Canadian documentary 'Underplayed' looks at 'shocking' lack of female DJs

TORONTO — Documentarian Stacey Lee doesn't want to shame the electronic dance music industry, but they're still woefully behind the times on gender equality.

She points to Billboard's Top 100 DJs list as a sign of lack of progress in the male-dominated club industry. In its annual rally of the 100 biggest moneymakers in the genre, only five women made the Billboard roundup last year.

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"It's beyond shocking," said the New Zealand-born filmmaker in a recent interview.

"I definitely feel like we're all talking about all these kinds of things, but... how do you convert that into action and change?"

That's the question at the heart of Lee's new documentary "Underplayed," which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. The film aims to strike a balance between recognizing the failings of electronic music — known as EDM — while celebrating some of the women who've been at the forefront of change.

A number of successful female DJs appear in the film to reflect on their experiences, including Alison Wonderland, Tokimonsta, Australian twin sisters Nervo, and Niagara Falls, Ont.-raised Isabelle Rezazadeh, who headlines EDM music festivals under her persona Rezz.

Lee and Rezazadeh spoke with The Canadian Press about prioritizing diversity and inclusivity in the EDM music scene, and how the pandemic could affect the trajectory of progress.

CP: The gender divide in the music industry has been covered extensively by journalists, but "Underplayed" is one of the first feature documentaries on the topic. What did you want to bring to the film that hasn't already been discussed?

Lee: A lot of the times when women are asked the question, it's this weird side-stage, quick soundbite, that almost feels a bit dirty. The issue is really complex. There's lots of reasons why representation is what it is, but more importantly, every single artist just wants their talent to come first. The last thing I wanted to do was be like: "Oh, so tell me what it's like to be a woman." So it was about trying to approach it in a different way. I wanted to show there's an incredible amount of talent. None of these (interviews) was a woman saying "Woe is me."

CP: Isabelle, how did you — and your Rezz persona — get involved in the documentary?

Rezazadeh: Stacey reached out to my managers. One of the main questions was about being a woman in the industry. At first it was kind of like a "No, pass," because I was already so over speaking about it. But I'm thankful that I did (the film) because it definitely did end up being so much fun. I don't even like documentaries, like I fall asleep during documentaries, and I was watching this and I was like, "It's so perfectly filmed." The contrast between the darker serious moments with the heightened moments of women winning and just playing the headline slots at festivals... it's the best way to expose this information.

Lee: I consider myself bigger picture over here, and Isabelle is in it every single day. Witnessing her on tour... she was the boss of that room. It's so important to see women in these roles, where they are very strong decision makers, where they are leading teams. Hopefully we can get to the point soon in the world where we're just talking about the output, the talent, the album. There's only three per cent of women contributing to the technical production roles. Can you imagine how much we're not hearing?

CP: Several of the DJs share experiences in the documentary that will shock some viewers. The Nervo sisters talk about how, when they were both pregnant, some promoters tried to book them at a discount. There's also a scene where Alison Wonderland clashes with a technical engineer who doesn't seem to respect her opinion. Has anything like that ever happened while performing as Rezz?

Rezazadeh: I've been fortunate to maybe not have fully experienced that specific aspect — or maybe I'm just forgetting — but for the most part, I've always been pretty stern with the people that I work with or even the people that I temporarily work with, whether they be at the venue or programming my visuals or whatever.

Lee: I think maybe your experience was more to do with when you were just coming up.

Rezazadeh: Yeah, on the come-up every single man was doubting the (expletive) out of me. There's tons of groups and forums like Toronto Rave Community and Toronto Producers Group where I'd post a song and all the guys were commenting being like, "Oh, she's only popular right now because she's a girl," and mansplaining things to me about production. That was very annoying back then. I remember it bothered me a lot.

CP: As a performer, you've spoken about keeping the focus on Rezz's stage persona, but you've also expressed interest in helping lift other women up in the EDM scene. How are you balancing the two so that one doesn't overshadow the other?

Rezazadeh: I see myself having a lot more women on my lineups; giving maybe some lesser known women the opportunity to play on these big stages.

Lee: This way it's not token either, which is really cool, because it creates this pipeline of talent coming up.

CP: Let's assume concert venues start to reopen in some significant capacity by late 2021. Do you think there could be a serious moving of the needle in EDM towards equality?

Lee: I know everyone's intentions are good, but it's really hard to know from a business point of view. Obviously, everyone hasn't made money in 2020. We're all struggling to get by. (There's) not just the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter movement. There's so much structural change happening right now, and that's the thing I'm most fascinated about when the industry comes back. My hope is we've been through this year for a reason: to shake things up and break things up. I hope next year is what actually starts the change.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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