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Between the Covers explores the publishing world of romance novels — a niche dominated by women.

Special section

The rich world of women’s lives, in 38 films

Stories about real women are so missing from the popular culture that watching as many films as you can — and discussing them — makes this festival so vitally important

Joyce Marcel has provided an overview of the Women’s Film Festival for many years, the last five of them for The Commons, where she freelances as a columnist and a special correspondent.

DUMMERSTON—When Betty Friedan, the mother of second-wave feminism, died in 2006, someone made up a bunch of car decals that said “Thank You, Betty.” I attached one to my keyboard.

But now, with right-wing Republicans attacking women’s health care, their right to work, their right to walk through the streets without being raped, their right to live and love or not love, and their right to laugh — definitely attacking their right to laugh — I think it’s time I tattooed “Thank You, Betty” on my forehead.

Just consider the alternatives.

“Women must be chaste and pure, know their limits, and mustn’t laugh openly in public, or be provocative with every move. Women must guard their chastity.” This pronouncement is from a rural Turkish radio program that serves as the background for a family meal in the Academy Award–nominated Turkish-French drama Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven.

If you hear any number of right-wing U.S. politicians’ voices right about now in that provincial Turkish drivel, I have the perfect antidote.

The Women’s Film Festival — a fundraiser for and organized by the Women’s Freedom Center — is showing 38 films by women about women, beginning on March 11 and ending on March 20.

Thirty-eight is a lot of films, and it’s my great honor to see advance copies and write this overview about what’s in store for Brattleboro film lovers. There are, as I said, 38 films. These are only a few. There’s a rich world of women’s lives to explore here, and I hope you enjoy them.

Before I talk about some of the films, I will tell you that the festival’s opener, Mavis!, had me dancing around my office clapping my hands.

Joanna broke my heart. Hardy had me cheering and shaking my fist in the air.

Mustang raised my heart into my mouth and kept it there for the entire screening. And Love Between the Covers left me speechless with delight.

* * *

The Russian film about a girl who grows up on a Moscow garbage dump, Something Better to Come, astounded me. I truly hated that film.

Yet Vickie Sterling, the executive director of the Women’s Freedom Center, calls it one of her “absolute favorites.”

“Though I know it’s intense,” she said, adding that “Something Better to Come impacted me for days after watching it.”

That Sterling and I disagree is a very good thing. Stories about real women’s lives are so missing from the popular culture that watching as many films like this as you can — and discussing them — is what makes this festival so vitally important.

“What I would say about this year’s festival is that there is truly something for everyone,” Sterling said about what she described as an “amazing lineup.”

She said the films range from ”animated shorts to films about transgender adults and children,” from “celebrations of civil rights activists [and] singers to romance novelists,” and from “explorations of postpartum depression to lives of ballet dancers in Cuba.”

* * *

The festival opener, Mavis!, is Jessica Edwards’ 2015 documentary about the extraordinary career of Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers.

Born in 1939, Mavis Staples began singing with her family in 1950. And she’s still singing.

The family group was started by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who learned to play guitar on the same plantation where blues progenitors Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf were working. That’s a lot of learning for a little kid, and it gives his music a direct taproot into the entire American musical tradition.

Pops, Mavis, and her two sisters went from singing gospel in church — they were the first gospel group to sell a million records — to R&B, to soul, to folk, to freedom songs supporting Martin Luther King Jr., to Stax Records, to Bob Dylan, to Levon Helm, to Prince — yes, Prince.

Mavis and one of her sisters now tour with their own band. Sixty years on the road, and every 10 years the Staple Singers seem to be discovered by a new and younger generation.

“I’ll stop singing when I don’t have anything left to say, and you know that’s not going to happen,” Mavis says.

* * *

I’m the kind of literary snob who boasts that she doesn’t read genre books and ignores the mysteries she devours every week. But there are many other genres.

In Love Between the Covers, a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, we learn that while the traditional publishing industry is trashed, marginalized, broken, and shattered, romance novels represent a multi-million-dollar female industry.

There are romance books for every taste, I learned in this happy, energetic film. You want romance with vampires? Done. Amish women? They’re there. Steampunk? Christian? Sexy? Not sexy? Time travel? Lesbian? Paranormal? Someone, somewhere, is writing romance novels just for you.

In the world of romance, the writers — they’re mainly female — hang out with their readers — also mainly female.

Readers become writers, writers mentor readers — they say they’re “paying it forward” — and some people make enough money to buy mountains (that would be Nora Roberts, of course). Lots of women are earning a living and writing tons, just tons, of books.

