Dispatch from Europe: Creating a Community of Female Filmmakers, From London's Birds Eye and Beyond
by Wendy Mitchell
[ EDITORS NOTE: This is the first "Dispatch from Europe" column from indieWIRE's London correspondent, Wendy Mitchell. ]
Yesterday marked International Women's Day, but there wasn't much reason to celebrate the female side of the film business. The infamous statistic tells us that women currently represent only 7 percent of film directors and it's hard to find a woman as celebrated as the Scorseses (or even the Solondz-es) of the world (Sofia Coppola does not a trend make). Still, there was one ray of light in London yesterday as a new film festival, Bird's Eye View, kicked off its inaugural fest celebrating "emerging women directors."
Bird's Eye View isn't the first, or the biggest, women's festival - festivals have been running anywhere from Minsk to Minneapolis (literally) for decades. But Bird's Eye View is already attracting quite a bit of attention. Its patrons include Joanna Lumley, Mike Figgis, and Anthony Minghella. Jerry Hall presided over the opening night, and there have been a number of news reports about the festival screening of artist Tracey Emin's controversial debut feature film, "Top Spot." (The film is about teenage girls and includes a graphic suicide scene, but the British Board of Film Classification gave it an 18 rating and Emin therefore withdrew it from distribution -- yet the festival will be able to screen it for 16-year-olds on Saturday).
Festival director Rachel Millward says she wanted to start Bird's Eye View because while she was producing short films with Pinny Grylls, "We were aware of the lack of role models, particularly women in creative roles." They wanted to focus on female writers and directors, rather than women in more technical roles, because the directors are akin to "culture formers." "We're not hearing stories from this half of society, and that's what bothers me," Millward tells indieWIRE.
The festival took off rather organically; Millward and Grylls made a short film and planned to premiere it in 2002 at the Curzon Theatre in London's Soho; they invited a few other women to show their shorts that night as well. They presented occasional programs of women's short films in the next two years, and last year took one Bird's Eye program on the road to 10 U.K. cities. But this year marks the first proper festival. "We just had a terrific response, it was really clear immediately that this needed to happen," Millward says. The fest got 500 submissions this year, impressive for any upstart.
This festival aimed for diversity within the female filmmaking community. Anyone who thinks "women's films" means either a week of "Steel Magnolias" or an onslaught of feminist doctrine need not worry. The festival has the world premiere of Kim Longinotto's new documentary "Cameroon Stories," Chinese director Xiao Jiang's feature debut "Electric Shadows," Shona Auerbach's drama "Dear Frankie," and a wide range of shorts (including Andrea Arnold's recent Oscar winner "WASP.") Panels, parties, a bring-a-baby screening, and a live music event will also bring in crowds. "We made this program with a wide-ranging approach," Millward says. "I think some festivals might alienate certain groups of women." And of, course, nobody wants male audience members to feel alienated either. As Millward points out, "93 percent of the films I watch are made by men and I enjoy them, so it's odd if men can't watch films made by women."
Emily Man, producer of Candida Scott Knight's short "Mercy" is proud to be involved in Bird's Eye View. "We need to build up women's confidence and their access to all areas of filmmaking," she says. As a producer, in particular, she is looking forward to networking at this week's event. "I hope to develop my feeling of community," she says. "Good film can usually only be achieved by harmony of vision and that in turn can only come from a strong community."
The days seem to be gone -- thankfully -- when a women's film festival was considered creating a ghetto for women's film, in the same way that gay and lesbian film festivals have grown in importance. The first women's festivals started about 30 years ago, and several European events have been running for decades, including Créteil International Women's Film Festival in France, Assen in the Netherlands, and Florence in Italy.
There are dozens in North America as well. The Women's Film Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont, is happening now, in fact. Soon, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will host its annual Women with Vision festival, in May. Festival organizer Sheryl Mousley says women don't NEED their own festivals, but that their event (now in its 12th year) has become a way to celebrate great work. "It is refreshing to see, over a good length of time -- 3 weeks at our festival -- works by international women directors because it shows a contemporary observation of the world through documentaries and drama that proves to be very engaging for the audience. This is not unlike any unifying festival context (American independents, Latin American cinema) that presents a distinct voice."
Noreen Golfman, chair of the board of the St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival, said that in addition to showcasing work, inspiring the next generation is also crucial. "A festival like ours has inspired women to pick up a camera or pen a script," she says. That festival will celebrate its 16th edition in October.
Of course, no festival can change the statistics alone, and that's why they usually work with other groups that support women filmmakers. In New York Women Make Movies has been around since 1972. And the Bird's Eye organizers have created The Nest, which they hope will keep women's film supporters in the loop year round, alongside other groups like the U.K.'s Women in Film & TV. The latter group is working with United International Pictures for Directing Change, a U.K. program created three years ago to help women directors make bigger-budget films.
Those could very well be the women that we see at the fifth-annual Bird's Eye View festival. But for now, Bird's Eye can be proud to know that it sold out its first opening night - a great end to International Women's Day.
[ For more information, please visit: http://www.birds-eye-view.co.uk. ]