A Conversation with Ivana Massetti: Award-Winning Writer, Director, and Founder of Women Occupy Hollywood on Sexual Abuse and Gender-Based Discriminations

Todi, Italy-born and Los Angeles-based award winning Writer, Director and Producer, Ivana Massetti, Founder of Women Occupy Hollywood, a movement that fights for gender equality, equal rights for women, and the equal presence of women’s voices in Hollywood and beyond, tells us about her story from an early child abuse experience to the gender-based discriminations she faced in the Film Industry. In the last few months, Women Occupy Hollywood has grown into a studio that develops, produces, and distributes content, television and films written, directed and produced by women. Also the CEO at I M From Mars Films, a production company, Ivana takes her activism to mentor and teach Screenwriting at Qalambaaz, a platform launched by Filmmaker and Entrepreneur Iram Parveen Bilal, where Hollywood and Bollywood screenwriters mentor Pakistani fellows.

Fatima: Please tell us about your upbringing and how you got your start in Film and Activism. 

Ivana: I was born in a medieval Italian town, Todi, into a family of peasants. My parents transferred to the city, Rome, to give me a better education and better opportunities. I won scholarships very young and pursued classical studies, Latin, ancient Greek, and literature. I was a shy girl. Leaving the country to go to a big city was a big shock to me. I used to run free in the fields all day long. In the city, confined in a small apartment, I was suffocating. I focused my attention on art and books — the characters in the books where my only friends.

At school, I had two fantastic teachers, one of Italian literature and the other of art history. From them, I acquired the love for painting and writing. I wanted to write the epic story of my family when I was eleven. And I had my first exhibition of my oil paintings at the same age. My passion was always divided between the two.

As time passed, it was natural for me to become a writer-director, where words and images mix. When I was young, I loved movies. I thought they were a special place, in which people could do anything they wanted. There was always redemption even after the worst suffering.

So after high school, I went to university to study Sociology, and at the same time I started working as a gofer in the Film Industry. I hadn’t studied cinema, so I decided to learn on the job. 

I was very political from an early age. My father taught me how to read and write when I was four, so we could talk about facts in newspapers and politics. 

From an early age, I fought for women who didn’t have a voice. I was a natural feminist, and throughout my teenage years, I worked to advance the condition of disadvantaged women. Then I met an important Italian feminist, a theorist of feminism, Alessandra Bocchetti, who at that time was a TV director. She hired me as an Assistant-Director for the first and last Italian feminist TV show called “Si Dice Donna.” That director, who became my friend and mentor, saw me, trusted me, empowered me. One day, she called me and said that I had to shoot the first scene of the day, because she was running late. I answered that I couldn’t do that, because nobody would listen to me. She said “shoot this first scene […] otherwise I’ll fire you,” and she hung up. After a few minutes of panic, I went to set and timidly said “Camera here,” to the crew of all men, and naturally nobody was listening to me. Then I raised my voice and some of them looked at me but then continued to talk amongst themselves. Then I raised my voice even more. “Camera here,” and everybody stood up, took the camera, and we started shooting. I was nineteen.

Films and activism were always parallel tracks of my life.

Fatima: You have done many projects from directing to writing and producing, which ones are you the most proud of and why?

Ivana: I have worked on many projects. I started my career as a writer, director, and eventually producer in the Music Video Industry. I loved that period. I learned a lot. I had a big budget, lots of equipment, and the freedom to do what I wanted. And I had big responsibilities. An important Italian band asked me to work with them, not only as a music video writer-director, but also as a producer, and to build their production company. I’m very grateful to all these people at the beginning of my career, who believed in me, gave me huge responsibilities, and creative freedom. My relations with those people were based on profound trust. We did important things together, we traveled the world, and we had the most incredible experiences.

Then I wrote my first film and transitioned back into the Film Industry. I have worked a lot as a writer-director in movies and television. And I produced all my work. As a director, the film I’m most proud of is my first one, Domino. It was about a woman’s sexual journey. It was my way to reconcile sex and love. It was ahead of its time. It was very provocative. It was censored and it ended up with the Italian equivalent of an NC-17 rating. That killed the film and almost killed me too. I secluded myself in my apartment for more than a year without seeing anybody. I felt betrayed, not only by men but by women too.

 
 

During that year, I started to study the biography of important women of the past. I saw myself in their struggles, in their suffering, and finally I found the courage to leave the apartment, and shoot a short film about child abuse. I went through hell, and I came back with my voice stronger than before.

As a writer, the project I’m most proud of is the miniseries of the life of Luciano Pavarotti. When I was hired, it was supposed to be a six-month job, but I ended up working two years on this project. I met Luciano’s family, friends and colleagues all over the world, and established the underlying material upon which I based the story. It was another incredible adventure.

Fatima: As someone with such strong values, how do you pick the projects you work on, and what does that process look like?

Ivana: In general, I work on my own projects. The idea arrives from far away. It cooks in my brain for months, sometimes years and then… I have to write it, to make it real. I don’t have just one passion. My creativity expands in different directions. I made films and television on the most different subjects, but always with a common denominator, justice. Justice ignites my imagination and it represents the moral compass of my works. In fact, when I made my docu-drama Nadro, the main reason for embarking on that crazy adventure between France, Ivory Coast and the U.S. was the need to reveal the man, that old African man who, from the middle of nowhere, was trying to combat oblivion through art and education. It became the focus of my life for a few years, and along the way, this idea, this need, this project, inspired other people all over the world, important musicians, scholars, investors, and museum curators. That was fantastic, difficult, and incredible again. It enabled me to measure the power of an idea. We can change the world with ideas.

 
 

Fatima: What led you to start Women Occupy Hollywood?

