BRATTLEBORO—Now that Harvey Weinstein is in court, now that Woody Allen is being dropped from Amazon (and is suing it for $68 million), now that the music business is awash with sexual harassment suits, and now that organizations such as the MeToo Movement and Time’s Up have exposed the ugly underside of Hollywood, have things really changed for women?
If you answered “Yes” to that question, you’re demented.
While more women are getting the funding to make films right now, and while we’re seeing a few more female action heroes (big deal), the fact remains that for women who can’t fly or win fights with robots, things stand pretty much where they have always stood: The patriarchy always wins.
To counterbalance that sad fact, the Women’s Freedom Center (WFC) is putting on its 28th Women’s Film Festival. Its 36 films, all made by women about women (and “for everyone,” stresses the festival’s poster), will be showing at the New England Youth Theatre at 100 Flat St., beginning with a gala opening on Friday, March 22.
To find 36 films, the WFC’s film committee screened more than 200.
“The month after the film festival ends, we start getting admissions for the next year,” said WFC advocate Shari. (For protection, advocates working in the domestic-violence milieu do not reveal their last names.) “For these 35 to be in the festival, wonderful ones didn’t make the cut. The quality level of these films is really high.”
Films are a defining force in our culture, as they are around the world. When they are made by men, they miss half the story: the woman’s perspective. When they depict only hypersexualized women and active, heroic men, they send a very sad message.
“Our goal at the Women’s Freedom Center is to always examine the impact that film has on our culture,” Shari said. “Our role is to do the activist work to end victimization. Sometimes films do an amazing job of that by turning a spotlight on issues.”
“If the kind of media content that’s out there gets more violent, and women continue to be increasingly hyper-sexualized, you can draw an arrow to everything that’s been exposed by the #MeToo movement about the rate of sexual violence. Media messages contribute to our rape culture.”
Even with #MeToo and Time’s Up, too much damage has been done.
“We have such a long way to go to even reach anything like parity,” said Shari. “We won’t get there any time in the foreseeable future.”
“But it’s not surprising that the creative products coming out of such a skewed industry show signs of what’s wrong in Hollywood,” she adds. “About 93 percent of the films we create and export around the world come from a straight-white-male perspective.”
Films made by women about women provide many “gateways.” Besides telling us contemporary women’s stories, rewriting history to include feminine heroes, and providing strong and healthy role models for young women everywhere, they also offer opportunities to women behind the camera.
“When at least one woman director is on a project, about 50 percent of the writers will also be women,” Shari said. “Not only are they providing a lens on a different reality, but even in their workplace they are providing work for other women.”
To my delight, I managed to see about half of the festival’s films in advance. Here is my report.
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Lupo’s a treasure — a lovely, modern, and somewhat crude young woman with a self-described big nose who won’t take herself or the dating game seriously.
Instead, she makes a self-investigative film about “why I’m not over you” — a film that involves voiceovers, music, dancers, costumes, and the actual guy in question. (He loves her company, but doesn’t want them to be lovers. “Is it the nose?” she asks.)
Her fantasies about falling in love are sad and hilarious, as are the vaudeville numbers she performs about them. And you will enjoy her company so much that you, like the schlub in the film, will want to keep her in your life forever. She’s just that interesting.
• Another film I loved was the documentary Yellow Is Forbidden, by Pietra Brettkelly, which I like to imagine was chosen especially for me. It is a delight for all of us who love beauty, style, and fabric.
If you’re like me, you will remember forever the long, gorgeous, heavily embroidered, jewel-encrusted, yellow robe that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala.
The Met Gala — not the Academy Awards — provides us with the real red carpet of our time, and Rihanna won it that year with this breathtaking gown and train. Just Google “Rihanna yellow dress” and you will see about 1,000 pictures of it.
Who made the dress? That would be Guo Pei, a lovely female fashion designer based in Beijing; she is the subject of this documentary. Guo became a clothing designer when haute couture was forbidden and there really was no fashion in China.
She now designs in Beijing for rich and famous women around the world. She is accepted in Paris, has a busy atelier that she runs with her husband, and employs, among other artisans, 300 embroiderers.
“Couture is art,” she says. And her sculptural, spectacular, jewel-covered gowns certainly are that.
“And I am my own empress,” she states.
• A third film I loved is A Great Ride by Deborah Craig and Veronica Deliz. Back in the good old days of second-wave feminism, a certain cohort of lesbians up and down the California coast decided to move onto the land and form their own communities.
Some of these women are still there — happy, funny, healthy, cared for, loved, and living the dream.
This film introduces us to several of these communities. It’s a joyous ride that made me very happy.
* * *
Among the films are several documentaries in the long line of woman-as-victim series.
In that spirit, there’s a film on female genital mutilation, In the Name of Your Daughter, set in Tanzania, which tells the story of young, young women — often not yet in their teens — who are given the chance to run away and be kept safe during the “cutting season.”
(The film is described as “heartwarming,” but I regard female genital mutilation as a crime against nature and humanity. It’s hard to feel your heart warming when you know that it’s just your blood boiling.)
Lovesick, however, is a problem-solving kind of film. It tells the story of a scientist, 72-year-old Dr. Suniti Solomon, who discovered the first case of AIDS in India in 1974 and has been at the forefront of AIDS research there ever since.
Solomon is more than a scientist, though. She’s something creative and delicious.
Since getting married is an essential part of being Indian, and since a man or woman with AIDS is going to have extreme difficulty finding a romantic partner, Dr. Solomon has turned herself into a matchmaker. Instead of looking at dowries, horoscopes, and physical attractiveness, she examines viral loads.
“It’s our duty to take care of people with AIDS,” Solomon says. A proposed couple know their love story might end in the death of one or both of them, “but still we must begin.”
