Posted by Susan Doll on April 18, 2011
The 13th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) ended yesterday after a weekend filled with events and honors for two stars, Geena Davis and Christopher Plummer, and a producer, Sarah Green. I attended the SFF the previous weekend, and with the festival’s tag line, “Immerse Yourself,” urging me on, I plunged in for a gratifying festival experience.
Unlike Telluride, Sundance, or Toronto, the SFF is a regional film festival, and part of its agenda is to support regionally based films by offering a showcase for movies shot in the Sunshine State. Whether its home-grown horror films with questionable acting or thoughtful meditations on social issues at the local level, I am attracted to regional filmmaking because of the way character and story are so intrinsically bound to locale. Regionalism is important because it can put a fresh face on familiar genres, or bring the concerns and fears of the under-represented to light. Florida has a history of supporting regional filmmaking, most notably the work of Victor Nunez, a native son who has done his home state proud with such films as Ruby in Paradise and Ulee’s Gold.
This year’s Sarasota Film Festival included a handful of narrative films shot along Gulf Coast locales. Mangrove Slasher 2, directed by Sean Haitz, follows a shadowy character with a machete who stalks a group of partiers in the mangrove swamps. More of a send-up of B-movie clichés than a bona fide horror film, MS 2 depends on its locations to create the eerie isolation central to the slasher subgenre. The musical drama Beautiful Noise by Steve Tatone is the story of a young singer who searches for an aging pop star from the 1960s. In addition to these feature films, the festival worked with local organizations to present documentaries that revealed challenging issues facing the community, including The Secret World of Recovery (addiction), Through the Tunnel (high-school football as a tool for integration back in the day), and The Observer and the Observed (mental health).
My favorite regional film at the festival was Hollywood East: Florida’s Silent Film Legacy, a documentary about Jacksonville’s identity as a center for moviemaking during the silent era. Filmmaking centers outside of New York and Hollywood played a major role in the establishment of the American film industry, but too often they are left out of the history books or documentaries, partly because the records and films have been lost. Having lived in Chicago for many years, where the city’s participation in the development of the film industry goes back to the 1890s, I am always dismayed that this history goes unheralded in favor of romanticized accounts of gangster lore. I compliment Hollywood East’s director Nadia Ramoutar, who is determined to edge Jacksonville (or, Jax) into formal film history. Ramoutar and her researchers not only found clips from silent films shot in Northern Florida but interviewed some of the few remaining eyewitnesses to the era. Jax was also central to the production of race movies, an indie movement consisting of films made for African American audiences that countered the blatant stereotyping in mainstream movies. The city was home to the Norman Studios, one of the premiere studios for race-film production, which was owned and operated by Richard E. Norman. The buildings that made up the Norman Studios have been restored to their original state, making them the only race-movie studio extant.
Florida’s film history is rich and varied. It would be terrific if one of the state’s many film festivals, such as the SFF, catered to the rising number of movie tourists by offering guided tours of locations used in well-known films or sites related to film history.
The SFF may be a regional festival, but it also includes films from all over the world, high-profile independent efforts, plus sidebars of thematically related movies. During opening weekend, the Gulf Coast Chapter of the U.S. National Committee for U.N. Women presented “Through Women’s Eyes,” a selection of films by women filmmakers about women. The GCC used to host its own mini-festival each year, but in 2010, they began partnering with the SFF, and the alliance has proved mutually beneficial. The best documentaries that I saw during the festival were part of “Through Women’s Eyes”: No Job for a Woman, The Price of Sex, and Miss Representation.
My favorite was No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report World War II, a glossy, well-researched doc directed by Michele Midori Fillion. Narrated by Juliana Margulies, the documentary chronicles the efforts of three women journalists who wanted to cover the front during World War II. Prior to WWII, most women journalists were relegated to covering the four “F’s”—family, fashion, food, and furniture. When war broke out, newspaperwomen such as Ruth Cowan, Dickey Chapelle, and Martha Gellhorn were banned from the frontlines and prevented from reporting front page stories about generals and battlefield maneuvers. They were assigned to “woman’s angle” stories about nurses, female military personnel, and wounded soldiers waiting to go home. Though Cowan, Chapelle, and Gellhorn lamented these assignments and successfully maneuvered their way to the frontlines, these types of stories helped change the scope of wartime journalism into something more than the battlefield strategies of puffed-up generals.
Martha Gellhorn’s story was particularly interesting, because she was the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. The two met in Key West but fell in love while covering the Spanish Civil War. They married in 1940 and lived in Cuba, where Gellhorn followed the events leading up to WWII with great interest. On the other hand, Hemingway was content to ignore the clouds of war and languish in his exotic, tropical home. When Gellhorn left to cover the war for Colliers Weekly, first in London and then on the Italian front, he cantankerously wrote to her: “Are you a war correspondent, or a wife in my bed?” Eventually, he used his fame to land the position as Colliers’ war correspondent, leaving Gellhorn out of an assignment. That did not deter her from sneaking aboard a Red Cross ship to cover D-Day as a free-lancer without credentials—or from leaving her old coot of a husband.
