BAM! POWFest strikes a blow for gender equality in filmmaking

The 9th edition of the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival features special guest Catherine Hardwicke and a vast array of female-created content

In a year when attention has been drawn to the continuing lack of diversity in the film industry like never before, an event like the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival would seem more vital and necessary than ever.

The stories come fast and fairly furious. The pay gap between male and female actors continues to exist, from Jennifer Lawrence to Gillian Anderson. Hollywood and its vaunted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remain largely a “straight, white, boys’ club.” And, of course, #OscarsSoWhite.

And yet, some people you’d think would embrace the notion of a film festival devoted exclusively to works by women directors have expressed skepticism or outright hostility. Three years ago, I interviewed POWFest’s guest of honor, Penelope Spheeris, and apparently annoyed her by daring to get her take on the hurdles female filmmakers face. And earlier this year, director Marjane Satrapi railed against the notion of a female-centric festival when I interviewed her.

These women have a point, to a degree. In a perfect world, there would be no need to carve out an artistic space dedicated to any particular race, gender, or religion. And it’s as reductive to ask female artists only about their experience as women as it is to obsess about their red carpet gowns to the exclusion of all else. The dangers are twofold: movies by women can get ghettoized, and audiences can be induced to watch substandard stuff because of political correctness.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, the guest of honor at this year's Portland Oregon Women's FIlm Festival, on the set of "Twilight."

Director Catherine Hardwicke, the guest of honor at this year’s Portland Oregon Women’s FIlm Festival, on the set of “Twilight.”

However, this isn’t a perfect world. Steps do need to be taken to ensure a level playing field, and to spur a risk-averse industry into acknowledging the artistic and financial power of appealing to an audience as diverse as the world we live in. That’s where Executive Director and POWFest founder Tara Johnson-Medinger comes in. She puts it best: “I think it is important for any underrepresented community to have a space to have their voices heard. Until we truly have achieved equal representation in the director’s chair, the need for POWFest (along with the many other women-centric film festivals) is there.”

After laboring in the Hollywood salt mines for years, Johnson-Medinger and her husband, both Oregon natives, moved to Portland in 2002. “I was really ready to leave L.A. and network television. I became disenchanted with ‘the industry.’” Before long, she found her calling, starting the production company Sour Apple Productions in 2004 and taking over POWFest in 2009. “I recognized that there was a need for this kind of festival in Portland and I felt like this is where I want to take my life’s work – helping put the spotlight on women’s voices in the industry.”

Over the years, filmmakers such as Gillian Armstrong, Oscar-winner Katherine Bigelow, Amy Hecklerling, Alison Anders, and Spheeris have been guests, providing inspiration and instruction to attendees. This year’s honoree is Catherine Hardwicke, whose career has spanned Sundance success with her 2003 directing debut “Thirteen” to franchise blockbuster mania with 2008’s “Twilight,” which holds the record for the biggest opening-weekend box office haul for a female-directed film.

Both of those films will screen during POWFest, as will Hardwicke’s most recent feature, “Miss You Already,” a well-crafted friendship melodrama starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as best pals dealing with major life events. The filmmaker will be in attendance for all three screenings, and will also conduct a master class with attendees on Sunday morning, drawing on her roots as a production designer for movies such as “Tank Girl” and “Three Kings.”

A scene from "Ex-Girlfiend," one of the short films playing in this year's POWFest

A scene from “Ex-Girlfiend,” one of the short films playing in this year’s POWFest

The heart of POWFest, though, is its short film selection. This year’s assortment, divided into five programs, put to rest any outdated notion that female filmmakers only make movies about a certain range of topics or in a certain style. The “Quirky” and “Dark” programs, which both screen Friday night, contain several well-crafted, twisted gems. Lauren Ludwig’s “Ex-Girlfiend” is a hilarious web series about an undead woman who haunts her former boyfriend, much to their mutual chagrin. “La Fille Bionique,” aka “Bionic Girl,” as a cleverly designed, Michel Gondry-esque mini-musical about a woman who creates a robotic clone of herself in order to avoid dealing with the outside world. And “No Breath Play” is a hilarious depiction of BDSM gone wrong.

