Why we need film festivals for women

The St. John's International Women's Film Festival — one of the world's longest-running women's film fests — is a shining example of why this type of festival matters.

The 27th St. John's International Women's Film Festival starts this week

Sally Hawkins and director Aisling Walsh on the set of Maudie. (Mongrel Media)

The St. John's International Women's Film Festival is the eldest of three film festivals in Canada featuring women filmmakers: Vancouver International Women in Film Festival turned 10 this past March, while Toronto-based Female Eye Film Festival celebrated their 14th edition in June. SJIWFF is older than those two festivals put together — the festival is kicking off its 27th year tonight in St. John's.

Founded by Noreen Golfman in 1989, the festival was originally created as a way to support and promote women filmmakers in Canada and abroad. With the slogan "Made by Women, For Everyone," the festival started with a single event that slowly grew into what is now a five-day, 4000-attendee showcase that draws some 500 film submissions annually.

The festival also now offers a series of youth filmmaking workshops called FRAMED which is "essentially film school in a week," explains Jenn Brown, executive director of SJIWFF. "We combine professional mentors and film equipment and teach both the business and art of filmmaking, developing, shooting and editing a film in five days. It's been hugely successful."

Two years ago, the festival launched the Interactive Incubator Project, which helps five women from Atlantic Canada and Quebec "who want to make their first interactive project develop the networks, tools and consultations to develop strong project ideas and business models," says Brown.

Brigitte Berman's The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent. (SJIWFF)

This year, the festival program presents 50 films from Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and the USA. The festival's opening night film is Oscar-winner Brigitte Berman's The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent which is sure to resound with Newfoundlanders, as Pinsent is one of their own. Aisling Walsh's Maudiebased on the life of Nova Scotia-based folk artist Maud Lewis and starring Sally Hawkins as the titular figure, is the closing night film.

For Brown — entering her fourth edition with the festival — it's an honour to be a part of a movement that makes space for women to share their voices and stories.

"Working with [the festival] has allowed me to check in with local and international creators and ask, 'What do you need to advance your career? Which tools or skills are you missing or who do you want to meet or introduce to our community? How can the festival help foster your growth and help you make amazing projects, or showcase local talent?' The arts community here is really connected, and I feel that the St. John's International Women's Film Festival empowers creators to ask for what they want and show their work and ideas off."

We need women's film festivals to empower women of any and all backgrounds to see value in themselves, in their stories, and as artists.- Jenn Brown

Female filmmakers have been in the spotlight recently over issues of gender disparity in the film industry. In July, Michael Moore made the decision to program only films helmed by women in his 2016 Traverse City Film Festival. Still, the reality of how female directors fare in some of the world's major film festivals is startlingly abysmal — which makes a strong case for why exclusively female-filmmaker festivals definitely matter.

Martine Blue's Hunting Pignut. (SJIWFF)

"We need women's film festivals to empower women of any and all backgrounds to see value in themselves, in their stories and as artists," said Brown. "Our mission includes furthering the artistic and professional development of women, to have conversations about feminism and equality/how to make things better and shrink the gender gap and to recognize and celebrate the work of women by sharing it with a global audience. It also helps us to share our culture and learn from others. If you see it, you can be it."

St. John's International Women's Film Festival. October 19-22, 2016. Various locations, St. Johns.


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