The Time Is Right, Again, For A Boston Women’s Film Festival

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common share a scene in "All About Nina." (Courtesy)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common share a scene in "All About Nina." (Courtesy)

All About Nina” bills itself as a “filthy” and “feminist” film, so naturally I pictured a protagonist resembling a Sarah Silverman–Roxane Gay hybrid with a dash of Hannah Gadsby. The buzz around the film went something like this: Move over Mrs. Maisel (and Jenny Slate’s character in “Obvious Child”), there’s another woman stand-up act coming to the screen.

But about 15 minutes in to “All About Nina,” I became very, very angry.

The film is meant to be a mature rom-com (or sad-com) but Nina’s flailing romance feels stuck in middle school, with most of her comic routines falling flat. The reaction shots of audience members laughing, when I wasn’t, felt as forced as a sitcom laugh track. The movie just didn’t work. And I desperately wanted it to.

After some deep breathing and an unanswered text-rant to my best friend from college, I forced an about-face and a mindset of abundance. It’s going to be okay. We’re past that place where there’s only one “woman comic” film.

On-screen feminism is currently big enough to brilliantly shine, occasionally fumble, and nevertheless persist. And Boston is ripe to celebrate this fact.

Case in point: Sept. 27-30 is the inaugural Boston Women’s Film Festival. This year’s 17 feature-length films are all directed by women with female characters who disrupt norms, make people laugh, stand up for themselves and others, get flak for all of that, and keep going anyway. “All About Nina” is one of those titles and now that I’ve simmered down I can say it at least has a daring performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the screenplay flickers with real-life wisdom — like when a group of women comics commiserate over being pitted against each other.

Boston Women’s Film Festival executive director Jo-Ann Graziano decided to launch the women’s film festival with former Wicked Queer executive director James Nadeau and Brattle Theatre executive director Ivy Moylan to give women’s work in front of and behind the camera “more recognition.” The intent is “to look at women across the globe and see how they're working,” she says.

This kind of focused spotlight has been lacking in Boston’s film festival circuit for 15 years, since the Boston International Festival of Women’s Cinema had its final showing.

From 1993-2003 the festival made a lasting impression on an audience that was more than ready for alternative and feminist visions of women’s and girls’ lives, myself included. It’s how – and where – many of my friends and colleagues first saw films by Claire Denis, Deepa Mehta, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Mary Harron, and the list goes on. There they were on stage at the Brattle or Coolidge, ready to take our questions.

Bryn Vale and Taylor Schilling in "Family," another film screening at the Boston Women's Film Festival. (Courtesy)
Bryn Vale and Taylor Schilling in "Family," another film screening at the Boston Women's Film Festival. (Courtesy)

This festival helped propel the women who broke through the overwhelmingly male terrain of independent fiction film in its '90s boom time of Tarantino, Linklater, Lee, and Anderson (though male indie filmmakers still outnumber females by 2 to 1 in US festivals). Now those women have their own followings--Denis for her unconventional, heady takes on philosophy or classic literature, Mehta for her "Elements Trilogy" that challenged roles of Indian women, Holofcener for nailing the anxieties of middle-aged urbanites.

Plus, it may sound quaint, but seeing women artists talk about their craft in person (remember this was pre-Instagram, practically pre-DVD extras) verified that they do indeed exist. This especially mattered to people who best process the world in visual terms.

“It really reads as a ‘who’s who’,” says Connie White, while scanning the 11-year program archive. White and Marianne Lampke were co-directors of the Brattle Theatre when they founded the festival in partnership with Anne Marie Stein of the former Boston Film & Video Foundation (BFVF).

As three women in film exhibition at a time when there were few, Lampke says that showcasing women’s films “was something we felt we needed to do.”

But finding and marketing those titles required convincing both audiences and distributors, says White. Distributors weren’t picking up women’s films and if they did, they weren’t marketed well and didn’t deliver at the box office. “We had to make reasons for people to see these films and there wasn’t going to be big ads on TV or big print newspaper ads,” she says.

Presenting them as a festival came both as a necessity and as a creative cause. Eventually, distributors started coming to them.

In trying to explain their curatorial vision, White says, “We wanted to show what women were doing and it wasn't always, you know, touchy-feely. It wasn't always genteel. It was often violent.” Both White and Lampke separately mention premiering Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,” about the gun-toting, manifesto writing feminist Valerie Solanas, as a highlight of the entire run.

Lili Taylor in "I Shot Andy Warhol." (Courtesy)
Lili Taylor in "I Shot Andy Warhol." (Courtesy)

While there’s no direct tie between them, the new Boston Women’s Film Festival embraces the legacy of its predecessor. “The organizers of that [former] film festival had the right idea. And we wanted to see that happen again,” says Graziano.

In this year’s fest, Graziano says her team exercised caution in their curation, showcasing films that focused on more than just tragedy. Soon they realized another theme had surfaced: resilience. In the Shanghai-set comedy “Dead Pigs,” for example, one woman stands up to a tidal wave of development ushered in by Western influences. In “I am Not A Witch,” a young Zambian girl turns her exile into an opportunity to resist long standing fears about women’s power. The closing night film, “Wild Nights With Emily,” offers a feisty, slant view of Emily Dickinson’s love life and what happens when her poems are co-opted by another woman.

With some distance I could see that my anger at “All About Nina” stemmed in part from an industry that has historically tokenized women and then expected gratitude. Oh thank you Hollywood for finally making the woman “comic/scientist/president/fill in your personal blank” film! I’ll take whatever you give because I’m so desperate!

Contemporary film festivals still only showcase the work of one woman, per two men, on average. This disparity also leads to fewer multi-dimensional roles for women on screen. Lampke paraphrases a column by Lindy West: “It can't just be gratuitous. It can't be just a moment in time because we're reacting to something. We have to really work at this to make it part of the culture.”

In the ‘90s, the Boston International Festival of Women’s Cinema changed the industry’s patterns by becoming an indispensable stop on the way up for women’s films. Graziano thinks that can happen again.

The team has prioritized premieres, hoping its laurels turn into a coveted cosign. “When James and Ivy and I sat together and talked about what we wanted, it was for this festival to be something that people look to and say, ‘This is a place where women are.’”

The Boston Women's Film Festival Runs Sept. 27-30 at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

This segment aired on September 29, 2018.


Erin Trahan Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.



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