According to Fillion in a Q&A after the film, No Job for a Woman will eventually air on PBS. I highly recommend it, not only because of the interesting subject matter but also because it is so well crafted. Like many historical documentaries, it combines photographs, WWII footage, and interviews to tell the stories of the three women, but Fillion also devised a unique twist on the re-enactment technique. Three actresses play Cowan, Chapelle, and Gellhorn during the WWII era; against a plain, neutral backdrop, they interpret selections from letters or articles written by the three correspondents. Hearing the words of these powerful writers as though spoken from their own mouths allows them a “voice” in the documentary—a powerful technique that stirred the audience. I also admired the technical prowess of the director and producer, who selected their camera based on its abilities to mimic film, which helped to seamlessly integrate the interviews with the historical footage and photographs.
I went to see The Price of Sex, a documentary about the modern sex-slave trade in the Eastern Bloc countries, because the description in the schedule reminded me of an incident that occurred in Chicago a few years ago. Police raided the old Admiral Theater, a “burlesque” joint on the North Side of Chicago, when they learned that Eastern European girls were being held against their will and forced to work as prostitutes. Authorities were alerted to the problem because one brave girl jumped out of an upper-floor window of some nearby apartments and escaped. She was found wandering nude along the street; apparently, the girls were not permitted to own or wear clothes in order to prevent them from leaving the overcrowded apartment. The Price of Sex featured several girls from Moldova, Bulgaria, and more obscure countries in Eastern Europe who told similar stories—right down to risking death or injury by jumping from high windows to escape their enslavers. The film was directed by Bulgarian-American photojournalist Mimi Chakarova, who wanted to expose the prevalence of the sex-slave trade. Teenage girls from poverty-stricken villages—where there are no industries or services to provide jobs for locals—are lured to foreign countries with the promise of positions as waitresses or maids. The procurers take care of passports, transportation, and living arrangements, but when the girls arrive at their destinations—Turkey, Greece, and Dubai in the film—they discover the true nature of their new occupations. Those who bulk or refuse are threatened, beaten, and held prisoner without clothes, money, or their passports (which were fake to begin with). The few that do escape are generally returned, because local police and authorities are paid off by the sex traders. I included the Chicago story in my discussion of this film lest you think that this sort of illegal activity could never happen in America.
On Saturday, April 21, actress Geena Davis received the Inaugural Impact Award from the Sarasota Film Festival for her work as the Founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In step with Davis’s appearance and participation in the festival, “Through Women’s Eyes” included the documentary Miss Representation as part of their program. This documentary, directed by former actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a scathing indictment of the media’s limiting and damaging representations of women. I know what you are thinking–anyone who watches movies and television already knows this, right? That’s what I thought, but I decided to see the film anyway, because as an instructor of film studies, I felt honor-bound to keep up with the latest information. I was surprised and disheartened by the depth of the problem. I think we’ve become so used to the skewed representation of women and the sexualizing of teen girls that we have given up and accepted it. Newsom presents an astonishing array of statistics that clearly demonstrates in a straightforward manner the impact of the media’s damaging depiction of females. I teach this sort of thing, and I was still shocked; and, for me, it was the cold, hard statistics that were a slap in the face. Only 16% of protagonists in films are women. This includes animated features, where the primary occupation of the female protagonists is royalty, i.e. princesses. It also includes action films in which the women are dressed in S&M-style costumes while brandishing weapons—a fantasy archetype that one expert in the film dubbed “the fighting f**k toy” (think Angelina Jolie). What accounts for this situation? It could be that women make up only 7% of the directors in the film industry. By the way, this is a lower percentage of female directors than in Iran.
Oddly enough, Miss Representation will probably be shown on television—where reality shows and news broadcasts are the worst offenders for the misrepresentation of women. Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, OWN, is the official distributor for the film. Try to catch it later this year on OWN, especially if you have kids, who, by the way, average almost 11 hours a day watching media.
The Geena Davis Institute is working to combat this situation, particularly at the childhood level before the damaging images are engrained. I admire Davis for putting her money where her mouth is. See Jane, the programming arm of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, announced on Saturday that it will partner with the Sarasota Film Festival to present a Sarasota-based student filmmaking workshop and production lab to focus on representations of gender in media for 2011-2012. In keeping with the SFF’s support of film education and regional filmmaking, I suspect the results will be part of next year’s fest.
In addition to the titles mentioned above, I saw a variety of other documentaries and features that will probably never see a major, widespread theatrical release, including Kelly Reichardt’s indie western Meek’s Cutoff, Werner Herzog’s amazing 3-D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and newcomer Amy Wendel’s Texas-based coming-of-age drama Benavides Born, among others. Next week, I will write about a documentary that TCM viewers should find very interesting, so stay tuned.
I can’t recommend the film festival experience enough. As Hollywood execs continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on over-marketed tripe aimed at teenage boys, and cowardly theater chains are reluctant to book anything else, festivals offer a refuge for movie lovers looking for smart, heartfelt films that will enlighten, engage, and entertain audiences. If you don’t live in a city that offers a film festival, check out the schedules of fests like the SFF for suggestions for your Netflix queues.
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