Women's Film Festival celebrates 25th anniversary


BRATTLEBORO >> Think "silver," because this March, the Women's Film Festival, an annual fundraiser for the Women's Freedom Center, celebrates its 25th year of showing films by and about women. All 38 films, from 16 different countries, will be shown at New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat Street in Brattleboro.

The festival opens March 11 with a gala champagne-and-hors d'oeuvres reception, followed by a screening of "Mavis!" This film, according to the festival write-up, is the first documentary about legendary gospel and soul music singer Mavis Staples, now 75, and her family, the Staples Singers, who were active in the Civil Rights movement. She has recently performed locally.

Tickets for the gala are available online at http://womensfreedomcenter.net (Directions say "Click on the 'Donate' button, and you'll be redirected to our Paypal page, put 'gala ticket in the message line, and we'll mail them out to you.") or by calling the Women's Freedom Center at 802-257-7364. Attendees are encouraged to dress up, said Shari (no last names are used at the Women's Freedom Center) and "come out and have a fabulous time. It's a great chance to celebrate at the tail-end of winter."

The Women's Freedom Center, formerly the Women's Crisis Center, is a domestic and sexual violence resource agency founded in 1974, and serving Windham and southern Windsor counties. According to the website, "We are a feminist organization committed to offering support and advocacy to survivors of violence, as well as prevention and educational activities to help create a community in which violence is not tolerated."

Work on the festival goes on year-round.

The festival has certainly grown," Shari said. "The word has gone out, and with the growth of online resources and our inter-connectedness, we receive films, by package or electronically, from around the world."

A selection committee composed of Women's Freedom Center board members chooses the films, she said. They want to showcase vibrant female filmmakers who tell stories about women's lives from a woman's point of view. They look for breadth of themes, countries, and perspectives, and pick the best of a range of voices.

"There is a direct link," Shari said, "between women's experiences, the kind of work the Center does, and this broader backdrop of media, film in particular. For all the progress we've made as women over the last 20 years, there's been hardly any increase in the number of female directors. Ninety-five percent of 'box office' films come from the white, straight, western male perspective."

Of movies made in 2014 by the six major film studios, she added, six were directed by women and 124 by men, yet women graduate from film school in almost equal numbers to men. Female writers and filmmakers are squeezed out of the filmmaking process later on. One major concern is access to financing, which is still held primarily in the hands of men, and when they hire, they usually look to other men.

Mainstream commercial media recycle the same plot lines repeatedly, Shari said. The way these films treat gender stereotypes — hypersexualized and hyperviolent — creates a toxic divide between the genders. Female characters are usually seen rather than heard. If a female character has a speaking part in a male-made film, she is four times more likely to be hypersexualized than a male character with a speaking part in a male-made film. A female director is 10 times more likely than a male director to have a female protagonist.

"Film is a defining force in our culture," Shari said, "and because women don't have access to co-creating it, they can't help to shape those cultural conversations from a woman's perspective. Women are 50 percent of the planet's population. They should be able to tell their own stories. That's what people find so inspiring when they come to this film festival. They tell us they like seeing spirited protagonists, women and girls they can look up to. The films treat women and girls with more dignity and compassion than we're used to seeing on screen. It's like wearing corrective lenses."

Festival highlights include "Mustang," a Golden Globe-nominated drama (Turkey/France) about five sisters in rural Turkey who, although confined to their grandmother's house and facing arranged marriages, share a passion for freedom; "Something Better to Come," (Russia) a documentary about Yula, a girl growing up on a huge garbage dump; and "Joanna," (Poland), an Oscar-nominated documentary about a woman, who is also a mother, facing a devastating diagnosis of cancer.

"It is a true privilege and pleasure to host this film festival every year," Shari said. "Women are behind the camera for a change. These are films about every human experience, offering sensitive portrayals of humanity.

"Everyone is welcome at this film festival," she continued. "There is nothing anti-male about the festival. We welcome men in the audience to show solidarity with the women in their lives and around the world. The festival celebrates resilience and inspiration and the ways in which we're all connected."

Tickets for each showing are $8.50 at the door ($7.50 for students/seniors) or $35 for a five-show pass. Passes are available at Everyone's Books in Brattleboro or World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Mass. Film goers are advised to arrive 15 minutes before show time. Please note: The festival's films should generally be considered "for mature audiences only," at a rating of at least PG-13 or stronger, and are not meant for young children. Parents are advised to use their own judgment. Information on films and screening times is available at www.womensfilmfestival.org.

Nancy Olson can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.


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