by Alex Bauman, Natalie Bex, Nick Branch, Daniel Deshaies, Michael Dragovich, Sam Gabler-Brown, Cassandra Gammie, Tynan Hall, Amber Holloway-Cook, Mikayla Lawrence, Kathryn McClain, Nathan Milburn, Rebecca Partin, Carrin Romain-McErlane, Briana Schlemmer, Catherine Sebastian, Jacob Shelley, