WAM!mer Melissa Silverstein recently attended the International Frauen Film Festival to discuss the status of women’s film festivals (WFFs). Skadi Loist, a researcher from the Media and Communications Studies Department at the University of Hamburg, started the discussion with a presentation: Social Change?! The status of Women’s Film Festivals today. She let Silverstein publish it at Women and Hollywood, and after reading it I really thought about the main question Loist asks, which is “Why do we need a WFF and what are the functions it should serve?
Loist builds the conversation around 5 keywords: counterpublics, feminist movement, networking, ghetto, and professionalization. In regards to counterpublics, she talks about the “safe space” that women’s film fests provide for constructive discussion of films about women and for women, with many having Q and A sessions, allowing the films to be “presented and considered outside of mainstream norms of film reception that still often have a tendency (if they are not outright) sexist and heteronormative.”
She also discusses the Bechdel test, and how few films pass it. I didn’t even know about the Bechdel test until I started interning here at WAM!, which surprised me because the earliest memories I have of defining myself as a feminist came from the problematic issues I noticed in film and television. It’s really pathetic that the only criteria needed for a film to pass the test are “(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man (for more than a few seconds).” You would think that’s not that hard to do, but the lack of films that meet these requirements makes movies like The Hunger Games a huge deal. Back in March, Melissa Silverstein noted that it’s important to recognize that this is a popular movie involving not only a female character as the center of the film, but “a STRONG female who spends the movie literally fighting for her life.” She also discusses the fact that it matters that there was so much hype even before the film opened, and that hype was around a film that follows Katniss, a woman. It shows film producers and distributors that “having a strong female character is not something to try and avoid, it is something to be seen as a potential success.” Films that highlight female leads doing something other than worrying about men and relationships reminds me of my mother talking about how she felt when Alien came out. She was excited to see an action movie with a female lead fighting for her life and a positive role model for young girls. That was in 1979, and in 2012 we’re still talking about the rarity of a film like The Hunger Games debuting as such a success.
As we’re still far from seeing an equal representation of films made by men and women in the mainstream film industry, women’s film festivals offer a place for film screenings that represent the voices of women that we’re currently lacking. However, we still need to accomplish getting these films out into the mainstream world as well, and not just keeping them in the WFF community. Loist acknowledges the need for WFFs to “legitimize their existence towards funders, politicians, filmmakers, and distributors.” Right now, it’s difficult to even get films made by women into larger festivals. This year at the Cannes Film Festival, no women directed films are in the main competition. Silverstein nails it when she explains, “for an industry that professes to examine questions about life, that challenges conventions, that pushes the envelope, the total Neanderthal approach to women is breathtaking. How can this industry say it is progressive or forward thinking in any way when it constantly shunts aside the perspectives of half of the world.”
It was clear at our own WAM!Boston Film Festival this year that WFFs create a space for our stories to be told and understood. I felt incredible energy and pride while sitting in that theater supporting women’s voices along with the filmmakers and audience members. That feeling of seeing women accurately represented on the screen needs to become the norm when we go to the movies on a Friday night, and not just something that’s experienced at specified film fests.
But while WFFs provide an important environment where films made by women and about women can be publicly viewed and discussed, Loist explains that “WFFs are accused of being niche events that pigeonhole female directors, put them in the ghetto rather than help them be equal to their male colleagues.” We still need to get these films into the mainstream industry so story lines like a woman fighting for her life can become what people think of as a ‘regular’ movie, and not ‘the other’ in some sort of special interest genre. As film narratives that include strong female characters become part of the everyday media messages that people receive, we will then begin to move away from the current limited gender roles society has placed women in within our real lives, and not just on the screen.
Melissa Silverstein asks, “What can and do WFFs provide and do differently than other festivals?” and encourages any thoughts you have on the issue. Comment and share your answer to her question at Women and Hollywood, and learn more about what happened at our WAM!Boston Film Fest this year.