One woman who writes lesbian love stories has been writing three books a year since 2001. And during the day she’s a surgeon.

The secret? Romance specializes in H.E.A. That’s “happily ever after,” to those of us not in the know — and who knew? I must say that I loved this film.

* * *

Mustang is a hard one to write about. It’s the story of five high-spirited young rural Turkish sisters whose freedom offends the morals of their conservative community. Their family tries to stifle them and ends up imprisoning them in their home and trying to marry them off as fast as they can.

Does the stifling work? Of course not.

The oldest confesses that she’s been having sex with her boyfriend for a while, but “from the back, so I am still a virgin and can’t get pregnant.” The second must marry a stranger. The third one kills herself rather than do the same. The last two — well, that’s where the drama lies.

Turkey was once a Westernized state. But today it is fast reverting to Muslim conservatism, which requires the repression of women at all costs.

This film is a must-see, painful as it is. Because must-see must translate — sooner rather than later — into must-stop.

* * *

Let’s move on to boxing. Personally, I don’t like the idea of people — male people or female people — fighting to entertain an audience. But I must admit that the few boxing matches I’ve attended have been exciting.

Now meet Heather “The Heat” Hardy, the star of Natasha Verma’s 2013 hard-luck but brilliantly paced and dramatic documentary, Hardy.

Raped at 12, Heather uses boxing as a way to fight back. It isn’t easy. Her Brooklyn home gets wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. She lives in chaos with her young daughter, her sister, and her niece. She has a degree in forensic psychology, and yet, at 121 pounds, all she wants is a shot at the title.

You wouldn’t think the visuals in this film would be so addictive, but you get caught up in the gritty life of Gleason’s Gym, in watching Heather running, training, and bringing up her 7-year-old daughter.

It’s hard work, and it’s not pretty, and after two years of watching her struggle and grow, all you can do is cheer. I actually cried at the end of this one.

* * *

The 2015 Israeli documentary Women in Sink is by Iris Zaki, a young, left-wing Israeli filmmaker who has the brilliant idea of hanging a camera over a sink at an Arab hairdressing salon.

Zaki learned to wash hair well and at the same time interview her clients about their lives.

She comes with expectations: that the women are oppressed, frightened, and angry about living as Arabs in Israel. What she finds instead made me yell, “Yes!”

The visuals here are amazing. The wet, black, shiny sink works as a frame for the women’s indelible and human faces, the camera is close to the women, and the wisdom is fascinating.

* * *

Anita Kopacz’s Joanna will break your heart for all the right reasons.

Be warned that this 2013 Polish documentary is not a professional film. Some of the footage is out of focus. Some of the subtitles are misspelled. None of this matters.

The film centers on a woman who deeply loves her small son and tries to instill in him all she has learned, all her most-cherished values, and all her love, because she knows she will soon be leaving him.

It will be cancer that takes her away.

This was easily the most beautiful film I saw, and the one I find hardest to forget. See it. Please.

* * *

For the fun of it, and because fascism appears to be coming back into style, give Chuck Norris vs Communism a try. This 2015 Romanian historical documentary by Ilinca Calugareanu explains how contraband Hollywood films brought knowledge of the outside world to a Romania thoroughly submerged under the thumb of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

“[The government] lost control over something they considered insignificant,” the racketeer who imported the VHS tapes says. “The videotapes set the whole of the communism system off balance. It was because they were deemed trivial.”

After watching this film, you may see The Shining, The Godfather, Pretty Woman, Chuck Norris, and Sylvester Stallone in a whole new way. And the woman who provided the Romanian voiceovers? Irina Nistor is a true revolutionary hero.

* * *

I don’t really know what to say about Something Better to Come, Hanna Polak’s 2015 documentary that introduces us to Yula, a lovely young girl who lives on the largest garbage dump in the world, near downtown Moscow.

Polak and her camera visit every year or two to document Yula’s life. There’s a child Yula has to give up. There’s rape. People are burned to death, bulldozed to death, starved to death, frozen to death. There’s too much smoking and drinking. There’s Vladimir Putin’s self-congratulating voice on the radio celebrating the growth of Russia under his rule.

Yula finally escapes this horrific life, but it’s too simple to say that this is a Russian-problem film.

You could make the same film somewhere in New York. You could make the argument that both economic systems — capitalism and communism — have run their respective courses. And that they have damaged too many people along the way.

“Aren’t we humans?” one garbage denizen asks? “Where are we supposed to go?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, or to this film.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #347 (Wednesday, March 9, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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