Boston Women's Film Festival 1997 Report

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The exchange between three filmmakers, a distributer and a producer featured at the 5th annual Boston International Women’s Film Festival (one of the largest festivals in the USA---April 25-May 1)) was a vibrant testimony of the trials and rewards of film production and distribution for or about lesbians. The festival ”icon” was also the subject of British lesbian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s documentary on the lesbian subtext in Jodie Foster’s work in Jodie: An Icon ( England 1996). Directors Deepa Mehta (Fire , Canada 1996) , Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, USA 1996). Trish McAdam, (Snakes and Ladders , Ireland 1996 ) and Dolly Hall, producer of All Over Me (USA 1996) discussed their films--all which directly or indirectly deal with lesbian themes. Debra Zimmerman, spokeswoman for the New York-based women’s distribution company Women Makes Movies which also does fiscal sponsorship of films up for grants, moderated the panel who touched on the ’ in’s and out’s’ of filmmaking from conception to reception.This was a truly a diversified bunch who traced their film influences from Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames to Tales from the Crypt for Dunye, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky for McAdam and Nina Shuman’s Double Happiness for Mehta. Yet as McAdam aptly put, influences don’t make a filmmaker

Of interest was how each filmmaker viewed her national filmmaking situation. McAdam, an unmarried mother who came to make films by accident, moved from shorts to educational and low budget films, presenting at last a script to a producer of Wim Wenders’ films in Berlin. She was flown to New York where Snakes and Ladders was given the nod, a film which includes lesbians for as McAdam wittily explained, in Ireland lesbians are part of everything and therefore it is hard to make a film without them. Mehta who made a film last year in New Delhi on two women involved in a love affair had a father who was a film distributor and exhibitor. She made films with her husband and after three of them said ” fuck that” and went solo. Growing up in the Bombay film world which she describes as a world of ”Sounds of Music” with 18 songs per film, Mehta wanted to expose the thriving middle class of New Delhi--something which the Western world has been isolated from. Before making Sam and Me ( Canada 1991) which won a prize at Cannes and was produced by George Lucas, Mehta was a disenfranchised immigrant in Canada who had made a film about immigrant workers and a film which she disclaims as she didn’t get final cut Camilla (Canada 1993). Fire was her last effort at feature films, raised through funding from friends and family.
Director Cheryl Dunye has a background in video art and does not recommend film school. Currently living in Los Angeles, she received fiscal sponsorship from Women Make Movies and seed money from the NEA to make Watermelon Women. A film about a Afro-American lesbian weaving photodocumentation in ”Dunyementary-style” on an African-American actress from the 1930’s, the film’s protagonist comes to a turning point in her life with her community through a relationship with a white woman (played by Guinevere Turner of Go Fish). Dunye explains she didn’t want to just do a simple ”lesbian-meets lesbian” film and had strong words about what she calls a ”moment” in lesbian filmmaking that will pass along with the Ellen Degeneres ’outing- craze’. (The domino effect is still in full-blown motion with the outing of Degeneres’ girlfriend and actress Ann Heche who might not any longer be up for hetero-love roles -New York Times, April 28). Dunye’s NEA money in fact became a point of contention in conservative Republican debates about the use of public funds for lesbian films. Watermelon Women was selected for the Berlin Film Festival , receiving the coveted ”Teddy Bear Award” for Best Gay Film of 1996.
Dolly Hall produced All Over Me, a teenage love story between two young women after going from set PA to first AD in independent filmmaking projects. She also made contacts in Berlin--with the same agent as the producer of Wedding Banquet, a film about gay marriage that cost $450.000 and grossed $38 million world-wide.”With that kind of agent”, she explained , ”the phone starts to ring”. All Over Me, was then sold ”blind” without being previewed.
The panel concurred that in Europe there is no market for women’s films but seed money, whereas in the USA there is a market but no money. Hall added that in the USA there are no women with money as in Europe, where it is not uncommon to find women directing pictures with funding. McAdam shed an interesting light on the paradox, claiming that European films are more character-based and USA films more narrative-based. She hoped that European films would become more American and vice-versa.

