woodhead can be found online at hewoodhead.co.uk and on Twitter @goodjobliz