Women's Fest Matures with 2nd Outing
by Andrea Meyer
Mission accomplished. The 2nd annual New York Women's Film Festival,
which took place at Manhattan's Screening Room April 22-26, has done
what it set out to do -- showcase and celebrate the full spectrum of
women's films. Sara Goodman, Executive Director of the festival,
explains, "A lot of people think that women make one kind of film, but
we wanted to show that women are interested in all kinds of film."
Goodman feels, "Hollywood offers so-called women's films that are either
tearjerkers or romantic comedies," and hopes the festival will help to
defuse this notion.
In keeping with the focus on women as serious filmmakers, the festival's
atmosphere has altered significantly since last year. The glamorous
girlishness of last year's opening night bash, for example, bolstered in
part by sponsors Max Factor and Allure Magazine, was nowhere to be
found. Rather than free make-overs and sponsor-approved goodie bags of
nail polish, lipstick, and Allure Magazines, guests at this year's lower
key opening night party got only Absolut cocktails eased down their
throats. Current sponsors include ICM, Kodak, MovieFone, October Films/
Universal Pictures, Caesar & Washburn, New Line Cinema/ Fine Line
Features, and the New York Times. If last year's festival was an
adolescent struggling to find her place in the cool crowd, this event
felt like a more mature young woman getting down to work, and the film
program benefitted from the transition.
Beginning with a glance back at Dorothy Arzner, one of Hollywood's first
woman directors, the festival opened with her 1929 film and Paramount's
first talky, "The Wild Party," about a ballsy college girl who makes out
indiscriminately with frat boys while dreaming of a more serious kind of
love. The portrayal of female bonding, competitiveness, and aspirations
in a man's world feels surprisingly modern despite the overdramatized
emotions and flapper dresses. This classic provided a perfect
introduction to this filmic femme fest.
Fast forward into the early eighties and you might end up with
"Whatever," Susan Skoog's retro coming of age story in which another set
of girls get groped by horny blockheads while dreaming of romance. These
not so sweet young things, however, are only in high school and their
sex lives involve more than necking at the prom. The film, which will be
released by Sony Pictures Classics in July, explores the hazy period
between childhood and adulthood in the era before AIDS and the health
craze scared a generation into abstinence and fear. Similar themes are
approached in Julie Lynch's "Remembering Sex," a gritty 90's look at
another group of women - these babes graduated from college but still
wrestle with sexual identity, substance abuse, and the precarious
balance between loyalty and competition within female friendships.
Following The Young Woman's Search for Identity, the second most popular
theme of the festival was The Search for Creative Voice. Both "Whatever"
and "Remembering Sex" feature heroines who are painters, as does Agnes
Merlet's "Artemisia". The French drama, which opens this week at the
Angelika, tells the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a talented 16th
century painter who dared to transcend her woman's station to explore
both artistic creation and sexual passion. The creative process is also
examined in Alison Swan's "Mixing Nia" about a woman of mixed racial
background who quits her job as a copy writer to write a novel. The
creative excavation necessary to fulfill this ambition forces Nia to
confront her racial identity as a key to her creative voice.
Complementing the forays into self analysis, there were also films that
found non-dramatic methods to approach the questions, "Who are we as
women and how can we express ourselves?" Demetria Royals' "Conjure
Women" delves into the work and world views of four African American
artists who use their work to reclaim their African roots: choreographer
and dancer Anita Gonzalez, performance artist Robbie McCauley,
photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and singer/ songwriter Cassandra Wilson.
Sharon Lockhart finds beauty and symmetry in the unlikely setting of a
Japanese gym class in her experimental study "Goshogaoka." Calisthenics
and basketball drills are viewed through a fixed camera resulting in an
abstract meditation on the aesthetic and cultural implications of movement.
If identity and creativity make up the festival's backbone, two of the
most compelling films in the program dance around those themes at a
refreshing distance. Australian director Samantha Lang's "The Well"
explores the way identity can be altered by others. From the moment that
Hester, the uptight daughter of a farmer (Pamela Rabe), brings the
lively young Katherine (Miranda Otto) to work in her home, her destiny
and character are forever changed. This eerie tale of trust, betrayal,
morality and madness becomes increasingly unsettling as the narrative
mysteriously unfolds. In "The Sticky Fingers of Time" by Hilary
Brougher, another strange friendship emerges between two women who have
the capacity to travel through time. In this Twilight Zone-esque chick
flick, the lives of a writer from the 50's (Terumi Matthews) and one
from the 90's (Nicole Zaray) collide as these two confused "time freaks"
bop through time to save each other's lives and fictions.
Dedicated to exposing the diversity, both in subject matter and style,
of women's filmic achievements, the festival programmers rounded out
their program with a selection of shorts, a quirky experimental program,
a cozy little get-together for 400 at Nell's where 26 music videos by
women were screened, a reading of "Surf," a screenplay by Kris Lefcoe,
and tributes to noteworthy filmmakers Faith and Emily Hubley, Nancy
Savoca, and Beth B.
Standouts in the shorts series were Erin Cramer's "Bad Bosses go to
Hell" a funny fantasy about what we'd like to do to those creeps who
boss us around; Elizabeth Shub's "Cuba 15," a documentary about a Cuban
girl's celebrated fifteenth birthday, her symbolic first day of
womanhood. (This film shared the Kodak Award for Best Short Film with
Julie Murray's experimental "If you Stand with your Back to the Slowing
of the Speed of Light in Water."); and Debra Granik's "Snake Feed,"a
verité piece about a mother's struggle. The highlight of the lengthy
experimental program was Jenni Olson's melancholy and extraordinarily
well-written "Blue Diary" in which a lesbian's voice recounts a
romanticized one night stand with a straight girl over images of
desolate streets. Also, adding allure to this year's event was the
Young Filmmaker Scholarship awards. Wynona Ryder presented the
fellowship to two High School students, Heather Wahba and Erin Sheroni,
which consists of full tuition to NYU's Summer Film Workshop.
Despite organizational glitches like late screenings, clogged lobbies,
and projectionist gaffes, the festival seems to have pleased its masses.
Weekend and evening programs were generally sold out, and attendance
increased slightly from last year.