Milwaukee Women's Film Festival persists in its pursuit of progress
For a moment, the future of the Milwaukee Women's Film Festival was almost in doubt.
After months of exhausting work, essentially single-handedly assembling and organizing a three-day festival of feature-length and short movies with no real organizational backing for support – plus continuing her writing about film on her blog, A Reel Of One's Own, and contributing to other outlets – festival founder and executive director Andrea Thompson was ready and willing to call it one-and-done on the celebration of female-focused and women-directed cinema.
Then the election happened. And suddenly, shutting down and silencing the festival was no longer an option.
"In light of the current situation and who's in power, that decided it for me," Thompson said. "I guess this could've been a celebration, but now, it feels more like defiance, saying, 'I will not be quiet.' If I can contribute in my own small way, help empower people who those in power just want to shut up, smile and be quiet, I like that."
With that defiant attitude, the Women's Film Festival marches back onto the big screen for its second year, kicking off another weekend on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Underground Collaborative with its opening night selection, Melissa Dowler's documentary "Adele and Everything After." The event will roar through the rest of the weekend in the colorful corner of Grand Avenue's basement, providing female-fronted films – whether in front of or behind the camera – the spotlight Hollywood still struggles to offer.
The wild success of "Wonder Woman" – the first female-fronted major superhero blockbuster, as well as the first to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins – further grew the escalating conversation about women and representation in the industry. However, women still only directed 7 percent of the top grossing box office performers last year and only represented 16 percent of the main competition lineup at this past May's Cannes Film Festival, one of the world's biggest and most respected film showcases. And that doesn't take into account the on-screen representation of women at the festival as well, which received criticism from several film writers covering Cannes to one of its own famous judges, actress Jessica Chastain.
As events like the Women's Film Festival – and the Milwaukee Film Festival, which further emphasized its expanding female filmmaker footprint in its 2017 program book – it's not due to a lack of talented or driven female writers and directors. In fact, it's an issue Thompson's festival takes head-on opening night with the selected short film, Hannah McMeeking and Holly Bourdillon's "One in Five," about the directors' exploration into the walls halting female voices in film.
The goal, however, isn't to bludgeon audiences with politics.
"I didn't want my opening night to be all politics; I wanted it to be a good time," she explained. "I really wanted to pick a film that would make us all feel good and a nice time. So my opening night short is about women in the film industry, while the opening night film is about this woman and her service dog – very heartwarming. She has a heart condition, this dog helps her, but then, of course, it's getting old so she has to find a new service dog because it just can't help her as much anymore. It's about that process and journey, which is way more complex than I thought.
"Plus, who doesn't love dogs?"
For the non-canine lovers, however, the film festival offers a variety of other stories over its three-day celebration. There's the short film "Tiff," a dark abuse drama from local filmmaker Kimberley Zulkowski; "After Orlando, Getting Its Pulse Back," a short documentary about the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting; and "JDF16," an hour-long look into the life and death of beloved Cuban star pitcher Jose Fernandez – just to name a few. And all either directed by or starring women.
"Yes, ("JDF16") focuses on a guy, but it's directed by a woman," Thompson noted. "It's a sports documentary; it's just a reminder that, yes, women are interested in this, and yes, women can do this, too."
Thompson's goals for the film festival go beyond screenings as well. Through the event, as well as the #FilmGirlFilm hashtag and conversation, she hopes to help build a greater and louder community of local female filmmakers.
"I'm already tired of just having the film festival and then kind of disappearing," she said. "I want monthly events, I want to build this community and I want a filmmaking community where we all participate and do events and such that is just for women. I just want to keep events going and grow a network of support."
And she already has plans and ideas for year three, so the Milwaukee Women's Film Festival isn't going anywhere. And at no better time.
"There's a clear line in the sand, and you can't stay out of it: You are either against everything that is happening or you are for it. You can't do nothing."
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