As the home of suffragette Susan B. Anthony and headquarters for film company Eastman Kodak, it was only a matter of time before the two ideas came together to beget the High Falls Film Festival. Set upstate in Rochester, New York, the five year old festival is a celebration of women in film.
While it’s confounding to think we still need to draw attention to gender in this day and age, according to High Falls’ artistic director Catherine Wyler, “only 7% of the top grossing studio films have women directors.” Luckily, there is no shortage of good indie films to choose from.
To qualify for the festival, films must have at least one woman acting in a major creative capacity–be it in front of the camera or below the line. The fifth annual High Falls lineup ran the gamut– oldies but goodies that have been around the festival block (“Duck Season,” “Stolen“), one in current release (“Ballet Russes“) and those with upcoming theatrical dates– “Transamerica” and “Hidden (Cache).”
The mix of programming was much appreciated by Sydney Levine of Film Finders, in town to moderate a panel. Levine who described the festival as “a little jewel” said it was the perfect opportunity to catch on films she had missed elsewhere. A recent scheduling change pushed the festival later into November, allowing Wyler to scout movies at Toronto, and so it was that “Mrs. Henderson” became the opening night film. In all, a total of 87 different features, docs and shorts screened during the five-day festival at the Little Theater, an arthouse cinema and the George Eastman House.
Not surprisingly, the weekend drew a lot of iconic women to town, each honored with the festival’s Susan B. Anthony “Failure is Impossible” Award. Angela Bassett, Norma Heyman, Diane Ladd and Christine Lahti shared honors during the week. (Previously announced recipient Naomi Foner Gyllenhall was unable to attend, although “Bee Season” screened). In receiving her award, said Bassett on ‘failure is impossible,’ “that’s definitely an attitude to have in this business and life in general.” Actress and former NEA head Jane Alexander received the festival’s “Web of Life” award stating, “We’ve come a very long way, but we still have a very long way to go.” There were also a number of filmmakers who traveled from afar including Marcella Bazzano, art director of “Live In Maid” who came from Buenos Aires and Iranian actress-filmmaker Mania Akbari, unable to attend last year because of visa issues, came this year with a series of experimental shorts.
Although the festival kicked off on Wednesday, screenings only take place in the evenings except on the weekend, which meant Saturday and Sunday, with several panels to check out, were especially jam packed with options. Living in Manhattan, and continually tripping over film shoots, one forgets about filmmaking beyond the five boroughs. Not so Saturday. An early morning panel on film financing (not surprisingly) drew a large crowd and it was standing room only at the screenwriting talk, featuring Rochester’s own, Gordy Hoffman.
According to Jerry Stoeffhaas, deputy commissioner of the New York Governor’s Office of Motion Picture and TV development (and a High Falls board member), there’s a vibrant indie film community in Western New York, second only to New York City. “After Image” (2001) with John Cougar Mellencamp, last year’s “Proud” and Stoeffhaas’ own “Cheap Shots” (1989) were all produced upstate. Stoeffhaas moderated the financing panel and shared a few explanatory words about the state’s tax incentives for local productions.
For the most part, conversation flowed freely during the panels with audience members comfortable enough to toss in their own questions and comments, to the extent that discussions occasionally veered off course. Many of the films also featured lively Q & As, including “Transamerica” (which drew applause from the local transgendered community), and docs “Being Caribou” and “Sir! No Sir!” In the case of the last two, a number of audience members stayed until the very last question listening intently about the plight of the caribou in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge and GIs against the Vietnam War, respectively.
Because the High Falls focuses on “women” it’s taken some time for locals to understand that the programming doesn’t focus on feminist or lesbian issues, nor consist entirely of weepy chick flicks. And despite a selection that included “Punk: Attitude” and “Stoned,” the audience skews older–surprising given the number of colleges in the area. Scheduling what to see can be tricky because with a few exceptions, films screen only once.
“You have to make really tough decisions to get what you want to see,” conceded artistic director Wyler, who would love to expand into more screenings. With attendance up this year, and the festival working with most every distributor for films, Wyler says the festival is right on track.
High Falls has no juries, just audience prizes for documentary and narrative. The awards went to a pair of Sunday night screenings, “Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars,” and in the narrative category, “The World’s Fastest Indian.”
For aspiring filmmakers, perhaps the best festival anecdote came from Mary Jo Godges and Renee Sotile, co-directors of “Christina McAuliffe.” Not only did local girl Sotile premiere her film in her hometown and pick up a prize, it was only back in September at another scrappy little fest that the pair first met Susan Sarandon– who ended up narrating their project.