BRATTLEBORO—If you’ve ever wondered how there could ever be too much of a good thing, then the 2018 Women’s Film Festival is for you.
Instead of finding one “best in fest” independent film to praise, I’ve found four or five or maybe even six — and I’ve only seen one-third of the 50 films they’re showing.
This is the 27th year for the Women’s Film Festival — the big yearly fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center.
It will be held at the New England Youth Theatre beginning on Friday, March 9, and it starts with a gala for revolutionaries — come as your favorite feminist rebel! — and the film Left on Pearl, a documentary about the 1971 takeover of a Harvard University building by a group of women demanding, among other things, a women’s center. They prevailed. Champagne will be served.
In this brave new world of “#MeToo” and “Time’s Up,” when brave women are raising consciousness to fight sexual harassment, economic disparity, and the general lack of behind-the-camera jobs for women in Hollywood, these films are revelatory.
This is important because films are “one of the defining realms of our culture,” said WFC community outreach advocate Shari, who declined for safety reasons to give her last name.
“‘#MeToo’ is only a few months old,” Shari said. “It makes us very hopeful. We’ve been going for 27 years, and there is still something revolutionary about people realizing that women lack access.
“Overwhelmingly, over 90 percent of films still tend to be made by white straight men from the West. That’s the lens through which most people are still shown the world. Our main goal is to have people realize this is a provocative media.”
Make no mistake — this event is a crucial fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center. “But it’s also to raise awareness and inspire people to help work for social change and reframe conversations in our culture,” Shari added. “We’re having them now, but it’s long overdue.”
To choose 50 films — some are narratives, some are documentaries, some are short, some are feature-length, some are animated — the festival committee screened about 150.
“Some wonderful ones didn’t make the cut,” Shari said. “We try to have a variety, not only of topics but of moods. This film festival is an extension of our crisis center work, and it exists to shift norms.
“Also, we’re thrilled every year to provide a platform for women filmmakers. Unless people sit through all the credits, they may not realize that for all the progress we’ve made, we still have a long, long way to go in terms of women actually being able to tell their own stories.”
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Even when films are intended as polemics, the very best of them transcend politics. Call it personality, call it a compelling story, call it a brilliant piece of performance, but because of the very nature of film, when it moves you, it hits your heart long before it hits your head.
A case in point: Big Sonia, Leah Warshawski’s 93-minute documentary about her vivid grandmother, Sonia Warshawski.
Sonia is well worth meeting, even though she’ll leave you in tears. Despite her nickname, she’s a tiny thing, bright with dyed-and-teased hair, makeup, nail polish, wonderfully colorful clothing, and an indomitable nature.
And numbers tattooed on her arm.
Yes, Sonia is the survivor of not one but three Nazi death camps. She stayed alive during that world-wide tragedy, I imagine, because she was young; she was 13 when she was pulled from her home in Poland, so she could provide the Germans with slave labor.
The Nazis murdered her family and beat her almost unconscious on more than one occasion, yet Sonia survived. She tells the camera, so movingly that it will break your heart, about the experience.
Sonia was 19 when the war ended. She married another survivor and moved to the United States, where she and her husband opened a tailor shop and raised three children. After her husband’s death, she carried on at the tailor shop — it’s her life, her love, and her social life. It’s also the only store in a huge, empty mall.
Even more important than the shop is her other work: telling her story to schoolchildren, class after class of them, so they will remember what the end game of hatred looks like and perhaps chose another path.
“I will not hate,” Sonia says, “because it will destroy me. I’ll be hateful just like them. But I can’t forgive, either. Forgiveness has to come from a higher force.”
I was crying at the end of this film. It’s definitely one you shouldn’t miss.
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Another “don’t miss” film that left me in tears was La Chana, a 2017 documentary by Lucija Stojevic, 86 minutes of drama flashing across the face of a great Gypsy flamenco dancer.
La Chana was born to dance, and her family early on recognized her talent. Although she married the proverbial jerk, she still had an amazing career.
Her ability to feel and transmit the beats and the passion of the music through her body, and especially through her feet, is remarkable. “My emotions are rooted in the beat,” she says.
Footage of La Chana dancing on television during her heyday is cut into the documentary so we can get a feel for her youthful talent as well as her mature, potent, and passionate nature.
Now older and comfortably plump, she is enjoying her golden years. She has a lovely home, a docile second husband, and a dog she adores.
But she also has an astonishing comeback performance, this time seated, and the beats are just as strong and her nature is just as passionate.
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My third “don’t miss” film is the animated Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming by Ann Marie Fleming. You’re going to love Rosie Ming.
Voiced by the brilliant actress Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), Rosie is a young poet — drawn as a round face, Asian eyes, a pink-triangle skirt, stick arms and legs, and what might be pink antennae on her head — who lives in Vancouver with her Chinese grandparents.
Her father, an Iranian, abandoned her when she was small (she thinks), and her mother died in a car accident. But Rosie is comfortable and happy growing up with her loving grandparents, writing poetry and dreaming of going to Paris.
Then she self-publishes a book of her poems and is invited, out of the blue, to a poetry seminar in, of all places, Shiraz, Iran.
You can see where this is going, but before you get there you meet many fully-realized characters.
You hear their poetry, learn their life stories, see the beautiful city of Shiraz and hear the amazing history of Iranian poetry — all done in various styles, reflecting the contributions of the many animators who worked on this film, which blends into one exquisite whole.
