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Fantastic Fest Diary: Why It Was Important to Me, As A Woman, To Attend Despite This Year’s Controversy

Suki-Rose Simakis wasn't sure if she was up for attending Fantastic Fest this year, but she has no regrets. This is the story of her experience on the ground.

Suki-Rose Simakis at the Fantastic Fest “Fantastic Debates” event

Editor’s note: The last few weeks have seen a series of scandals overtake the film community, starting with the allegations of sexual assault against the Cinefamily in L.A. and followed by a resurgence of problems involving sexual assault in the Alamo Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest community. Former Cinefamily staffer Suki-Rose Simakis attended Fantastic Fest this year and participated in one of its marquee events, so we asked her to share these thoughts on her experiences.

As a former employee of The Cinefamily (2008-2012), the past month has been emotionally draining, scary, and painful. When the information surfaced about the Drafthouse, I felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth, and attending Fantastic Fest took on the possibility of being incredibly scary. I remain hurt by what occurred, especially within the context of what we are dealing with at home in L.A.

It took days of personal deliberation to make a decision about whether or not I would attend and participate this year. I am not a friend of any of the men involved, last year was my first Fantastic Fest, I have no loyalty to the brand, and it wouldn’t have hurt me to stay home — in fact, it would have been the easier, more comfortable choice.

After countless conversations with the Fantastic Fest programing and operational staff, as well as more conversations with other women in the community, I made the choice to go, to occupy space, and use the opportunity to have difficult conversations. I looked at my attendance at Fantastic Fest less as the fun party-week vacation I’d intended and more as a semi-daunting responsibility.

Before even stepping foot in the South Lamar for a screening, I packed into an Airbnb along with a cavalcade of other female/non-binary members of press and industry for an unofficial pre-fest forum. The room contained a wide variety of stances on the issue, but more importantly, it contained a lot of compassion and support. We established that no one would write about or share what happened in that room, which made it an absolutely safe and acceptable place to speak openly about how we were feeling and what could be done.

Speaking only for myself, I can say that openly addressing the issues, communicating face to face, and hearing everyone out felt immensely empowering, positive, and, most importantly, productive. It drove home for me that taking this conversation out of the online space and into face-to-face environments is an incredibly powerful communication tool. It confirmed for me that the only way these conversations were going to happen was if we showed up and had them. Setting this meet up directly before the festival began meant that no woman had to walk in alone; all of us knew who we could turn to if we felt uncomfortable. It was awesome.

We settled in for the first round of films. Watching Kristen Bell — the director of Fantastic Fest, not the actress — make opening remarks (simulcast into all theaters) felt amazing for a number of reasons:

1. The first face we all saw representing the festival was a strong female one.

2. Kristen has been the director of this festival and a key figure for a long time. Allowing people to see that Fantastic Fest isn’t a bunch of bros with one token female underling felt important. It spoke to me about their commitment to the conversation. It also lead me to think that Fantastic Fest needs to have a “who we are” page on its site to highlight these facts to those who aren’t in the building. 

Her remarks were focused on the festival and the week we were heading into, but she also acknowledged the climate — as much as someone in her position could — while thanking the audience for being present and for being what Fantastic Fest is all about.

By day two, a lot of faraway Twitter speculation cropped up along the following lines: “I sure hope all those people who said they were going to Fantastic Fest to ‘have the difficult conversations’ actually are, because from where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like it/looks like it’s blown over.” My reaction to that has been one general feeling: “How dare you?”

It is unfair to expect every woman and ally here to only engage with the festival in a self-flagellating joyless bummer fest, but more importantly, it’s unproductive. I will tell you that from where I am sitting (which is actually at Fantastic Fest), this year’s festival is hinged on the difficult conversations. Over the weekend, I spent an hour and a half (feature-length, in festival time) having a difficult and productive conversation with an industry professional I know pretty well about the challenges this community is facing. While this exchange was very open, kind and constructive, it was also fairly emotional.

