BRATTLEBORO—When you’re running away from the police at the same time you’re shooting a film, you don’t worry about glamour or color or framing a beautiful shot. So independent films are very different from the ones made in Hollywood.
And that’s why the slate of films in this, the 26th year of the Women’s Film Festival, has a lot to say about activism and very little to say about beauty and style.
The festival, as always, is a fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center. The nonprofit’s film committee screened 196 independent films — by women and about women — before choosing 13 documentaries, 10 features, and 17 shorts.
“It was a difficult year to finalize our choices,” said Vicki Sterling, the executive director of the Women’s Freedom Center. “It took quite a while, as we had an abundance of really good films. It’s a nice problem to have, though!”
Two significant and timely themes have emerged this year. The first is activism, and the second is queer and lesbian lives.
“More than a dozen of the films in the festival are documentaries focusing on activism in all different parts of the world, from Mexico and El Salvador to China and Los Angeles,” Sterling said. “A half dozen of the films focus on the lives of queer and lesbian women and range from documentaries and dark comedies to fantasy films and dramas.”
Each year I watch a selection of the films in advance of the festival so I can write this report. This year I watched about 15 and, from what I could see, there is both an immediacy and a palpable sense of fear and sadness in some of them that I’ve rarely before encountered.
Some of these films were shot by women fearful for their own safety. Some rambled. Some were saddled with old, grainy, fuzzy archival footage because they are telling a story with decades of history behind it. And some are simply novice films from directors we hope to see more from in coming years.
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The film that remains with me, weeks after I saw it, is Hooligan Sparrow, a picture that was shortlisted for an Academy Award for best documentary and won at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
This film, by the young filmmaker Nanfu Wang, follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (her name means “Hooligan Sparrow” in Chinese) as she protests child rape in southern China.
It seems, in this nightmare of a story, that six elementary school girls were turned into sex slaves by their own school principal and given as bribes to government officials. As it turns out, this shocking practice is far from unique in corrupt, modern-day China.
Because she is protesting this specific and horrible crime in the town where it occurred, Ye Haiyan and her young daughter are evicted from their apartment, beaten, imprisoned, and forced to move halfway across China by a government that, instead of rewarding her for her efforts, tries to shun her and make her disappear.
“Who cares about the law,” says a cop as he beats her — on camera, although he may not know it. As with the treatment of the great artist Ai Weiwei, with whom Ye Haiyan collaborates, her treatment is a shame and a sin.
Watching the film, you will often find your heart in your mouth, not only for Ye Haiyan and her daughter but also for Nanfu Wang. Does she successfully smuggle her film out of China? Does she make it back to safety in the U.S.? She does, and this film is the result.
Given the circumstances, the footage is blurry and jumpy. Yet in one unattractive scene after another, it’s a revelation.
Perhaps widespread showing of this film in America will help to protect Haiyan, although you are dreaming if you think the culture of sexual abuse against women and young girls will change. It will take a lot more than one film to make that happen.
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On a positive note, the next most riveting film I saw was The Good Breast, by Bernadette Wegenstein. It tells the story of Dr. Lauren Schnaper, a renowned breast surgeon at a top breast cancer clinic in Baltimore. And it follows four of her patients as they deal with a breast cancer diagnosis, each in her own individual way.
Dr. Schnaper understands there is a lot of emotion located in a woman’s breast — many hopes and fears.
She’s a tough, sophisticated, no-bullshit woman who debunks the cancer myth of early detection and warns her patients that “a mastectomy does not save your life.” It is her candid view that we should mistrust the “breast cancer awareness movement,” which makes women fearful rather than educated about breast cancer.
Schnaper also has a lot to say about the myth of Saint Agatha (231-251 CE), the patron saint of Catania in Sicily — and of breasts. Who knew breasts had their own saint?
It seems that in the third century, a Roman governor named Quinziano took a liking to a young virgin named Agatha, who spurned his attentions in favor of life as a nun. So his men held her held down while they cut off her breasts.
