BRATTLEBORO -- We could all use a super hero or two right now, but if you're a young girl, who do you call? Whose example do you follow?
That question set filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan on a journey that resulted in " "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of America's Superheroines," a documentary released in 2013 that looks at the evolution of the Wonder Woman character and the ways in which she reflects larger issues of her time.
"Men still don't know what to do with her," said Guevara-Flanagan in an interview from California on Friday. She pointed out that although Wonder Woman was created in the 1940s, it wasn't until just a few years ago that Gail Simone became the first woman to write the Wonder Woman comic.
"It's important that we still look at the gross inequality in terms of representation of girls and boys," she said. "I think it still speaks to some of the issues of disparity. What are the images for women and girls to look up to? ... I do think it's important for children to have these larger-than-life heroines. What's important for girls is that this isn't just a princess that's stuck inside and doesn't get to answer the call. To see themselves as being able to save the day ... you need that on your plate. ... I think we owe it to our youth to do better."
Thus, Wonder Woman stands as something more than a campy pop culture consumer product. She can stand alongside real-life heroines as an important representation of the victories won and the work still to be done. That makes her the perfect figure to open the 23rd annual Women's Film Festival, which serves as both celebration and call to action.
"This is absolutely a celebration of the different ways women are reaching and attaining great success," said Shari, a community outreach advocate at the Women's Freedom Center, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year "We are celebrating 40 years of hard work and endless resilience as women."
Still, much work remains to be done, and it doesn't hurt to have a superheroine on your side. The 23rd annual Women's Film Festival opens Friday with a super-powered gala from 7 to 9 p.m. at the New England Youth Theatre. The gala will begin with a reception of champagne, hors d'oeuvres and music, followed by a screening of "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of America's Superheroines." Come dressed as your favorite superheroine/hero, make up your own or come as your alter-ego in "everyday" clothes.
"Come wear whatever makes you feel awesome," said Shari.
Tickets for the gala are $25 and are being sold now at womensfreedomcenter.net, click the donate button, put "gala ticket" in the message line or call the Women's Freedom Center at 802-257-7364 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proceeds benefit the Women's Freedom Center, a Windham County organization working to end domestic and sexual violence.
The festival continues through March 16, with a diverse palette of 31 films directed by, and about women. The screenings, all held at NEYT, present 17 documentaries, four feature films and 11 short films from around the world.
"It's definitely an opportunity to see the kaleidoscope of humanity on film," said festival volunteer Shanta Crowley.
Through the festival, you'll meet Ina May Gaskin, the real-life counterculture heroine, who gathered a group of women around her in the 1970s to begin delivering each other's babies and subsequently founded a communal, agricultural society ("Birth Story" screens this Sunday at 6 p.m.). And you'll meet Lorna Tychostup, a single mother and photojournalist who courageously spent several years documenting the tragic human side of the war in Iraq ( "Bordering on Treason" screens March 15). And you'll get to know Ethel Kennedy in an intimate portrait filmed by her daughter Rory, of a woman who experienced tragedy and triumph, raised 11 children after her husband Robert F. Kennedy was killed and experienced her own political awakening. "Ethel" will be presented March 14 and 16. And you'll meet "Aibaba," a Muslim woman wrestling with issues of freedom in this drama that will be shown Sunday at noon. Stay in that part of the world to meet Joumana Haddad, a controversial and complex Lebanese writer who founded the erotic magazine Jasad. The film "Jasad: Queen of Contradictions" is shown on March 15.
The festival's diverse offerings include "Big Mouth," an animated short about a girl who just can't help speaking the truth (Saturday at noon); and "Forbidden Voices," a documentary about three women who put their lives at risk and overcome censorship and suppression to keep blogging on issues of freedom in Cuba, China and Iran ("Forbidden Voices" screens Saturday at 6 p.m.).
The festival goes behind bars to give us "No Burqas Behind Bars" (Sunday at noon), a documentary about a women's prison in Afghanistan, and "Mothers of Bedford" (Sunday at 4 p.m.) about the effects of a long-term prison sentence on the mother-child relationship.
Looking at important issues of our times, the festival gives us "A Girl & A Gun," which examines gun ownership and gun control through the eyes of American women gun owners (March 14 and 16). Issues of sustainability, prosperity and trade are probed in "From Zimbabwe to Santa Fe" (March 16). "How to Lose Your Virginity" (Saturday at 8 p.m.) deals with the world of issues around virginity in our sex-obssessed culture. "My So-Called Enemy" (Saturday at 4 p.m.) covers six Palestinian and Israeli girls committed to justice and mutual understanding. "I Am a Girl" (Saturday at noon and March 16) is an extraordinary film about what it means to be a girl on the brink of womanhood in different parts of the world in the 21st century.
Turning from the political to the personal, an important festival offering is "Mondays at Racine" (Sunday at 8 p.m.) about a group of women with cancer who gather at a hair salon monthly to gossip, laugh, cry, face fears and discover what's beautiful about them. "Lace Bite" (March 15) documents a charity hockey game born out of a promise to a dying friend and a call to do something for worthy cause.
Marching hand-in-hand with all these films and all the issues they represent is the festival's mission to present films made by women, who are still dramatically underrepresented as artistic voices in the film industry and mass media.
"We share the world in real-life. We should share the cameras, the storytelling roles," said Shari. "We still have work to do, and we still need the Women's Film Festival."
And that "we" means all of us, not just women. Men are certainly an important group of allies for the Women's Freedom Center and have always been a key part of the Women's Film Festival audience.
"These aren't women's issues, these are human rights issues," said Crowley.
Tickets for movies are $8 for general admission, $7 for students and seniors. A five-movie pass is available for $35. Passes may be purchased at womensfreedomcenter.net (once on the website, click the donate button, put "film pass" in the message line and we'll mail them out to you; or by calling the Women's Freedom Center at 802-257-7364.
For more information, visit womensfreedomcenter.net/newsevents/womens-film-festival/2014