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If a film bucks the stats and the status quo — it’s directed by a woman, it has women in lead roles who are agents of their own lives—Women’s History Month offers a golden opportunity to add to a larger conversation about women and cinema. This March there’s a lot to see.
“Women are wildly underrepresented behind the camera, on set, and onscreen where their images, mostly created by men, are really troubling,” explains WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) executive director Jaclyn Friedman about why the WAM!Boston Film Fest festival began three years ago. The lineup of 17 films, of varying lengths and genres, screens March 23 and 24 at the Brattle Theatre. It’s part of a month-long “roaming” series, Women Take the Reel, sponsored by a dozen local colleges and universities.
The WAM!Boston Film Fest is one of the Cambridge nonprofit’s simultaneous endeavors, many of which happen in March through its five North American chapters, all of which are designed to forward gender justice in media. It’s currently the only WAM! film festival and the main event organized by the Boston chapter. (Disclosure: I am a member of the WAM! Listserv, but have not been involved in the festival.)
A few series have popped up in between—Women in Film & Video/New England’s “Chicks Make Flicks” comes to mind—but otherwise WAM!Boston Film Fest has picked up where the Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema left off in 2003. For 11 years it showcased the early work of emerging women filmmakers. One of the founders, Marianne Lampke, recalls bringing in Rose Troche for “Go Fish” (1994), Sofia Coppola for “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), and Lisa Cholodenko for “Laurel Canyon” (2002). Lampke describes the era: “You really experienced the difference between films directed by women and directed by men; there was a different sensibility and that was exciting.”
There’s still a need, she says. “Take someone like Lisa [Cholodenko],” she says. “She’s made three or four movies but it seems like you hear more from the Quentin Tarantinos.” After a considered pause [remembering Kathryn Bigelow as the only woman to win for directing] and a laugh Lampke adds, “We’ve gotten an Oscar, right?”
WAM!Boston looks for films by and about women, preferably both, such as Julie Mallozzi’s documentary, “Indelible Lalita”, which screens March 23 at 6:45 p.m. Initially curious about the lightening of Lalita Bharvani’s skin and her resulting racial ambiguity, Mallozzi started shooting Lalita’s life in Montreal, a world away from her childhood in Bombay. Mallozzi soon wanted to know how Lalita kept going in the face of other physical losses, ovarian cancer and two bouts with breast cancer. So she turned her camera on to Lalita’s endless doctor visits and diagnostic scans.
The more opaque, or indelible, question to film was what gave Lalita a “spark in her eyes” or as Mallozzi poses in her director’s statement: “Who is she, if she has lost the outward indicators of her ethnicity, her femininity, her youth?” And so, in the quiet way that Lalita persists, Mallozzi’s film about her does, too. In scenes where Lalita scuffs snow off steps with her shoes or massages her aging mother’s aches, “Indelible Lalita” avoids the epic, knowing that an intimate portrait of one woman’s life can and must do.
“Circus Dreams,” another WAM! selection, screening March 24 at noon, takes on the aspirations of youth and how their shared love of performing holds them together. The documentary gives airtime to all hands needed to pull off a youth circus from scratch—aspiring teen jugglers and aerialists, world-class coaches, and hand-wringing business managers. But it’s the troupe’s first-ever girl clowns, best friends Joy and Maddy, who steal this show, which was shot over a year in the life of the Greensboro, Vermont nonprofit, Circus Smirkus.
On screen, Maddy debates the risk of clowning (“I’m worried that with clowning I’ll scare everyone away,” she says) versus the prettier, and thus more coveted spots to perform Lyra, an aerial act in a suspended hoop. Joy, on the other hand, is crystal clear about her mission “to bring change to the world of circus” as a girl clown, so much so that Maddy envies her focus. Their grip on what it takes to be funny (they are), and how the adults around them acknowledge the barriers they face as girls, puts this documentary in that rare “uplifting” category with appeal for wide audiences.
“Circus Dreams’” director Signe Taylor made the film as an antidote to the ways teens are typically depicted on screen. “Girls are usually cast as either dark manipulative sexual vixens or cloying sweet blond bimbettes,” she told Art New England. “Moronic Jack Ass pranks are frequently shown as the crowning achievement of boyhood.”
Though not a part of WAM!Boston, a jarring documentary about compromised youth, “Girl Model”, has its broadcast premiere on PBS’s POV March 24 at 10 p.m. nationally. It airs on WGBH World on March 25 at 9:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. (. “Girl Model” invokes the international modeling industry’s ravenous appetite for younger, more compliant girl laborers. Codirected by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, the film was produced during Redmon’s tenure as a Radcliffe Institute fellow.
In an early scene, 13-year-old Nadya arrives at the Tokyo airport with only a modeling agency’s address written on a scrap of paper. It’s her first plane ride from her home of Siberia. She can’t speak the language and has nowhere to turn. Redmon has said that it’s one of the rare times he and Sabin decided to intervene.
Sabin and Redmon have been outspoken advocates on behalf of girls’ rights; “Girl Model” earned them a spot on New York Times Op-Docs. As is the case with POV programs, a study guide and social action prompts will accompany the premiere. On a Twitter roundtable with filmmakers and activists March 20, a petition for child models’ rights, realities about model pay and debt, and the mirage of glamour were circulated.
In other events, director Mia Donovan comes to Emerson College’s Bright Family Screening Room March 26 with the documentary “Inside Lara Roxx”, about the title character’s life in the adult movie industry. Anne Makepeace's documentary about the preservation of the Wampanoag language, “We Still Live Here,” can be viewed for free at PBS.org as part of #SheDocs until the end of March. And if that’s not enough, sneak previews of “WonderWomen: The Untold Story of American Superheroines” are happening this month at various locations in advance of its April release, including Clark College in Worcester at 7 p.m. March 28.
Since that’s just scratching the surface, it begs the question, too much for one month? Friedman calls herself a “more is more” person. “We do stuff now and we do stuff all throughout the year … our intent is to be making history all year long.”
Julie Mallozzi appears after “Indelible Lalita” to answer audience questions and Joy Powers appears after “Circus Dreams.”
Erin Trahan edits The Independent, an online magazine about independent film, and is moderating the spring series of The DocYard (http://thedocyard.com/) at the Brattle Theatre through April 2013. Reach her at email@example.com.
This program aired on March 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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