This scene is played out over and over again in paintings throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, although the motives of the painters appear similar to those of Hugh Hefner rather than full of righteous indignation.
At this stage in our own country’s history, you might hear yourself muttering, “Don’t give the government any new ideas.” But in Italy, Saint Agatha has her own festival, and Dr. Schnaper attends during the filming.
Dr. Schnaper is outspoken, compassionate, and intelligent, and I loved spending 1 hour, 34 minutes, and 17 seconds with her.
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It tells the story of Jewel Thais-Williams and her club Catch One, the oldest Black-owned gay disco in the United States and one of the original safe spaces for both the LGBT and Black communities in Los Angeles.
Thais-Williams opened her bar after a nearby establishment refused to serve African-Americans. She called it Catch One from a phrase that people used when they were cruising for a hookup. (They wanted to “catch one.”)
Slowly, Catch One became an African-American gay bar, and Thais-Williams became a mother figure, especially during the AIDS crisis when she provided comfort to black gay men rejected by their families and churches.
An African-American lesbian who only gets more beautiful as the years pass, Thais-Williams kept her disco going through good times, when it was the Los Angeles haunt of major celebrities (Madonna learned how to vogue there) to the hardest of times, when criminals burned her out because she wouldn’t sell the property.
And since Thais-Williams is determined (and also tougher than nails), she wouldn’t sell after the club was burned down, either. Instead, she just rebuilt the place.
Always an activist, while Thais-Williams was running the bar she also founded the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Unidos Food Pantry in South Los Angeles.
With her wife, Rue, she founded Rue’s House, the nation’s first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children, most of whom were poor and black. After the life-saving AIDS medications became available in 1996, they recreated the house as a sober-living facility.
In the late 1990s, Thais-Williams became enraged after a run-in with a culturally incompetent doctor. She went back to school, flew to China to study traditional Chinese medicine, became an acupuncturist and, in 2002, opened the Village Health Foundation, a low-cost clinic providing alternative health care.
Thais-Williams is a true pioneer, and it’s shameful that her history isn’t already well-known and celebrated. But you can rectify that by seeing the film.
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The film that filled me with the most happiness — it’s one of Sterling’s favorites, too — was a 25-minute documentary short from the Netherlands by Mea de Jong called If Mama Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy.
For any woman with mother issues — and isn’t that all of us? — this film is a primer on good mothering.
The beautiful young filmmaker, de Jong, sits at a table across from her warm, loving, former-hippie mother Lois and asks the questions we would all love to ask our mothers. And Lois lovingly and honestly answers.
For one thing, Lois points out that she is the third generation of her family to be a woman living alone. When her daughter questions the wisdom of this, Lois explains how proud she should be, coming from such a line of strong and independent women.
One of the questions her daughter asks Lois is what her former boyfriends would say about her.
Lois smiles and says, in effect, “Go ask them.”
So de Jong does — on film. These men — including de Jong’s father — are an attractive lot who are aging well. They have wonderful things to say about Lois.
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Another woman I was happy to meet through film was the great contemporary painter Elizabeth Murray. The documentary, called Everybody Knows...Elizabeth Murray, is by Kristi Zea.
Murray, who died in 2007, was a well-known New York artist whose work was selling quite well when she died. But back in the 1970s, when Murray began painting, women like her had to fight for recognition from art institutions and the art-buying public. She never quite got the recognition her colorful, intricate, glowing work demanded.
In The New York Times’s review of this film, Glenn Kenny wrote: “The movie shows the great variety of Murray’s always vivid, colorful work, and culminates with a triumph not just for Murray but also, as the film takes pains to point out, for women in American art […].”
Murray, Kenny wrote, “comes across as personable, friendly, extremely thoughtful and wholly admirable.”
