By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Aug 17, 2016 at 7:06 PM

"What are you doing?"

That short but stern question was the key closing point at an event hosted by last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, one that brought together women from the world of movies and entertainment to share and discuss their experiences in the industry. It’s a question that stuck with Milwaukee-based film writer and critic Andrea Thompson, who was in attendance covering the festival for her blog, A Reel Of One’s Own.

And as of this weekend, it’s a question to which she’ll have a strong answer.

Friday night will be the inaugural Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival, a big screen showcase for women’s stories often treated as niche material by Hollywood. The Milwaukee Undergroud Collaborative, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave., underneath The Shops of Grand Avenue, will play host to the three-day film festival, opening at 7 p.m. with "The Ultimate No-Show," the true story of a woman’s encounter with a con man and the resulting aftermath.

An opening night after-party will follow the screening, featuring a performance by Milwaukee hip-hop group Boom Boom Klap, as well as viewings of "Across the Line," a VR experience from local film studio 371 Productions that follows a woman attempting to enter an abortion clinic. It's received attention at Sundance, SXSW and other film festivals across the country.

"I tried to incorporate as many points of view as I could, as long as they were presented well," Thompson said. "If you’re always in a safe space, you don’t get new ideas; you’re never challenged."

A challenge was exactly what Thompson was looking for after the Chicago International Film Festival panel event. At the time, the writer felt a bit stuck at her day job, which was captioning phone calls, and wanted a meaningful project she could put her all into. The panel’s call to action provided the initial nudge, and after she heard several of her friends at the film blog Milwaukee Movie Talk were starting a horror movie fest – this past spring’s inaugural Twisted Dreams Film Festival – she had an idea and a direction too.

"I just decided I’ll never be ready; this is just something you have to do. So I did it," Thompson said. "I’ve been thinking about it since about October last year, finally committed to it in December and now it’s going to happen this week. It’s crazy."

It comes at a big and critical time for women and film, as the lack of female voices in the famously male-dominated boys club of Hollywood has finally emerged as a front-burner issue for the industry. Despite serving as half of the population, women-centric films have traditionally been viewed as small, light fare, and while that view is changing, and more and more films focus on including strong female roles and perspectives on screen, the change has been far slower off screen.

Female directors are a stark minority in Hollywood, and those who are working are mostly confined to small-budgeted and minimally released independent films or documentaries. Of the 100 top box office movies of 2016, only six currently come from female directors. Just this past April, The Wrap reported major studios Paramount and 20th Century Fox had no female directors on tap for any projects through 2018.

While news like Ava DuVernay ("Selma") becoming the first woman of color to helm a $100 million movie is heartening progress, the path it took to get to this point is less so. While male directors like Colin Trevorrow get to graduate to big-budget fare like "Jurassic World" after one small indie (or get to continue making big-budget tentpoles after face-planting like "Chappie" director Neill Blomkamp), female directors are rarely granted that fast track – or that kind of studio forgiveness.

However, Thompson says there is progress.

"The fact that this is so much in the news and that women are talking about this," she notes, "I think we’re on our way moving forward."

She hopes the Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival can be a part of that conversation, or at least help continue to mainstream the discussion and move it forward. But how to go about doing that with the film festival’s loudest and most obvious voice: the films themselves? Originally, Thompson notes she was looking solely for female-directed movies for the event, but as she thought about it, she changed her scope to include male directors (though still with a premium on women filmmakers). She also chose not to hone in on the idea of a "strong female character."

"I think we’re beyond that: I want good female characters," Thompson argued. "Iron Man: Is he a strong male character? Does he always know what to do? No. He gets drunk. He doubts. He’s stupid. Even Captain America goes through a struggle where he doesn’t know what to do. I just tried to look for interesting female characters. That was my main thing."

The result is a collection of films ranging across unique, rarely heard perspectives – from the opening-night pick featuring a woman discussing her Christian faith to the abortion VR doc to a short film about a sex-positive porn star and much more. That was exactly Thompson’s goal.

"I just hope to do my part and put a variety of images of women out there," she said. "One’s about a deaf woman in England. One’s about an Iranian woman who makes a trip back to Iran. One’s about trans women in Turkey. One’s about a lesbian woman making a series of crazy calls to this woman she went on just one date with. The serious and the funny.

"They can disagree with me; I’m not expecting everyone to like every film, but I’m hoping to create a respectful space, where women – and men, too – with differences can find something."

So, this weekend – and in the future – the question must be asked: What are you doing?

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.