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A League of Their Own

Women directors earn their own local film showcase with the first annual Ms. Films festival



Think of a film festival. Perhaps you conjured up Sundance, snow and Robert Redford, or maybe you went with Cannes, sand and Jean Gabin. In any case, did women come to mind? Uma Thurman? Bridget Bardot, perhaps? How about women directors? Probably not, despite the successes of Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller and Jane Campion. The fact is, film festivals tend to be pretty much male affairs, intentionally or not.

This weekend, however, right here in the Triangle, there will be an opportunity to see a whole slate of films by women. There won't be any sand or snow, and Uma won't show, but never mind: The first annual Ms. Films festival will make its debut on Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.

Showcasing a diverse array of narrative, experimental and documentary films, Ms. Films: A Festival of Movies by Independent Women will kick off at 2 p.m. with an afternoon of workshops and panel discussions. After a dinner break, there will be a screening of more than a dozen short films made by women from around the country. For this inaugural festival, the offerings are fairly modest, with most of the films coming from previous Flicker exhibitions in Los Angeles and Carrboro. In the future, however, the organizers hope Ms. Films will turn into a larger event, with a competitive film submission process.

The festival came into being last summer, when Ron Royster of the ArtsCenter and Jim Haverkamp, a Durham filmmaker and festival organizer, discovered a common interest in starting an event that would promote the efforts of female moviemakers. Agreeing to get the ball rolling, Haverkamp, who programs the popular bi-monthly Flicker series next door at Cat's Cradle, assembled a strong program featuring panels and presentations by local filmmakers. Los Angeles filmmaker and Flicker founder Norwood Cheek helped to assemble the film lineup.

The festival's honored guest is Andrea Richards, who recently published Girl Director, a lively, well-written and researched handbook for aspiring teenage auteurs. After the publication of her book, the Apex native began getting videos from girl filmmakers and programmers of children's film festivals. For her portion of the program, Richards will be screening five shorts made by girls, and leading a discussion afterward. "I've been seeing wonderful movies made by kids--it blows my mind, the visual literacy they have. Maybe it's from watching so much TV," she said by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Written in a sprightly Girl Power patois, Girl Director is a gift to creative teenage girls. Richards deftly combines useful information on equipment and techniques with tips on stimulating creativity and summoning up the gumption to seize the day and make a film. Richards is well-qualified to offer advice: She's a hardcore cinephile and maker of Super-8 shorts, which she has shown in festivals in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia.

The book also includes thumbnail bios of pioneering female filmmakers. Beginning her research, the 27-year-old Richards was stunned to learn of the rich history of women director. "It just blew me away--once you scratch the surface, learning about women filmmakers, you discover that there's a long history of women working in films." For example, Richards resuscitates the memory of a Frenchwoman, Alice Guy, who is credited with applying the nascent moving picture technology to narrative storytelling in her 1895 opus, The Cabbage Fairy. This led to a career in which she produced or directed hundreds of movies, including a 1912 sci-fi flick called In the Year 2000, about women ruling the world. In her book, Richards gleefully writes, "Long before Girl Power, there was Alice Guy!"

Richards also includes appreciations of better known women filmmakers, including Dorothy Arzner and one of her personal favorites, Ida Lupino. Lupino began her career playing tough dames in Warner Brothers films, most famously High Sierra, opposite Humphrey Bogart. In the late-1940s, dissatisfied with the stories being told in Hollywood Films, Lupino formed her own production company and began directing films that explored such touchy and taboo topics as rape, bigamy and unwed mothers. "The Bigamist kills me," Richards says. "It's just incredible that Lupino's films were made."

Richards is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new digital formats, which make the tools of movie production much more accessible to the young do-it-yourselfers. "It's so cheap now--you can make a movie for like 20 bucks," she says. Richards points out that the digital advances have benefited established filmmakers as well as up-and-comers. For instance, legendary French director Agnes Varda, whose striking visage graces the cover of Girl Director, has been liberated from the grueling quest for financing, thanks to the new technology. Her latest film, the reflective, enthusiastically received documentary The Gleaners and I, was shot in the French countryside, using small digital video cameras.

Following Richards' keynote presentation at 2 p.m., there will be two more presentation periods, in which festival-goers will be able to choose among six different programs. Among these are those led by local film artists Joanne Hershfeld and Nancy Kalow, in which they will screen their work. In another program, Durham filmmaker and archivist Tom Whiteside will be presenting The Lost Colony Film, which was made on the Outer Banks by two women filmmakers in 1921.

Durham filmmaker Shani Harris will moderate a discussion of the Triangle film scene, with panelists set to include local artists Melinda Maynor, Cynthia Hill, Arlene Leveille and Jennifer Owensby. Also set to appear is Jane Gaines, a professor of Literature and English at Duke, who will be discussing the pioneering role of women in the films of the silent era. To top off the offerings, Triangle native Norwood Cheek, a filmmaker and husband of Andrea Richards, returns home from Los Angeles to lead a workshop on DIY filmmaking.

The cheapness and ease of digital filmmaking will be on display at the film screenings that follow the dinner break, including a mockumentary called The Web. Director and UNC-Chapel Hill grad Katri Billard's hilarious five-minute film portrays a man who picks up women on city buses, because it's cheaper than going to bars. Also on tap for Sunday night is a short with the exceedingly promising title, How to Make an Oliver Stone Film. The film, directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), features film critic Elvis Mitchell, and Andrea Richards confides that it's a doozy.

However, perhaps in a reflection of the retro-purism of programmers Haverkamp and Cheek, most of the offerings originated on film. Among the best are Radha Vatsal's One Step Removed, an impressionistic portrait of a young Indian woman sitting outside a one-hour photo shop. As the woman waits in the typically barren downtown of Cary that could be Anysuburb, USA, she dreams of the sights and sounds of the India contained in the photos that are being processed. Another 16mm effort, Lena, is by Durham filmmaker Joyce Ventimiglia. Her film, just four minutes long, is an affecting portrait of an elderly immigrant Italian woman, which features a striking use of overlapping monologues.

Elsewhere, a considerably slicker 16mm narrative short called Green Fly will be screening. Written and directed by San Diego's Kirsten Elms, this creepfest revisits the territory of classic films noir like Kiss Me Deadly and Detour: It features the deserted nighttime highways and hitchhikers who should never, never be picked up. The twist here is that the central issue is the woman's battle for control while facing a possibly psychopathic young man.

Unlike many festivals, there will be no awards bestowed at Ms. Films (although there will be door prizes). Instead, the goal is to nurture and support the creative efforts of female film artists. As Richards notes, getting a film made is a long and lonely battle, and getting it finished and screened is victory in itself. "I respect anyone who gets out a film. It's like writing a book. It's an enormous enterprise, and it's like, 'kudos to you, you got it done.'" EndBlock

Tickets for the full day's program are $15. For the screenings only, $8. For more information about Ms. Films, call Carrboro's ArtsCenter at 929-2787 or go online at www.flickerfestival.com. Andrea Richards will be reading from her book, Girl Director, at Quail Ridge Books on Saturday, Nov. 17 (for details, call 828-7912). She will also appear at the Internationalist in Chapel Hill on Monday, Nov. 19 (for details, call 942-1740).

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