“The movie, perhaps without intending to, demonstrates that one needn’t be a prickly person to be a wonderful artist. Meryl Streep, reading from Murray’s journals, does well communicating her emotional and intellectual acuity. While remaining upbeat about the artist’s legacy, Everybody Knows is underscored by a sense of just how much the art world lost when Murray left it.”
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On a different subject altogether, there’s Women Who Kill, a narrative film by Ingrid Jungermann, who also co-stars. It’s billed as “an adept and wry comedy on modern romance’s hollow results.”
Set in an LGBTQ community in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the attractive Jungermann and her former lover are doing their famous podcast, “Women Who Kill,” where they discuss female murderers, some of whom they’ve sought out and interviewed.
It’s a marvelous premise that could lead to all sorts of fascinating black humor. Women Who Kill is such an interesting title, isn’t it? I thought we’d be in for a thrill ride, and maybe deep psychological insight.
But the film bogs down in sitcom romance and loses the promise of its title. If the protagonists weren’t lesbians, a novelty for any film, the movie would be a cliché and star Jennifer Aniston.
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On a similar note — death — there’s Three Women Wait for Death, a short narrative film by Isabelle Seib which tells the story of a mother and her adult daughters waiting — in a camper, no less! — for their bastard husband/father to die.
“The dying prick hid all his money,” one of the daughters says, and that about sums it up.
It seems the father openly announced that he doesn’t trust women, so he cashed in all his money, about $40,000 of it, and hid it so his abused wife can’t have it after he dies.
So naturally, after he’s gone, they mourn little and search energetically for the money.
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They wear bandanas and leather biker gear and ride to enjoy the pleasures of female solidarity.
I get it, but I would have been more excited, given the premise, if they were riding motorcycles. They’re not. It’s bicycles, and that takes away some of the inherent drama.
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The German narrative film Beat Beat Heart, by Luise Brinkmann, is billed as a “playful romance” but turns out to be a meandering film following some idle but attractive young people who are experimenting with love. The mother of one of them turns up unexpectedly to do some experimenting of her own.
I guess the two women at the center of the story, the mother and the daughter, find some kind of peace with each other by the end, but I finally decided that the film was really about the lovingly photographed cheekbones of the star.
Yes, she has great cheekbones, but on cheekbones you cannot alone hang a 1-hour-and-23-minute film.
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Jessie Deeter’s A Revolution in Four Seasons is an interesting documentary about two women who were active in the Arab Spring in 2011 in Tunisia — remember, sadly, it was the only country in the Middle East that actually achieved some kind of democracy after overthrowing a dictator.
One of the women is a modern blogger who longs for a progressive country that’s more like Sweden. The other is a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and wants a religious state.
Exploring their similarities and conflicts makes for a satisfying film.
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The film Absences is a heartbreaking work that shows us the end result of corruption, war, and political upheaval — this time in Mexico. (But how many other places can you think of where similar tragedy is being played out? Start with Syria.)
It’s a documentary by Tatiana Huezo, whose camera follows a distraught woman whose husband and son were abducted from their car five years ago on the road to the airport, in broad daylight, probably to provide forced labor for a drug cartel or some other bastardization of humanity.
From the press release: “Left behind, alone with her daughter, Lulu, a victim who refuses to give in, decides to tell the unacceptable story: the unfillable void, the absence of loved ones, the unanswered questions, and the suffocating silence.
“After five years, absence has her living in a limbo that gives way to desire, hope and the struggle to find her 9-year-old son Brandon and her husband, alive. This hauntingly beautiful short film illuminates the way disappearance affects women, and broadens our awareness of disappearance and its social consequences in Mexico and Central America.”
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The past year might have been a good year for womens’ films, but it hasn’t been a great year for women.
“Recently, the world became an even more uncertain place for women,” Sterling said.
“We believe it is more important than ever to be a platform for women’s voices and to offer inspiration whenever possible — we do this continually through our work at the Women’s Freedom Center and once a year at the Women’s Film Festival.”