This film is visually imaginative, stunningly beautiful, and enchanting to watch — and, best of all, there are no victims.
Although, as a Persian poet once wrote, “Sometimes it takes many lifetimes to learn one’s own story.”
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The fourth of my “don’t miss” films is a 2017 narrative drama/comedy, Signature Move by Jennifer Reeder. The film is set in Chicago, where Zaynab is an attractive young Pakistani-American attorney who starts training as a wrestler when a client can pay her only through lessons.
Zaynab lives with a widowed mother who never leaves the house, watches soap operas on television and is obsessed with finding her daughter a husband.
Zaynab, however, falls in love with Alma, a young Mexican-American woman whose mother was a professional wrestler. Alma owns a bookstore and doesn’t want a serious relationship.
Naturally, Zaynab and Alma get involved in this light, funny, lovely lesbian romance filled with faces you would ordinarily never see in film.
I didn’t want it to end; I didn’t want to leave their world.
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Speaking of wrestling, may I direct your attention to a short film called Jesszilla that’s seven minutes of pure wonderful by Emily Sheskin.
Jesselyn Silva is 10 years old and training seriously to be a professional boxer. Who knew?
Her father is bemused but willing to keep her in training. Not only is Jess serious about her sport, but she’s effervescence itself as she talks about her life.
You’re going to love her.
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We’re not quite out of the “don’t miss” category yet, because now there’s The Other Side of Everything, a 2017 documentary by Mila Turajlić. This one comes from Serbia, and in it you will meet one of the wisest women I’ve ever encountered on film. She’s a famous political activist and former engineering professor who was shut down and shut out when she opposed the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević.
The documentary is ostensibly about an apartment house in Belgrade, about living in dangerous time, about political courage, and about a population’s desire for a strongman leader rather than facing the uncertainties of democracy. (If it sounds familiar, it is. Be prepared for a shock of recognition!)
But I loved the film because I loved Srbijanka Turajlić, the filmmaker’s mother, and her ability to ask the next question, the right question, the one that reveals the truth.
“If you get to the end of your life and realize your dream hasn’t come true,” Srbijanka says, “it’s not so bad as if you get to the end of your life without having had any dream at all.”
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A film I admired for the courage, wisdom, and determination of its subject is The Judge, Erika Cohn’s 76-minute documentary set in Palestine’s West Bank. The judge is Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman judge appointed to any of the Middle East’s Sharia — or Islamic law — courts.
Needless to say, her perspective is a bit different from that of her male colleagues. And when her cases are taken from her, she has the courage to fight a corrupt and patriarchal political establishment.
We follow her as she judges family cases, mentors younger female attorneys, and enjoys her husband and her family. The film is long and the visuals are dreary, but the people in it are quite worth getting to know.
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The film Seventeen, by Monja Art, is an Austrian drama about teenagers exploring their sexuality.
Amid shyness, geekdom, yearnings, experimenting, pinnings, sufferings, laughing, cruelty, dancing and — yes — even weird teachers, the film is a riveting look at a group of awkward teenagers.
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Now that we’re sliding out of the “don’t miss” category, I can point you in the direction of Lane 1974, by SJ Chiro, a drama about a seriously deranged and homeless hippie mother in the 1970s and her young daughter, Lane, who has to take control of her two siblings before her mother damages them beyond repair.
I wrote in my notes: “I don’t know what this film is about, but I can’t stand to watch any more of it.”
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Then there’s A Suitable Girl, a 2017 Indian documentary by Smriti Mundhra and Sarita Khurana. It follows three young women who are living in different parts of India.
They’re all working women: one is a schoolteacher, one is an economist, and one is is equally well-educated. Yet the only thing each of them wants is to find a guy, get married, settle down, and “be taken care of.” The cultural and familial pressure on them to do this is extraordinary.
These women aren’t even looking for love matches. They’re looking for “suitable” men with large incomes who advertise in newspaper ads, on television, or on the internet.
I was watching A Suitable Girl during the Winter Olympics, and often I would have to stop the film so I could watch women on snowboards or skates or skis as they jumped, twirled, and flew! Fly! Fly! Fly, women! Then, my palate somewhat cleansed, I’d go back to watching these Indian women and their families devoting their life to just one thing — and it’s not a triple axel.
Now, I’ve lived much of my life abroad, and I’m sensitive to cross-cultural communication, but I cannot and will not sympathize with a culture that wastes one-half of its population so the other half can come home to a warm meal, a clean house, and an occupied bed.
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Which is also why I lasted only 16 minutes into Girl Unbound, Erin Heidenreich’s documentary about a Pakistani girl who excels at squash but comes from an area dominated by the Taliban. So again, here we have the patriarchy in full and ignorant display.
When she is young, Maria Toorpakai can cut her hair and dress as a boy to play squash. But as she matures and becomes famous outside of Pakistan for her athletic ability, she can no longer hide. Supported by her family, they have to fight against death threats and a corrupted reading of the Koran designed to keep woman in slavery.
“The Taliban claims they are practicing Islam, but they don’t know anything about Islam,” a character says.
All films are keyholes that let us into other people’s worlds and let us live, in our imagination, other people’s lives. As long as we have curiosity, film will continue to enchant and attract us.
Thankfully, this festival gives us more than a few of those rarest of keyholes — women’s stories told by women.