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The cinematic mystique

Stephens College festival celebrates women filmmakers

October 9, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Although it wasn’t until 2003 that a female filmmaker won that little gold statue named Oscar, women in the director’s chair have been recognized for their work since the ’70s. The first woman to be honored by the Academy Awards was Italian director Lina Wertmüller, who was nominated for directing and writing in 1976. Then, Sofia Coppola made the transition to award winner in 2003 with Lost in Translation. Citizen Jane, a new film festival hosted by Stephens College, now aims to celebrate hardworking women in the world of movies.

Inspiration for the festival came when The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual survey of the film industry, showed that only six percent of all directors in 2007 were women. This influenced the decision of Kerri Yost, director of the Citizen Jane Film Festival and chair of the department of mass media/digital film at Stephens College, and her colleagues to produce Citizen Jane. “The film industry is really not a great place for women right now,” Yost says. “We really wanted to have a film festival that would address why this is and help people get jobs and promote female filmmakers.”

Q & A with Astra Taylor, director of Examined Life

Polishing off her second documentary about philosophy in just four years, filmmaker Astra Taylor lives by the old Socrates adage: The unexamined life is not worth living. Her film, Examined Life, features interviews with philosophers Cornel West and Judith Butler, among other great minds. Catch a showing at the Citizen Jane Film Festival at Stephens College.

Vox: What inspired you to make the film?
Astra Taylor: My previous film was called Zizek! about the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and even as I was editing and finishing that one up, I knew I wanted to make another philosophy film.

How long was it in the making?
AT: I spent more time pitching it than making it. I only started filming Aug. 22 of last year. A year of begging and a year of making. Once I started doing it, I really just worked on it and dreamed about it and obsessed over it every day.

When did you first get interested in philosophy?
AT: I have a really vivid memory of picking up Animal Liberation. It is a work of philosophy by Peter Singer. There I was at 12 years old, reading Peter Singer, and now he is in my film.

What drives and motivates you?
AT: Wondering, “what’s going on here?” Every day I wake up now and it’s such a jaw-dropping moment in history, with what’s going on with our government.

Since this film, do you find yourself thinking about philosophy in everyday situations?
AT: I am more educated after the film on different schools of philosophical thought. It has caused me to examine some of my assumptions and preconceptions that I haven’t totally been able to figure out — inconsistencies in my own worldview that I walk around with.

Are women in film underrepresented?
AT: We’re a small minority. At the Toronto Film Festival, everyone assumed I was someone’s assistant or an actress. I think the younger generation is more comfortable with women in positions of influence and people of different sexual orientations. It’s a question of who has the purse strings. And right now, it’s men.

What’s your next project?
AT: I don’t have any big grand plans for the future. The whole message in my film is take your time and reflect, so I’m trying to take my own advice.

--Casey Lewis
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Polina Malikin, a filmmaker, festival developer and digital film professor at Stephens College, hopes that Citizen Jane become a great place for women to show off their work. Eventually, she would like it to be a place where women can gain recognition. “There are a lot of women who are working on shorts and who are incredibly talented but aren’t given a second look,” Malikin says. She would like to see word of the festival spread in the years to come so that other women in the film industry can see their work displayed.

The three-day festival, which will take place Oct. 17-19, will feature the work of 20 filmmakers from all over the world. Films were found through various outlets, according to Malikin. “There are a lot of people that I know in various parts of the industry, and we do a lot of research in industry magazines and other film festivals,” she says. “And a lot of women work with other women.”

The selection of films and filmmakers led to a representation of an array of genres. “We already are a niche,” Yost says. “We wanted to exhibit all different types of films that women make. The programming reflects where women are working in the industry, more in documentaries and experimental pieces.” Other film genres such as animation and short films are playing throughout the festival at Ragtag Cinema. Tickets can also be purchased at Ragtag Cinema.

In addition to the films, there will be multiple one-hour panels on Saturday and Sunday. Yost explains that the panels will allow discussions of the film industry in general, including the first panel, “Experiment Nation.” “Women Behind the Camera” on Saturday is a discussion of women in the industry. Sunday will have two panels, “Document This” and “Handmade Films.” These discussions will give more insight into creating, directing and producing documentaries and experimental films.

For those looking for a hands-on option during the festival, the program includes a workshop that will teach how to make films in one hour. All workshops and speaker panels are free and open to the public.

This year’s festival is a stepping stone for all the events in the future. The goal is to eventually become a playground for female filmmakers. Yost believes that Citizen Jane might become a meeting place for female filmmakers both regionally and nationally. “We’re really noticing the need for that now,” Yost notes. “We want it to become somewhere that female filmmakers set time to come, relax and learn.”

Although this is only the first year, those involved see it branching out to encompass all types of women in the field of movies. “I think it’s the start of a groundbreaking movement for female filmmakers,” Malikin says. “I think women have accomplished a great deal. The question is, who is in control of recognizing them?”

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