Ivana: I think Women Occupy Hollywood is the most organic project of my life. I was living in Los Angeles for quite a while and was suffering from the gender bias that plagues the Film Industry. I had worked all over the world, and here my career started to stagnate. Even though I found partners to produce films from my scripts, for one reason or another the actual production never took off. There is enormous resistance to films directed by women in Hollywood. I personally never experienced discrimination to my face, but even though I was offered important projects, nothing came to fruition. At the beginning, I thought it was my fault. My European taste and vision, my arty (as Americans say) stories, the fact that I was also a producer, I thought maybe those were the reasons I was struggling to get a film produced. Then I started to understand that many talented women from all over were in the same situation.

So I started to look at the problem as a social and political one. That’s when I discovered that women in America don’t have Equal Rights guaranteed by the Constitution, that the E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment), which came close to passing in the 70’s, was only ratified by 35 of the 38 states necessary. So I started to think that this problem was nothing but a reflection of that, and I discovered that this discrimination wasn’t merely a problem in Hollywood, but in all fields all over America. In Hollywood, the problem is more visible, because it’s so high profile, and there is so much money and power at stake. Again combining films and activism, I created Women Occupy Hollywood, a movement that demands equality for women under the law, and gender equality in the entertainment industry, fighting for equal rights for women inside the Industry and beyond.

That was three years ago. Now I have expanded Women Occupy Hollywood into a studio for women, a studio that develops, produces, and distributes film written and directed by women. Hollywood creates and exports male-dominated culture. Women are excluded from participating in that culture, and that’s unacceptable. Women are the majority. They have the power to choose and buy content. It’s time that women’s voices participate in the narrative. Women’s films make money, but don’t get produced, so let’s do it by ourselves. That’s what I’m doing with Women Occupy Hollywood. There is a huge need for this, not only in America, everywhere in the world.

Fatima: What do you think of the current political climate pertaining to women's social condition?

Ivana: It’s clear that in America there is a war on women. Men in power want to control us and our bodies. With this President the situation is even more tragic, and not only for women. But it’s also true that after this President was elected, women went out into the streets and a dormant mass of people woke up and demanded their rights. A year ago, women started speaking out and publicly revealed horrendous abuses. Men in extreme positions of power were fired, were denounced, and one of them was even tried, convicted, and sent to prison. This is an incredible moment for women. It’s the moment of truth. The events of last year in Hollywood - and the rest of the country - were previously unimaginable.

Women need to focus on and fight for not only their own goals, but everybody’s goals. This is an important moment. Our welfare is the country’s welfare. Our well-being is everyone’s well-being. It’s our turn to carry the torch, and we’re strong and can do it. 

 
 

Fatima: Could you tell us about your experience as a sexual abuse survivor?

Ivana: I suffered sexual abuse from a very early age and that colored all my life. As you can see, it has colored my choices, my work, it’s colored everything. I wasn’t aware of the damage until I was an adult. I lived in survival mode from the time it happened until the moment I realized, after a lot of suffering and introspection, what happened to me, how I suppressed the pain. I ploughed through life and my career until at a certain point I was obliged to face the pain, and that was very difficult. Working in the industry, I was also confronted with abuse of power. On one occasion, after I rejected a producer who made advances towards me, he shut down my film, a film that I wrote and already had a contract to direct, with actors signed that was scheduled to go into production a few weeks later. I sued him, and because there weren’t yet laws against sexual assault or harassment, I had to sue him for breach of contract. And I won. But he declared bankruptcy, and I didn’t get anything. But I swore to him that whenever I would see him, I’d slap him. Years later, I spotted him in the hall of a network in Rome. I ran towards him, and he turned and ran away, the coward. He jumped into his car and disappeared. After that, I left Italy and went on to live in Paris. That abuse of power influenced my choices and my career. I went to live in a foreign country, where I didn’t know anybody. I could have continued to live and work in my own country that was profoundly unjust.

Fatima: When did you first speak out about it, and why did you wait so long?

Ivana: I never spoke to anybody about my abuse as a child. When I was little, I erased the memory in order to survive. As an adult, I thought that it didn’t affect me so much, because I was a successful person who was living the life I chose. In some way, I never scratched the surface of that hidden pain even though you could see and feel the scar on my soul in all my films, scripts, and works. Then I met the man who became my husband, and to him I told my story. Few years ago, I confronted my assailant. It was difficult, but also liberating. But I never told my story publicly. Just recently, during an interview, I was able to articulate the abuse of power by that producer, but I never told the complete story of my child abuse. I’m writing a film right now where I face that period of my life.

Fatima: How has your experience shaped your stance and personal narrative?

Ivana: That experience shaped everything. It colored every experience and every relationship. It towered over every story I wrote. But never from the point of view of the beaten victim, rather from the person who looks for and believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In my first film, the protagonist tries to define herself through a journey of sexual discovery. It was my attempt to give sex a place in my life, to not to be scared, to not to be a victim but a subject, a person, and more specifically a person in power in that quest.

Fatima: At which point do you believe someone moves from being a victim to a survivor?

Ivana: A victim succumbs. A survivor survives. But to survive is not to live completely. When you are touched by that pain, it’s very difficult to be whole again, to be the unbroken person you were before. But at the same time, I think I am who I am also because of that pain. I’m able to experience the world, to feel people, to be in tune with them, to tell their stories because of that scar.

Fatima: If you could speak to Dr. Ford, what would you tell her?

Ivana: Sorry and Thank you, Dr. Ford. I’m so sorry for what happened to you when you were young, innocent and hopeful. And thank you for your courage, your moral compass, and for keeping that hope alive.

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Shaping Women’s Narrative

Photo Courtesy of Ivana Massetti