Out of 120 women’s film festivals on my list, only three have ‘feminist’ in their titles: the Central Illinois Feminist Film Festival, Cineffable: Quand Les Lesbiennes Se Font Du Cinema–the Paris Feminist and Lesbian Film Festival and the London Feminist Film Festival, now seeking submissions for their second year. I’m curious about what makes a women’s film festival a feminist festival and was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Anna Read, the director, about the festival.
Q: There are four other women’s film festivals in London: Birds Eye View, Images of Black Women: African Descent Women in Cinema, Underwire and Women/Mujeres Spanish Film Festival. Why did you start another one? What philosophy underlies the festival?
I wanted to create a film festival which was explicitly feminist, not only in showing films by women but also in the content of those films. The festival is feminist in that it shows only films by women and also in that we show films with a feminist leaning to a greater or lesser extent. We want to support women filmmakers in a male-dominated industry and to celebrate women’s creativity, and we also want to get feminist issues more into the mainstream, via cinema, and get people thinking and talking about these issues. I would say that the other women’s film festivals in London are also feminist in intent, even if they don’t have the word ‘feminist’ in the title.
Our films are mainly ones which deal with feminist issues. We want to inspire debate about these feminist issues and so we have panel discussions after each screening, with feminist activists as well as filmmakers/critics, to enable people to discuss the themes that have been dealt with in the films and to find out how to get involved in feminist activism.
I think perhaps we are like a cross between a women’s film festival and a human rights film festival.
Q: How do you define ‘feminist’? And what about the definition of ‘feminist issue’? Isn’t every issue a feminist issue? Are you also concerned with intersectionality?
As a festival we don't proscribe to any one version of feminism and are open to all interpretations. Obviously what we select for the festival will be dictated by who is on the selection panel and how they view feminism but then programming a film festival is always partly a subjective thing and we try to have people on the panel who are open to different views. I guess you can see from looking at what we programmed last year the type of things we are interested in (e.g. objectification of women, VAW, women in male-dominated professions), but that was also dictated by what films we received and their quality and it does not convey everything we are interested in. Each year's programme will obviously depend on the films we receive which is why we are trying to get as diverse a range as possible.
We are looking for films which deal with issues to do with women’s rights, and/or which portray women (and men) in a non-sexist way. We are definitely concerned with intersectionality, and last year we showed some great films exploring lesbian feminism and black (lesbian) feminism. There are a few of us on the selection panel and we all have different main feminist issues which concern us. At the moment, women’s media representation concerns me a lot – how we are portrayed has such a big impact on how we see ourselves, how men see us, how children make sense of the world. And this is another reason that women’s film festivals are so important! I’m also concerned with the epidemic levels of violence against women and how so often it’s accepted as inevitable.
Q: Are you looking for a spread of documentary and narrative films? For Bechdel Test films?
Last year most of our films were documentaries but we also had quite a few narrative films too. We want to programme a real mix of films, so we accept any genre of film.
We don’t specifically test our films with the Bechdel Test, but I would say most if not all of last year’s films would have passed the test.
Q: I was a little surprised to learn that your fest has a ‘director’ because I hadn’t seen you named anywhere and from what I’ve read on your site and Facebook page, the festival seems to run as a collective. What kind of feminist structure do you have? Were you the sole founder? Or did a group of you start the festival and then decide that it was necessary to have a director?
I had the idea for the festival and did most of the work on it last year. Also working on the festival were my partner and some amazing friends who worked on specific elements of the festival, guided by me. I would like to make it more of a collective effort though so I’m working on that for this year’s festival and the future.
I’m coming at the festival from mainly a feminist perspective. I studied film theory a little at university and am passionate about film, but I’d say I am even more passionate about feminism and human rights. So it’s necessary to have people on board with the festival who have more of a film background, as well as being feminist of course, and we had a great mixture of people on the selection panel and jury to ensure that (hopefully) all bases were covered. I wanted to make the kind of festival which I’d like to go to and which I thought lots of other feminists would like to go to, one where we can discuss film and feminism and be inspired by stories of amazing women and get fired up to do something about injustices in the world.
