FESTIVALS: Women Take Seattle; Foreign Directors Dominate and "Chac" Wins
by Karla Esquivel
(indieWIRE/11.20.00) --Seattle's Women and Cinema Film Festival ended its sixth season November 9th with a wide variety of films by first-time directors from around the globe. The festival is the offspring of the mammoth Seattle International Film Festival. But unlike SIFF, which seemingly programs films that have already gone through the major festival circuit, WIC offers a line-up of films by female directors that are largely undiscovered. According to festival organizer, Karen Rippel, "Many of the filmmakers were making their feature-length debuts here and at the same time most of them were foreign. Both of those factors make it difficult for them to find instant distribution."
And the foreign element was big this year. There were only a few films programmed made here in the good 'ole USA. Kim-Chi Tyler's self-exploratory documentary "Chac" did win the Lena Sharp Audience Award. This hard-hitting documentary is about an American raised Vietnamese woman's search to find her "bio-dad" in Vietnam. Tyler never lets the camera down for a minute as she struggles to seek out her identity and helm her process as a filmmaker.
The Eastern and Northern European flavor was strong at WIC this year. Sweden's "Happy End," by director Christina Olofson made its U.S. premiere at the festival. It features one of Ingmar Bergman's greatest stars, Harriet Anderson, who plays an aging woman trying to write her memoirs when a flippant young man (Stefan Norrthon) shows up on her door in search of a place to "crash." The script is sharp and surprising as it explores this very unlikely relationship between two very different people. "Happy End" picked-up the second place Lena Sharpe Audience Award, while Germany's Esther Gronenborn received third prize for her film on wayward youth, "Alaska De."
Norway's whimsical "Eye Ball" by Catrine Telle gave the audience a different perspective on filmmaking. Shot entirely in a studio with outlandish futuristic sets, the film became a visual feast for the eyes and mind as the heroine viewed her entire world in pairs, twins and doubles. Also making it's US premiere, Ayse Polat's "Tour Abroad" (Germany) told the tale of Zeki, a gay, Turkish cabaret singer who ends up caring for an ornery 11-year-old girl after her father dies. Polat's strong script is apt with humor, glitz and sensitivity.
Perhaps the most unusual aspects of the festival was the overwhelming amount of films that didn't necessarily focus on women as its subject matter -- something one would expect from a festival called "Women and Cinema." Many fest-goers bought their passes, and settled in the theater seats expecting to be courted with a manifold of women's issues. Instead, they found themselves bombarded by males in the form of subject matter. The opening night gala was even inaugurated by Lynne Ramsay's critically acclaimed "Ratcatcher," which happens to focus on a 12-year-old boy.
"I think a lot of the women were both disappointed and challenged by the strong male characters in many of the films," says Karen Rippel. "It was also interesting to see how the audience broke itself down into two groups. Women forty years and older seemed to get very upset, while the thirty-ish crowd seemed to be more tolerant and accepting. It really makes for a good discussion."
Fien Troch's "WooWW" was the highlight of the shorts package and one of those controversial films. This accelerated innovative Belgium import focused on mistreatment of women by men and boys in society. While the film is incredibly disturbing, it's social commentary is timeless. Tata Armal's Brazilian feature, "Through the Window" left the audience in an uncomfortable state, as well. This tense film centers around a mom who is sexually obsessed with her egotistical son.
Another US premiere, "Amok" by Natalia Koryncka-Gruz, focused on men playing dirty in the Polish stock exchange. The film is dangerously "Wall Street" which may be why it worked so well. Anne Wheeler's Canadian film "Marine Life" staring Cybil Shepard, dished up lots of traditional women's issues, but was ultimately a little hokey and disapointing. Catherine Jelski's "The Young Unknowns" got a rise out of women and men of all ages; many people stormed out halfway through to find solace in Seattle's damp streets.
Because men seemed to be a primary focus in several of the films, it seemed befitting to arrange a panel discussion around the "female gaze." Girl Talk, a cozy little brunch and discussion held at The Daughters of the Revolution Hall on Capitol Hill gave everyone a chance to ponder over how men have been depicted on celluloid over the past ten years. The panel, was moderated by film critic B. Ruby Rich whose book, "Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement" tackles the men on film theme. She was joined by "Alaska De's" Esther Gronenborn, "Chac's" Kim-Chi Tyler, "The Young Unknown's" Catherine Jelski and Film Comment's Kathleen Murphy.
The girls disputed over whether Harvey Keitel's naked body made him vulnerable or brutish in Jane Campion's "The Piano" and were transfixed by the opening scene of "American Psycho" in which we see Christian Bale bathing himself in consumerism. The panel also put into question why it is easier for foreign female directors to get their movies made than it is for their US counterparts. "There aren't as many expectations for European films to become commercial successes," Esther Gronenborn explained. "We essentially have more freedom."
Even though we have witnessed a minor explosion of female directors in the past few years, it's obvious that women are still the minority in the film world. Festivals like Women and Cinema opt to keep perpetuating new works from women that don't necessarily fit the stereotypical feminist mold. "Before this festival started, we were having so many internal debates on whether a festival like this needed to exist," says Karen Rippel. "By the festivals end, we felt that so many important issues had been raised that it proved that Women and Cinema is a legitimate festival that needs to be out there."
[Karla Esquivel is a Seattle-based writer.]