Midway through, we were interrupted by a procession of bagpipe-playing zombies… but, hey, that’s Fantastic Fest. No shade thrown. These polar opposite emotional experiences can inhabit the same space. Frankly, it provided a surreal moment for me and my peer, to take a breath and laugh for a moment. Again, this was just one of the many conversations I’ve had.

pin cushion fantastic fest

“Pin Cushion”

After that, I went to watch a film, “Pin Cushion,” which is the first feature from director Deborah Haywood, a stunning female coming-of-age fantasy about bullying and loneliness at all stages of life. Its overall tone of isolation — and how people can bend and twist in the face of cruelty — evoked such wonderfully visceral response that I sought out a bathroom stall to cry in for a moment before running back in for the Q&A. As someone who is often emotionally jarred by films, I’m usually comfortable with a public show of emotion, but I felt that to shed a public tear this year at Fantastic Fest was a loaded proposition.

I got wrapped up in the potential that people might think, “What happened to her? Why is she crying? Is it still safe here?”, when the reality is that a film moved me and opened up a bit of a floodgate. I chose to sit out the next round of films and take the time to prepare for my debate. This was the 10th anniversary of the festival’s Fantastic Debates, an evening of cacophonous madness where the audience watches critics, directors, actors and fans debate film-nerdy topics 1:1, and then box in a ring.

Right after watching the 2016 debates, I knew I wanted to fight in 2017. I had a partner and a topic all researched, scripted, and ready to go — but, in light of recent events, I scrapped the whole thing and started over with a concept that would allow me to speak openly and angrily about the issues in the film community.

When I submitted the title for my new debate, the organizers didn’t balk, and they didn’t try to talk me out of it. The team at Fantastic Fest gave me space to say and do what I wanted to do and what felt right to me. I am still afraid to speak openly in my own film community in L.A. at the moment, so it felt incredibly empowering.

So what did I debate? The topic was, “Women matter in the film community and we all have to do better.” Clearly, a raw nerve. I know a lot of people were concerned about what I was going to say in the ring amidst so much controversy, and especially concerned that there was someone who would argue against that. A friend — as a fictitious character — delivered “arguments” (mostly jokes) that we wrote together. It was mostly a blur to me, but numerous women grabbed me afterward to tell me they were in tears during my debate. When I watched a video of myself debating the next morning, I was in tears, too. Who is that person in my skin saying all these things that are scary but need to be said? That’s the person this environment provided space for me to inhabit.

My heart sank when I saw what some people on the internet were saying about the debate. People who weren’t there and didn’t hear me speak thought I was a prop or a mouthpiece for the festival — a festival I don’t work for, nor have any hand in other than as an attendee and debate participant, a festival I had hesitations attending in the first place, a brand to which I have no loyalty.

The backlash came from people (mostly men) who do believe they are fighting for something right, but are somehow not seeing their approach undermines the voices of women who are trying to speak out. I’ve seen comments about how we’re all doing mental gymnastics to justify being here, yet clearly none of the people making these comments watched the video from the debate or listened to what I was saying. It’s not my job to explain to men who are not here why I made the choices I made. No ally cookies will be handed out to them. These responses stood in sharp contrast to the resounding support and appreciation that I received in person at the festival after the debate. My entire day after the debates consisted of difficult conversations and emotional labor, mostly productive but draining nonetheless.

I hesitate to even publish what I have to say about it here, because I know there will be plenty of people who think they know how women should be responding to the situation and passing judgment when we don’t perform a little feminist song and dance, or do exactly what they think we should do yet are completely blind to the hypocrisy of that judgment. I am working so hard on parsing out how I should be engaging, I’m so tired, and I’m simply doing the best I can within the context of my life and the information that I have.

If I take away anything from Fantastic Fest this year, it’s that these “difficult conversations” are only really productive when they happen in person — and, these conversation are absolutely necessary because through them, progress is possible. I instigated many of these conversations at Fantastic Fest, so believe me when I say that they are happening. I see a festival that wants to do better, so I’m making it a point to keep my lines of communication open, send Fantastic Fest my thoughts on how it can do better, and continue the dialogue for next year.

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