Q: Last year was your first year. Any surprises? How did you access your films and what criteria did you use to select them? Was there any resistance to the f-word?
We put out our call for submissions as far and wide in the world as we could, using social media etc. We asked for films of any length, genre, or year, by women directors from anywhere in the world (we only accept films by women as we want to provide a platform for women directors in a male-dominated industry). I think we got a good mix of films highlighting different feminist topics, from Give Us a Smile (a 1983 animated short dealing with sexual objectification and male violence) to the award-winning 2012 documentary Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, via the fascinating documentary The Witches of Gambaga about so-called witch camps in Ghana.
We chose films which might show a different take on a well-known feminist topic, or which highlight something not many of us know about. The films all dealt with feminist topics, some in a more explicit way than others. We didn’t get much resistance, apart from some of the usual misogyny on Facebook that anything feminist gets – on the whole people were really supportive, filmmakers and audiences alike. I think there are a lot of people who are proud to call themselves feminists and who welcome the chance to get involved with feminist events like LFFF. Quite a few directors contacted us saying how great it was to have another women’s film festival when there are relatively few avenues for showing women’s/feminist films.
Q: What did you learn about your audiences?
I learnt that there are lots of people out there hungry for a feminist film festival! We were so pleased with the response to the first festival and hope it continues to be a success this year and in the future.
Q: How do you fund the festival? Does having ‘feminist’ in the title affect your funding opportunities, either positively or negatively?
We had no funding at all for the first year. This allowed us to be relatively independent and free to do what we wanted. It was a risk to take but thankfully the festival was successful in terms of tickets sold so we didn’t make a loss. Maybe having ‘feminist’ in the title would put off potential funders/sponsors, but we would want to choose our funders carefully anyway and so probably wouldn’t want to approach anyone who would be put off by women wanting human rights!
Q: Are there films you wish existed or that you have difficulty finding?
Some really important films are just not available or are only available in poor quality versions, and that’s a real shame. That’s one of the reasons we have our Feminist Classic screenings – to show feminist classic films which might be difficult to see elsewhere. Last year we showed Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence (1982) which won two major awards when it came out but is now very difficult to get to see as it’s not screened often and is not available on DVD with subtitles (it’s in Dutch). I’m really excited about sourcing our Feminist Classics for this year. This year I want to try and find one or two little-known and/or little-shown feminist classics from outside of Europe/USA so we are busy looking into that now.
Q: What were the challenges and rewards? Did they mean that you’ve changed things this year? What advice would you give others who want to start a festival?
I think personally I took on too much myself, hence trying to share the workload more this year. It’s also always good of course to have lots of people’s opinions and to try to represent as wide an audience as possible. I thought getting the word out and getting people to come to the festival would have been a big challenge, but actually our efforts in this really paid off and lots of people found out about the festival and came along.
I think lots of things worked really well last year, but we will be changing a few things for this year’s festival and will also be making it a bit bigger, with more screenings. It was challenging having three screenings one after the other on the Saturday and Sunday of the festival, with too few volunteers, so we are changing that for this year.
The rewards were giving filmmakers a chance to show their films, having people enjoy the festival, and seeing that so many people want to come to something which has ‘feminist’ in the title! In terms of advice to people wanting to start a film festival, I would say make sure you are passionate about it as it’s a lot of work, get people you can really trust on board and work out from the start what you are doing and why so everyone is on the same page, and accept that things will not go perfectly to plan and try to be pragmatic when that happens (easier said than done!).
Q: Are you part of the International Women’s Film Festival Network? What does it offer you that is useful?
The International Women’s Film Festival Network is a great enterprise and we will be using it to make links with other women’s film festivals.
Q: What are your future plans? Are you likely to expand to an online festival?
This year’s festival will be much the same as last year’s, but more so! It will be spread out over more days and will have more screenings and hopefully more Feminist Classics. We also want to do some one-off screenings throughout the year, and to collaborate with other women’s film festivals. We haven’t plans yet to expand to online, but it’s something we will consider as we do want the festival to be as international as possible and to reach as wide an audience as possible.