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Guest Post: Why I Started the San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival

Guest Post: Why I Started the San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival

The genesis of founding the San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival started when I took a Film History II class in 2004 while earning my film degree at San Francisco State University. The focus of the course was to study the 1950’s and present day cinema and during the entire semester, we were never shown a film made or directed by a woman. There was never a discussion about female filmmakers, nor was there ever a topic of reading that covered the matter.

I began to wonder where on earth were the Janis Joplins’, Shirley Muldowneys’, and Rosa Parks’ of Cinema? I thought this was a huge oversight on behalf of the Cinema Department. Granted, I do not think that the deficit in the curriculum was intentional, but somehow our voices as women were left out of the history books all together. Having said that, there was never a shortage of lists, notes, comments, books, thoughts and theories about the top ten male directors. Every film fanatic and cinephile alike had an opinion of who those men were, and more importantly, whether those opinions differed was besides the point of this level of comfort in connecting men and film.

The beautiful part of this journey is that this initial lack of the female voice in cinema is that ultimately fueled my investigation into women’s role in cinema. What I found out was fascinating. Women, in fact, have been a part of movie making history since the birth of cinema in 1896. The more I began to delve into women’s filmmaking, the more I uncovered and the more fascinated I became.

From early women of Hollywood to fierce Do-It-Yourself Indie female filmmakers; to Alice Guy-Blaché’s very first narrative film La Fée aux Choux to Kinuyo Tanaka, who was the first Japanese woman director with her movie Koibumi (Love Letters); and to the most commonly known female filmmaker story: Kathryn Bigelow’s big Oscar win for Best Director, in which she claimed the “First Ever Female to Win Best Director” title for her groundbreaking work on The Hurt Locker.

Women not only helped in the creation of the cinematic language we know today, but they were also responsible for technological advancements in filmmaking. For instance, the monumental moment when Dorothy Arzner suggested to a soundman that he should attach a microphone to a fish pole as a way to better capture voice quality from the actors. This is what filmmakers know today as a boom mic, and it is easily one of the most crucial, universal tools on the film set. Who knew a female was behind such a deeply embedded piece of film technology? Few, if any. These are some of the many triumphant feats of female filmmaking that should no longer be left out of history books. According to Ally Acker, Author of Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, “There were more women working in creative and influential positions before 1920 than at any other time in movie history.”

It is time to empower women again and reintroduce creative career options to females of all ages.  

One theory why women have been shut out of the studio system was the advent of the unions in the studio era. The Library Congress web archive of The Studio Era: Women Behind the Camera, report that, “As positions in the film industry became specialized and codified during the studio era, unions were formed, creative decisions were made by production heads, and the women who had flourished behind the camera were shut out of positions of power and prestige. Women remained in lesser capacities, for example as editors, but the ranks of women directors and producers were decimated. The days when a secretary could become a director overnight disappeared forever.” I think these obstacles still remain for women and as long as we still have gatekeepers that shut women out of the studio system, few women are going to get the opportunity to direct. There is a belief that directing is a man’s job and it is embedded in our culture. As long as this remains rampant the number of women directing in Hollywood will still remain very low. I think on a much deeper level this attitude is not just limited for film, but bleeds into all fields of study: medicine, science, sports and technology. Somehow people think that since women’s liberation happened there’s nothing to fight for, but I think the fight is more important than ever.

The people that say that women’s stories or productions aren’t box office or they aren’t marketable to the mainstream have missed the mark on so many levels and limiting potential revenue, since the movie making is a business and needs to make money to thrive. I think if we are still operating from a marketing plan that is directed toward one audience/demographic we are losing and underestimating our audiences that are hungry for more diversified/multi-dimensional stories and characters. 

As I have a deep appreciation for these women and their accomplishments, I believe it is time that women get the credit they most deserve. This credit needs to go beyond the history books and articles, and find its rightful place amongst daily discussions in film courses, Oscar nomination buzz, friendly debates between friends and blog posts. As an artist and storyteller, I’m a tireless advocate for supporting and raising awareness on the importance of women having access to leadership roles behind the camera.  I do this everyday.  Every waking minute of my life is devoted to promoting this message.

Before the SF International Women’s Film Festival began in 2005, I did not have the slightest idea on how to host a festival. However, what I did know was that this was a call to action that I needed to take. Yes, there were obstacles, and still to this day it is an absolute fight that is nowhere near its end like when sources of funding dries up.  Like any indie film director, everything is on the line when one produces a festival and needs to get it off the ground each year. This is risky business. Why would anyone do this you ask? My answer is simple. When the theater is buzzing, the lights dim and the audiences are given the opportunity to rediscover cinema all over again from the films we present, there is nothing else that compares. This is my drug, and each year, I keep chasing after that high. When things get bleak and seem impossible, I think about a quote from director Ida Lupino on directing, “You just got your backside in there, baby, and you did it!”

Come join us in SF from April 13-15.

More info here.


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Thanks for the great article Scarlett. I produce a women's film fest in March with the Denver Film Society called VOICES. We just wrapped our second year. You and the crew who produce The Athena Film Fest and Citizen Jane are all my inspirations!

Kate Kaminski

Great piece! We know this struggle – and then some – we've just started a women director's screening series ( in Portland, ME that requires all submitted (short) films be directed by a woman AND "pass" the Bechdel Test. Talk about going out on a very fragile limb: we're finding it very difficult to find films that comply with our criteria. Despite the fact that it often feels like we're pushing a very large boulder uphill, we feel very inspired by the story of your festival – thank you!


Thanks for sharing this background on the birth of the festival–I've always admired it from afar and haven't had the chance to attend. I teach film at Stephens College (Columbia, Missouri), one of the few women's colleges with a film production major, and I when I first started teaching film theory classes I was immediately struck at how few women are ever mentioned in the most popular film textbooks and journals. It's also what inspired us to start the Citizen Jane Film Festival and you capture so well the issues we discuss (and love the Ida quote) and the film industry we prepare our students to enter and hopefully change. Best of luck with your fest this year and thanks very much for all that you and your team (and Women in Hollywood) do for female filmmakers!

Kati H

I was in San Francisco too early! Visited for the first time a couple weeks ago and saw posters for the Women's Film Festival, was sad to miss it. Have a great time this year though, I'm sure it'll be a success!

I do think just a couple people, in the right place and the right time, can have a huge huge impact. When progress is made in the industry make sure and credit yourself for your part in it. In the meantime, I guess those of us who want to see more movies past the Bechdel test and more women behind the cameras, as well, need to be loud in letting our demands be known. Supply and demand, after all.

On this subject, did everyone click the Damsels in Distress banner if you got it for this article? What a bizarre and intriguing looking film that I haven't even heard of. Great female ensemble cast BUT written and directed by a male (which is fine, too). But there ya go.


Thanks. I am so sick of seeing the distortion of women (and the world) that movie men have agreed is reality that I seldom go to movies anymore. It is really too bad that half the population has been frozen out of participating in film.


Thank you for taking the time to share this. Inspiring…

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