FESTIVALS: Strong Line-up, Low Attendance at 3rd New York Women's Fest
by Andrea Meyer
In its third year, the New York Women’s Film Festival (NYWFF) reiterated its dedication to serious films by serious filmmakers, and if a head count is any indication, the public did not share the enthusiasm. Despite a thoughtful, eclectic program, the now shorter event that ran over the sunny weekend of April 22 – 25 at a new venue, the NYU Cantor Auditorium, saw a sharp decrease in attendance from last year.
The NYWFF falls at a busy time of year, running simultaneous with the local Avignon/NY festival, and sandwiched between the recent, higher profile New Directors/New Films on one end, and the highly publicized GenArt and Dockers Classically Independent Film Festivals on the other. With festivals opening on every street corner and indie films creating a buzz that begins long before Sundance and resonates all the way to Entertainment Tonight, audiences might now be expecting to see films preceded by industry hype at the festivals they attend. The Women’s Film Festival, on the other hand, adheres to more old-fashioned principles, such as programming engaging and challenging films. Managing Director Deena Juras, formerly of Gen Art and the Hamptons Film Fest, explains, “Audiences look to festivals to stretch the envelope and screen something that isn’t what you’re going to see at the multiplex.”
These programming intentions were reflected opening night, which began with the stunning 1952 short “In the Street” by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee. The silent black and white documentary depicts street life in a neighborhood on New York’s Upper East Side, where children blow bubbles, dance, hit each other over the head, and mug for the camera. These natural performers, entertaining themselves in the ways kids did before TV became a fixture in every living room, provide more humor and emotional impact than nine out of ten Gen-X whine-a-thons.
The short was followed by another work that plays with the idea of the camera as fly-on-the-wall, Shirley Clarke’s 1962 classic, “The Connection,” about a would-be documentary maker who shoots a group of junkies waiting for their next fix to arrive. The film surely broke new ground at the time, with its improvised jazz and long, belligerent monologues delivered by actors from the Living Theater, but it’s hard to sit through today. While the impulse to introduce the audience to a director described in the program as “a founding figure of the independent film and video movements in the United States” is admirable, a good percentage of that audience walked out before the film’s end.
The rest of the program was a potpourri of films by women, which Juras describes as “really strong.” She goes on, “I think it reflects what you want to see at a festival: international films, films that are sixty minutes long, interesting pairings between a short and a feature, films that are really curated.” There were films that have been talked about on the festival circuit, such as Cauleen Smith’s “Drylongso,” the highly original story of a friendship between two African American women with different approaches to their violent male-driven community. Others were brand new, like Frieda Lee Mock’s “Bird By Bird With Annie,” a fairly pedestrian documentary about the extremely engaging writer and guru Anne Lamott.
Stand-outs include Pola Rapaport’s sixty minute “Blind Light” about the filmmaker’s experience trying to recapture a moment of clarity in her life, when she was mysteriously awakened by a brilliant light flooding into the Capri villa of a 19th century Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe. Rapaport’s search leads her to begin shooting a narrative film based on her trip to Capri, in which Edie Falco plays Diana, a photographer whose life is changed by her encounter with Munthe’s work and villa. Eventually, Rapaport abandons the project to make a documentary interweaving the stories of Diana, Munthe and herself. The result is a moving and poetic expose of an artist’s search for the spiritual in her life and work.
Among the strong documentary program were “The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III” by Penelope Spheeris and “In My Corner” by Ricki Stern. International highlights included Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s magical story of a boy raised by his mother on an island fishing village in the Philippines, “In the Navel of the Sea.”
As usual, there was an impressive program of experimental films and shorts, including “The Guest,” Debra Eisenstadt’s surreal tale of a party guest’s run-in with a toilet, and “She Smokes,” by Christa Collins, the hilarious chronicle of a rocky relationship. Most impressive was Dima El-Horr’s beautiful, black and white paean to childhood and innocence, “The Street,” which was shot in the rubble of Lebanon’s streets. The Most entertaining entrant was Lisa Collins’ “Tree Shade,” which features an unforgettable high-camp character called Nefertiti Claus who puts our more familiar childhood myths to shame.
The program was rounded out with tributes to Barbara Kopple and Agnieszka Holland, as well as screenings of their celebrated films, “Harlan County, USA” and “Europa, Europa,” respectively. Not even these favorites were screened before a packed house.
The parties at least were as lively as ever, though perhaps more female-heavy than usual. Opening Night at the Independent in Tribeca featured Skyy Cosmopolitans and a happy 75% female crowd. At the Nell’s Video bash Friday night, members of the bands Luscious Jackson and The Breeders performed to a 90% female audience. And closing night was a classy, lower-key affair at the Belmont Lounge, with a higher boy-girl ratio than the rest of the fest. Attending filmmakers spoke favorably of the festival, with no mention of the disappointingly small crowds.
Juras, trying to figure it out why the event didn’t attract last year’s crowds, speculates that the recent mainstream familiarity with independent film has changed the dynamic of film festivals. She fears that audiences might consider a festival line-up and think, “oh, I’ve never heard of this. Do I really want to take the risk? But, I heard about this one on Entertainment Tonight. . .” She ponders for a moment and laughs. “Or I could be wrong. Maybe it’s just the weather.”
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance producer, writer and a regular contributor to indieWIRE.]