“I wish there was more female work to see in the theater,” says Brooklyn, New York, filmmaker Arielle Javitch. “I’m bewildered by the scarcity of women directors.”
So where are all the female filmmakers?
They’re not at the multiplex: Not a single blockbuster already playing or still to come this summer is the work of a female director, not even the girliest of fare like “Sleepover” or “The Princess Diaries 2”. You’ll find a couple, maybe, at the arthouse — one of The Corporation‘s codirectors is female; Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair” is coming in September.
It’s not that there aren’t women making films… as the second annual Reel Venus Film Festival, at New York City’s Symphony Space this month, ably demonstrates. With a diverse collection of 60 film and video shorts from new and established women filmmakers from the U.S. and abroad, this is a celebration of women making film… and a cry for wider audiences for women’s voices.
One could hardly call Javitch’s first film, “No One,” screening during the three-day festival, which runs from July 20th through the 22nd, typical of the female voice — there is, of course, no “typical” female voice anymore than there is a “typical” male voice. But it is emblematic of the broad range of startling fresh perspectives Reel Venus offers by sheer dint of allowing women filmmakers space — the physical space of a screen in a darkened theater as well as the emotional and cultural space away from the “maze of politics” festival director and curator Melissa Fowler terms the “boys’ club” of the studio-and-indie movie machine. The nonnarrative, 14-and-a-half-minute “No One” is a striking visual ballet of loneliness and death, a montage of images — women trudging through snow, a girl dancing by herself in a bombed-out building, a blank headstone in a cemetery — that overwhelm the viewer suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s not that a man couldn’t have made a film that resonates quite the way this one does… but one hasn’t.
“I have always wondered if women have a different way of seeing the world,” says filmmaker Sarah Hanssen, an NEA Artist-in-Residence at the Children’s Media Project in Poughkeepsie, New York. “By showcasing our films together we’ll get a chance to see what our shared perspectives are.” Her Reel Venus entry, the nonnarrative “Sarah Nye,” is an evocative, impressionistic portrait of one woman’s life, a perfect example of the “originality, uninhibitedness, and honesty” that Fowler looks for when accepting a film for the Reel Venus showcase. But it’s also a decidedly feminine outlook on the people and places that make up not just a woman’s life but any life, focusing poignantly on tendrils of human interaction that define us.
Fowler does not seek out only those films that tell women’s stories, and indeed Reel Venus features many works that could, for lack of a better term, be called gender neutral, devoid of issues specifically relating to gender issues: Benita Raphan’s “The Critical Path” is an eloquent and innovative 13-minute biography of Buckminster Fuller; Cara Marisa Deleon’s “Convulse” is a hypnotic meditation on the mundanity of everyday objects; Jill Johnson-Price’s “Bludren” is a dazzling animated head trip through a psychedelic garden; Julia Haslett’s “Flooded,” by turns oddly soothing and weirdly compelling, simply observes the rising floodwaters around a suburban home while the occupants try to figure out how to receive expected guests without them getting their shoes wet. But it’s only to be expected that, as filmmaker Frances Nkara puts it, a festival like Reel Venus would “allow women to come out of the personal ghetto and create a public presence with their perspective.” And many of the shorts at Reel Venus do, indeed, explore female views of everything from pop culture and politics to getting well and growing old, and the full range of life and living in between. Organized into nine programming blocks running over three evenings — with themes such as “The Price of Unity,” “Some Kinda Woman,” and “Agents of Change and the Fragility of Life” — Reel Venus will showcase shorts including:
= Nkara’s Reel Venus piece, Downpour Resurfacing, which has also screened at Sundance and been broadcast by PBS as part of its “Independent Lens” series, is a melancholy, ironic, but ultimately hopeful exploration of one man’s recovering from childhood abuse.
= Zoe Neirizi’s stark and chilling “The Corridor,” set during and after the Iranian uprising against the shah 1981, is a horrifying tale of totalitarianism and its particularly harsh affect on women when it comes cloaked in religious fanaticism.
= Belle”, from Ruth Sergel, whose work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art and on the Independent Film Channel, is a touching look at lonely old age, quietly shocking in its frankness
= Tina Fallon’s Venus and Lola: Behind the Phenomenon, which won Best Comedic Short at the Hollywood.com Indie Film Festival, is a hilarious mockumentary and girl-power metaphor about a 60s flower-child folk musician and her “subconscious Freudian id”… that is, her singing vagina.
= Faith Pennick’s Running on Eggshells, the Cape Cod Film Society’s Best Film for 2004, is an incisive portrait of a tightly wound businesswoman’s emotional breakdown.
Pennick was drawn to film by 1995’s “Hoop Dreams,” which “awakened me to the visceral power of filmmaking,” she says. “I thought, if I could make a film half as brilliant, it’s a good reason to be on this earth.” Fowler, Reel Venus’s director, hopes to turn the tables now, and allow work such as Pennick’s to have a similar effect on aspiring female filmmakers today, to mentor those already stepping into the field, like first-time filmmaker Javitch. “It’s important,” says Fowler, for women artists “to have smaller avenues like Reel Venus to travel along, because they get nurtured by fellow filmmakers who know what they’ve been through and where they’re trying to go.”
And frankly, that’s a little easier to do, sometimes, when the boys aren’t around commanding all the attention. “Cinema is dominated,” says filmmaker Hansen, “by the male perspective and women can offer a refreshing take, but they can only do that if they don’t compromise their identities along the way.” Which happens all too often when women try to break into a male-dominated field, including film. Notes filmmaker Nkara, “Many women don’t want to become men to do their work — in fact can’t do their own work with their own vision in that way.”
But Fowler wouldn’t want the gender politics to turn off any potential festival attendees: “Reel Venus Film Festival is for everyone to enjoy. The work is exclusively directed by women but it’s for everyone to see.” Says Eva Saks, whose bright and biting “Twin Set,” a tale of electioneering and sibling rivalry, opens the festival: “As far as I’m concerned, the only thing different about being a woman filmmaker is that I wear high heels.”
The 2nd Annual Reel Venus Film Festival takes place at Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Peter Norton Symphony Space, Broadway (95th Street, New York City), July 19-22.
MaryAnn Johanson’s film criticism appears at FlickFilosopher.com.