Linda Zimmerman posed a provocative question to the panel which seems to symbolize the situation for women working in film and most definitely for lesbian filmmakers. On a recent workshop she attended entitled ”To Hollywood or Not”, male directors Robert Rodriquez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, were asked if they would make their second film in Hollywood. Zimmerman explained not a single woman was present, wondering why. Hall claimed she was not interested in Hollywood and the process of pounding out a story with a committee as opposed to opportunities for visionary projects more available in independent production. She called Hollywood a ”cricket game”. Dunye agreed claiming ”Hollywood wouldn’t see me”. She advises to ignore it, claiming that TV and cable are more interesting. As witnessed at the recent 1997 Oscars, Hollywood is now ”independent”, although this may be a myth. Many of these companies can trace their cash flow to the studios. For Dunye, this means, ”how much control do you want?”
Mehta countered that if something is called ”woman” it scares men. Now and then at the Boston festival were comments such as ”if men are here they must be courageous”. Mehta calls the ”label” of women’s or lesbian films unhealthy and instrumental to a ”bordered” vision. As for Hollywood she claimed that it was enticing to have financing for ”helicoptors and Winnebagos” --but concluded that it was better to be able to exercise creative vision with a ”final cut” contract.
McAdam added that in Hollywood Orson Welles got away with creative vision only once, meaning the production of Citizen Kane, which ruined his career because of allusions to William Randolph Hearst. She suggested that filmmakers look at the script to see how much money is needed and not be seduced by big budgets. After all, she explained, not every film needs it.

As for lesbian themes in films, Mehta believes such a label weakens Fire , arguing that the love relationship should be seen more as a conflict between the voice of tradition and independent Indian women. Dunye on the other hand is interested in working with female protagonists and exploring issues of race, class and sexuality. Pessimistic about any kind of wave of lesbian films she stated that ”Go Fish was just Go Fish and Two Girls in Love was just Two Girls in Love ”. She also called ”Queer Cinema”-- ”certain people at a ’moment’ in time”. That goes as well she said for Afro-American lesbian roles such as Queen Latifah in Set if Off and Whoopie Goldberg in Boys on the Side. A statistic printed in Girlfriends from Details magazine a couple years back showed that if a film caters to a gay audience, the box office draw is guaranteed a higher return. Yep, there definitely seems to be a market but getting a film financed, the biggest hurdle.
As far as lesbian subtexts getting changed in the process of filmmaking, McAdam underlined that there was no pressure for ”more or less” for her film and that even in Ireland lesbians are a natural part of the environment. Hall said she didn’t have a ”political agenda” but added that it was a bonus that the teenage women in All Over Me were gay.

Zimmerman noted that when women filmmakers go to heaven they usually go to Canada and Australia where until recently there was considerable government support for the arts. As for Hollywood, Dunye claims that everything is in place and that there might be a ”crack or two” to squeeze through for filmmakers. Although 30 to 40% of the Hollywood machinery is comprised of women--most of this is middle-management where Dunye warns you won’t find any sisters. Distribution of course is a vital aspect of filmmaking which can make or break a film. McAdam pointed out that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, USA distributors went over and bought all of the Russian movie theaters so that Russian filmmakers can’t even shown their work. This is true for Europe as a whole where American distributors fairly much decide what is shown. So in fact even if the money is there, getting the film out remains to be seen. The movie deals are made at the foreign film festivals to be sure such as Berlin and Cannes. For women and lesbian filmmakers, smaller festivals such as the ”springtime in Paris” Creteil Festival du Films de Femmes are other important ways of getting is out. And for even smaller independents, there are festivals such as Cineffable, a lesbian film festival held in Paris every Halloween.

Zimmerman summed up the tips from the panel for getting it out: make your funder wear black and make sure she or he has a good time at the market, have a good film producer, and be prepared with a flip thru resumé for on the spot interviews. As far as the wave, resisting all efforts to be called such and residing within the realm of market relations, the climate for lesbian films as evidenced by this festival is hot.