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The Status of Women’s Film Festivals

The Status of Women's Film Festivals

One of the reasons I went to Colgone to the International Frauen Film Festival was to be a part of a dialogue on the status of women’s films festivals.  The festival invited Skadi Loist a researcher from the Media and Communications Studies Department at the University of Hamburg who has done research on film festivals throughout the world.  She is also the co-founder of the Film Festival Research Network.

She started off the conversation with a presentation: Social Change?! The status of Women’s Film Festivals today. 

She agreed to let me publish her presentation.  (Please note with her permission I have done some work on the translation where necessary)

I was very intrigued by the proposition to introduce a discussion, or conversation about the status quo of Women’s film festivals (WFFs). But then, on second thought, how to start on this vast topic? What to tell that most of you don’t know about, already?

Independently of the specifics of each individual WFF, I think it is safe to say they all came about because one woman, or a group of women, decided in a particular place and time to do something about the perceived and real inequality of the sexes, to do about the lack of representations, and the lack of films by and about women.

The first WFFs started in the early 1970s, many of them are now defunct [New York (1972-80), Toronto (1973)], the oldest still running is Creteil (1979); Köln’s former festival Feminale dates back to 1984, Dortmund’s Femme Total to 1987. Yet, the time of WFFs is far from over. Many festivals have been founded in the last few years – not only in Asia or South America, but also in North America and Europe.  Then and now, these festivals were started by filmmakers, students or critics of feminist film theory. WFFs, in their core carry an element of activism, feminist activism. They are fueled by a drive for social change; by an urge to create a counterpublic sphere, a place where women can meet, defy sexist (and heteronormative) social conventions, form a group or network and mobilize around issues of feminism.

This being said, and despite this common denominator for WFFs, there is also a multitude of different shapes that film festivals with a feminist core can take. The particular individual formation of a WFF depends on many factors, such as the social and societal surroundings, local and regional politics, the particular trend of feminist discussion in each place, the conditions for women in film in each production context, the availability of resources, the commitment of women to start and continue to run a festival etc. (I am sure we can compare and differentiate festivals when we talk with numerous women in attendance.)

There seems to be a resurgence in WFFs, but many of them focus on a niche: lesbian, regional, race: Queer Women of Color FF (SF), Intl Black Women’s FF (SF) Images of Black Women: African Descent Women in Cinema (London, UK), Network of Asian Women’s Film Festival; Bluestocking Film Series (USA) (films must pass the Bechdel Test)

No matter how old or young a particular WFF is, there is one question that will return constantly: Why do we need a WFF and what are the functions it should serve? Rather than give definitive answers I want to briefly speak to 5 issues and raise a few questions around the keywords of 1) counterpublics, 2) feminist movement, 3) networking, 4) ghetto, 5) professionalization.


I have already mentioned the initial motivation of WFFs: to provide a space for work by, for and about women. To create a community. To offer a place for networking, discussion and collaboration. This counterpublic sphere has the advantage of setting women’s work apart.  WFFs can function as a “safe space” for feminist film and its reception. Films by women, films that often provide a different perspective compared to mainstream/male-centered film, often have a harder time entering certain platforms. WFFs offer not only a screen, but also a specific kind of reception context – through framing introductions and Q+As for these works. They enable viewers (regardless of gender) to learn, practice and experience a reception in solidarity. This means, the work can be presented and considered outside of mainstream norms of film reception that still often have a tendency (if they are not outright) sexist and heteronormative.

That a place for a female/feminist perspective is urgently needed, shows the Bechdel test. A test invented by queer-feminist comic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985. To pass the Bechdel test, a film must comply to the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man (for more than a few seconds). It is surprising how few films pass the test and thus how obvious the underrepresentation of women and their lives in the movies is. This often goes in tandem with the lack of women in the position of script writers or directors.

Feminist movement

Just like other film festivals – in a growing landscape of literally several thousands of film festivals worldwide – WFFs need to legitimize their existence towards funders, politicians, filmmakers and distributors. There are constant threats from the side of public funders, who would love to cut funding for an event deemed outdated to make space for something new and hip in the cultural landscape, some new pet topic or important cause. In their logic: haven’t we overcome the differences of the sexes and reached equality?
Another other side of criticism – one that might be harder to deal with than the old arguments from mainstream politics – is the conservative backlash to feminism that can be perceived in many places (especially in the West), a backlash coming from men as well as women.

