If an astounding range of work has characterized the American Film Institute's 10-day festival of film and video work by women filmmakers, certain familiar issues keep cropping up, nevertheless.
One is the question of "feminist" versus "women's" films. Director Deborah Boldt recalls putting together program notes in which she described her wilderness documentary, "Miles To Go," as "an adventure film made from a woman's point of view" and then saw it transformed to "a feminist adventure film."
"Semantics? Or a point of distinction? I would describe myself as a feminist actively working to help women more completely fulfill their potential," Boldt says. "But 'feminist' has definite political overtones that go beyond that, and it would not be an accurate way to describe the sensibility out of which we made this film. We explore the human component of the experience as well as the feminine, with the emphasis on the process rather than the accomplishment of conquering nature."
Despite its garish Hollywood-sequel name, "Women and Movies III" is an untypical film production. For the third straight year, the AFI has brought together women filmmakers--mostly working as independents--to showcase a wide spectrum of visions. Many of these films have never been seen in Washington. Some, like Susan Seidleman's "Smithereens," are so new that their commercial openings here come hot on the heels of the AFI exposure.
"Women's cinema has always existed," says Margot Kernan, a professor of film at George Washington University who will lead a seminar on women's film tomorrow afternoon. "With the opening out of consciousness, more women are making films and more women are free to explore areas that commercial cinema does not explore. Women may make feminist films around social issues--abortion, lesbian rights, welfare--but women's filmmaking as a whole is more complex" than easy labeling will allow.
For instance, Boldt describes her "Miles To Go," a documentary about eight women on a two-week wilderness expedition as "an adventure film made from a woman's point of view. We didn't simply want to capture the outer spectacle of the challenge, the derring-do, the whole notion of people--traditionally men--going out and 'conquering' the wilderness. We wanted to create a film that was much more intimate in feeling and would focus more on the characters, the behavior that reflects the character of the women in this particular group."
A larger issue is what Kernan describes as "the positioning of sexuality. The tradition of the female figure in film is as a sexual signifier, an object of the gaze. When women make film, they turn that around in various interesting ways."
Despite a broad stylistic palette--after all, some women use the medium as a political forum and are therefore less interested in form than content--women working in film face the danger of being "ghettoized," according to Michelle Citron, whose "Daughter Rite" will be shown at 6:30 tomorrow.
"The assumption is made that films by women are not going to have any interest for people other than women. Some filmmakers have a deliberate strategy to go out and make films that won't be ghettoized: A lot of women political filmmakers are now making films about other political issues--antinuke, Central and South America. Other filmmakers don't care. My films are strongly about issues that have women at the center, but I have to fight very hard sometimes to get people to recognize that there's a lot more going on in those films."
Anita Thatcher, whose short films open 6:30 programs today and tomorrow, sees "women's film" as "a bootstrap kind of term that doesn't really describe a form. That's not to deny that there are issues and imagery of particular interest to women but those labels tend to put off a general audience. It's a way of focusing attention when a lot of doors are closed, but the effort to create an audience may result in the opposite effect."
Sometimes however, labeling women's films is a matter of prudence, Citron points out. "There's clearly an audience out there who want films by women about women, and if they have that information they're more likely to go see the films. That's real important if you're an independent filmmaker and not plugged into theatrical distribution. It's also important in getting grants, but just as many times it can work against you."
The AFI festival reinforces one conception: Opportunities for women in film are still mostly via the independent route. "The percentages are still heavily stacked against women," says Kernan. "The profession is still an old-boy network, a tight little shop. Sex and violence sells, and women filmmakers, with a few notable exceptions, don't work in that particular genre."
Producer/director Midge Mackenzie, who points out the importance of women-derived scripts ("If they just put on my gravestone, 'She wrote great parts for women,' I'll settle for that") has made "a lot of films about women. My new film is all about men, about a film form that was a major influence on my life. One of the men is John Huston; [while] filming him someone asked me what school of film I was from. I said, 'The Irish School.' Robert Flaherty, John Ford and John Huston--I aspire to their tradition. I want to tell a hell of a story and that's what film is to me."
(Mackenzie's six-hour long 1974 Masterpiece Theatre program, "Shoulder to Shoulder," will be shown at 10:30 Sunday morning, with Mackenzie on hand to discuss her work.)
The all-day screenings, which run through Sunday night, are open to the public.