Solomon, whom I exuberantly admire, has found a brilliant solution to a heartbreakingly real problem, and watching her work is seeing something much like a miracle. She herself never goes to the weddings she brings about, because she doesn’t want anyone in the new couple’s life to be thinking about AIDS.
But we can watch the wedding of a couple who meet in the film. Love makes the world go ’round, as they say.
* * *
I should first explain that I’m a big fan of rhythmic gymnastics, which is now an Olympic sport.
I marvel at the ability of these world-class young female performers to gracefully twist and fly with hoops, ribbons, and balls. Timing is everything here, and practice is long, boring, and excruciatingly painful. When we watch these performances, we’re always aware that it’s the illusion of grace and weightlessness that makes us gasp.
The film shows Margarita Mamun, training for the Olympics while her father is dying. We live with her, breathe with her, are yelled at by her aggressive coaches with her, and suffer with her.
There are two ways to train a person or an animal, and the Russian one is not the one based on affection.
“You’re not a human being, you’re an athlete,” one of the coaches tells her. Another calls her a “stupid cow” and a “pathetic bitch.”
Having gone through all that training with her, we come to respect Mamun so deeply. It would have been joyous to see her performance at the 2016 Olympics in the film.
• Instructions on Parting by Amy K. Jenkins is too heartbreaking for words. As Jenkins, a visual artist living on the East Coast, goes through her pregnancy and continues photographing the natural world, her father out West is dealing with the cancer deaths of her mother, sister, and brother.
As Jenkins flies back and forth, we watch her midriff grow as her closest relatives turn into walking sticks of death. They practically die in front of her camera.
In 1992, I nursed my younger brother through his cancer and watched his body turn into a stick of death. This film brought back all the terror I felt back then. But I only had one cancer death to deal with in my family; Jenkins and her father have three.
Because you come to care about these people as you watch them fall away, you will mourn their deaths. There’s great beauty and an awareness of the fragility of life in this film.
Despite how many women made films back in Hollywood’s early days, the movies have always had to show how painful and wrong it is to be a lesbian — even unto blood, vampires, and death. Bad lesbian, bad!
But by watching these old films, lesbians around the country could see that there were other women like them in theworld — at least before they met their gory ends.
What was so wrong about seeing happy lesbians on film? “It’s important, in films, for the patriarchy to win,” says one filmmaker.
That kind of explains it all.
• The beautiful narrative film Radium Girls is based on a true story and marks the feature directorial debuts of producers Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler.
Back in the old days, radium made the hands of watches and clocks glow: “It shines in the dark,” brags one advertisement.
Painting radium onto the tiny clock hands and numbers was done by young women who, in order to get a point on their paintbrushes, pulled them through their lips. Over and over again.
And yes, the first time you see a woman do it, you will gasp in horror. You know she’s going to die from it, but the reason you know enough to not do it is because they didn’t.
Set in Orange, N.J. in 1925, the film tells the story of one young factory woman who has already lost one sister and has another who is dying. She joins an organization dedicated to stopping this awful practice, becomes a whistleblower, and goes head-to-head with the owners of the company.
These capitalists have their own doctor caring for the women. When a girl gets sick, the doctor tells her she has syphilis — even if she’s a virgin. (Hopefully, he’s still rotting in hell.) And the bosses? They intend to stop our heroine by whatever means necessary.
Besides addressing unknown history, this thriller of a film is shot with an eye to beauty, and the costumes, lighting and sets make the individual frames lovely to see.
As one character says, “There’s a lot of world out there to change.” That should be the motto of this festival.
* * *
The short (37-minute) documentary Girl-hearted, by Anne Scheschonk, is one of the many films we’re now seeing about lovely little children, presumed to be boys, who know from the start that they are lovely little girls. Or somewhere in between.
Nori, from Germany, is fully supported by her loving single mother and her teachers but still finds acceptance a struggle.
“We need acceptance that these kids know best who they are,” says Nori’s mother. “Hear them — not the teachers, doctors or whoever wants to tell you what is wrong with your child.”
• If you’re a fan of Susan Sontag, or if you’re interested in the avant-garde New York theater of the ’60s and early ’70s, then you know about the Cuban-born playwright María Irene Fornés. Her 46 plays earned her nine Obies, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and other honors.
One of Sontag’s lovers, Fornés, who died in October 2018, was also one of the greatest — and most uncelebrated — writers of her generation.
The Rest I Make Up, by Michelle Memram is a documentary filmed during the last years of Fornés’s life, and she’s right there in the center of the frame — challenging, ebullient, witty, and brilliantly determined to be outrageous.
“I have so much style you think it’s a mistake,” she says happily. And she does.
* * *
The Great Unknown bills itself as “a short narrative film that explores the feminine life cycle of birth, death, transformation, and rebirth. When a young woman (Desirée Matthews, actor/screenwriter/executive producer, in her screenwriting debut) experiences a miscarriage, she arrives at her grandmother’s door seeking a witness to her profound grief. A love letter to family traditions, ritual, the feminine divine, and New York City, the film offers a deep questioning of, and eventual surrender to, the vast mysteries of life.”
Whoever wrote that was smoking something stronger than I can get. Without the description, I couldn’t even figure out if it was a miscarriage or an abortion that drove the young woman to the arms of her grandmother, although I did recognize that she was played by one of my favorite actresses, Olympia Dukakis.
Otherwise, this film defeated me. I haven’t a clue as to what it’s about.
The woman drives for Lyft in New York. She picks up a tall, young blonde woman dressed in black — the type of femme fatale who used to throw herself at Humphrey Bogart back in the old days.
Asked to drive upstate, the driver agrees.
And that’s all I got.