WFFs have always been part of or at least existed in close relation to feminist movements. Thus, the discussions that took place within the movement have often been mirrored by the festivals. The counterpublic space was at times a battlefield of the movement. What are the discussions and struggles in feminism today? Today there are again different factions: on one end, there are the young post-feminist women suggesting that they are beyond feminism, love their men, and can handle having kids and a career (in Germany this was the Alpha-Girl wave a few years back).

On the other, end of the spectrum the question is: Does feminism actively counter inequality, which also means to counter exclusions on the basis of class, race, dis/ability and other factors that are part of a system of inequality beyond the single issue politics under the sign “woman”? (In this respect one indicator on how to answer this question might be the fact that WFFs differentiate even further nowadays, to which several Black WFFs or queer Women of Color FFs attest.)

For WFFs then, the question arises: What is the scope and context in which these festivals can do their part to bring about social change? Do they still see themselves as part of social activism beyond the screen?


Like other festivals, WFFs create a space for filmmakers, distributors, film professionals within the film industry. Festivals provide a space for networking, for interaction, transaction. The Int’l WFF here in Köln is an excellent example. Beyond the presentation of films to an audience, there is a multitude of events in side programs: film practice classes, educational screenings, discussions as the one we are at right now…

Again, I would argue this is a much needed space for an alternative route of professional collaboration. It is a safe haven for women in film, who might struggle to get their voices heard at “regular” events. It is also a place where various organizations meet: programmers from other (women’s or queer) film festivals attend, exchange ideas about festival organization and programming; specialized distributors attend (e.g. WMM); specialized professional organizations (such as Women in Film & Television Germany e.v.) and specialized archives (such as Bildwechsel) use this platform; film critics and theorists with a feminist angle attend etc. It is a great opportunity for exchange and the mutual support of the sector.

Niche /Ghetto

Despite the positive intentions in highlighting the work by women, and the creation of a counterpublic sphere is that WFFs are accused of being niche events that pigeonhole female directors, put them in the ghetto rather than help them be equal to their male colleagues. The accusation of ghettoization is still unresolved – and likely cannot be resolved by WFFs themselves.

WFFs offer a wide range of strong work by women whereas the power-broker festivals (such as for instance Berlin, Cannes, Venice) often show dismal numbers in terms of participation of women. Melissa Silverstein from “Women and Hollywood”– in attendance – just pointed out yesterday again on her blog that this year’s Cannes festival lineup has no women (0/21) in the main competition and only 2/17 in the section Un Certain Regard. Melissa suggests that programmers for the larger festivals should work harder and find films by women. I do fully agree with this, but I am not as optimistic that WFFs will be the place to serve the function of discovery. At least not the way the international film festival circuit is set up currently.

WFFs lose the competition for premieres and discoveries. Women filmmakers, who first want to be seen a filmmakers and only secondly as women, will most likely opt for the larger festival run in hopes for wider attention. The films presented there will trickle down to smaller festivals and into niche / specialized circuits (as women’s film festivals; LGBTQ festivals, genre festivals etc.). [Melissa’s other suggestion: introduce (voluntary) quotas, might be the way to go. Although I’m not very optimistic these will come about soon.]

Professionalization vs. a unique format?

What are the realities of running a large, long established WFFs? A festival like the one here in Köln is competing with other mid-sized festivals on the national level. Within the specialized circuit of WFFs it is certainly one of the biggest and oldest. Yet, the funding is under threat – and will always be as far as the general festival landscape is going. What are the options for a creative future?
Following the argument that WFFs cannot compete with larger festivals (on a certain level), a provocative question might be: why even try? WFFs – at least the ones of a certain age and growth – seem to have reached an organizational level that demands professionalization and corporatization.

Many activist festivals – also WFFs – have started out as collectively run volunteer endeavors. Without a doubt the (seeming) security of guaranteed funding has many benefits: it minimizes loss of organizational knowledge and memory, expertise and contacts, as is often the case at volunteer-run festivals because of the fluctuation of personnel, since people do not have the resources to work for free long-term, but instead leave to put their energy into generating a paid job and career. The secured infrastructure and organizational growth, however, often comes with many ties and demands. Funding is only granted when certain political directives are followed, the festival creates fundable side bars and programs (education, human rights, or niche marketing). Thus, in a radical (and not necessarily strictly serious) vein, one could ask: why play by the corporate rules that demand a certain style of film, a star with red carpet performance, an educational element?

Is the festival really the right format to achieve the goals? If it is networking: why not use the great networks that exist? If it is about representation: why not have a permanent platform for women’s work – as provided by niche distributors or dedicated digital platforms?

The most important question to answer from this.  What can and do WFFs provide and do differently than other festivals?  Would love to hear your thoughts.

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