The American Civil Liberties Union announced this week that they've sent letters to federal and state organizations urging an investigation into the lack of female directors in film and TV as a civil rights violation. The numbers the organization cited -- only 1.9 percent of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013 and 2014 were directed by women, among them -- are jaw-dropping in any scenario, but are especially horrifying to women like Stephanie Cherng.
Cherng is a 17-year-old senior at Brooklyn's Midwood High School. She's going to film school next year at SUNY Purchase College, after thinking long and hard about what would await her after her graduation.
"Honestly, I am really scared," she told MTV News. "You worry about, in terms of the percentage of females in the industry, you get kind of scared. Sometimes I'm like oh my god, am I making the right choices? Is film school really the right choice for me? I just have to push that away and say I'm just going to do it, I'm not going to let anything stop me. It's a really daunting thing sometimes. You get scared. Can I provide for my family? Can I provide for myself? Will anyone want to listen to my stories?"
And Cherng is going into film school with a considerable amount of credibility already: she made her first film, a documentary about her family's flight from the Cambodian genocide, when she was 15. This year, she was selected as one of 20 fellows at the Tribeca Film Institute, a year-long mentorship and skill-building program for New York City filmmakers between the ages of 16 and 18. She wrote, directed and produced her short film, "The Naked Sister," and screened it at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
She hasn't always wanted to be a filmmaker though. She had originally planned on going into international law, or studying political science, something that she felt, as she said, "I had to do, that would give me financial stability and prestige in a way."
So what prompted her tumble into the arts? The documentary she produced as part of a community service project.
"When I made my first documentary, I was like, I really love this," she said. "I've always loved stories and literature, and I really wanted to do this. I fell in love with it. It just gives me a rush. You're able to really create the things that you want to create and it's important. You have a say."
Though her Tribeca class was split 50/50 between men and women and filmmakers of both sexes were treated equally within the program, she said that a criticism she received at a work-in-progress screening for professionals stood out as a preview of what was to come for her as a female filmmaker.
"I played my film and this one male panelist was like, 'I don't like how you portrayed men so stereotypically.' I was like, 'really now.' He was like, 'I wish you had put personality in your male characters like you did in your female characters.' I was like, wow. This is how it is to be female in the filmmaking world."
She plans to focus on editing, but hasn't counted out writing or directing features again in the future. Cherng called the ACLU's campaign "amazing" and said that it gives her a new hope for what she'll see when she dons that cap and gown as a film school graduate in four years and heads off into the world.
"It really does give representation for females to make what we want to make," she said. "It's also a sense of OK, maybe I actually have a chance at this. I can actually be happy, do what I want to do."