Those three are all in the “Quirky” set. The “Dark” stuff is really pretty dark. (It should be clear that both are not intended for young audiences.) Young girls are confronted with unpleasant realities in the Icelandic “Sub Rosa” and the Australian “The Aquarium,” while “Vessels” takes a look at the horrific lengths a transgender woman will go to in order to meet society’s physical expectations.

It’s inspiring to see talent from around the globe represented, with films from Armenia, Portugal, South Korea, Cuba, Iran and more represented, in addition to the nations mentioned above. Women all over the world have stories to tell, and POWFest is a marvelous showcase for them.

The two non-Hardwicke features in this year’s POWFest both dare to tackle tough issues. “The Girl in the Yellow Shoes,” from Argentine director Lujan Loioco, follows the sexual awakening of a young teenage girl in a small town beset by workers building a new luxury hotel. “The Armor of Light,” a documentary directed by Abigail Disney (Walt’s grand-niece) follows a conservative evangelical minister as he wrestles with whether his pro-life beliefs require him to preach against the epidemic of gun violence in America.

A shot from the scandalous 1915 silent film "Hypocrites," part of POWFest's closing night program.

A shot from the scandalous 1915 silent film “Hypocrites,” part of POWFest’s closing night program.

For students of film history or early 20th century feminism, or the merely curious, the festival’s closing night double feature might be its highlight. The first decades of filmmaking were open in ways that were later restricted by the growth of the studio system, the Production Code, and so forth. This includes the prolific careers of female film pioneers, two of whom are spotlighted.

Lois Weber has been credited as “American cinema’s first genuine auteur.” Her career peaks include the 1913 one-reeler “Suspense,” one of the first films to employ a split-screen technique to demonstrate simultaneous action, and the 1921 feature “The Blot,” in which she used natural light and real locations to tell a story of genteel poverty. Weber’s most notorious film, though, is the one POWFest is screening: 1915’s “Hypocrites,” a critique of religion that features the earliest surviving non-pornographic full-frontal female nudity in film history.

Alice Guy-Blaché was even more of a cinematic pioneer. Her filmmaking career began along with the movies, in the final years of the 19th century in France. She made hundreds of films, most only minutes long, during the art form’s infancy, eventually relocating to New Jersey. Only three of her features survive, among them “The Ocean Waif,” a parody of melodrama with a sly feminist undertone.

It was Guy-Blaché who, according to most sources, gave Weber her start in the film business, and it’s this all-too-necessary sort of networking that POWFest engenders, not only by exhibiting films and bringing audiences in contact with their makers. Johnson-Medinger has also spearheaded “POWGirls,” a mentorship program for young women filmmakers aged 15-19. Several of the results of POWGirls’ 2015 workshops will be screened during POWFest, and the program aims to provide talented, motivated teens with the tools to pursue a career in film.

The third prong of Johnson-Medinger’s attack on gender inequity, after exhibition and education, is starting to take shape as well. With the backing of Portlander Vicki Mee and the Faerie Godmother Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, she’s been able to expand POWFest’s resources and staff, with an eye towards creating a fund dedicated to helping talented women behind the camera bring their ideas to life and, ultimately, to a theater near you.

These three components, says Johnson-Medinger, “really do feed into each other. Strong media education helps create solid production which will translate, ideally, to a well-received film in front of the audience. One key is mentorship–the importance of passing on your knowledge.” Whether that knowledge comes from a veteran director like Hardwicke, a passionate producer and organizer like Johnson-Medinger, or any of the other devoted and talented artists swarming the Hollywood Theatre this weekend, it’s sure to inspire.

(The 2016 Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival runs from Thursday, March 3 through Sunday, March 6 at the Hollywood Theatre. Visit powfest.com for a full schedule.)

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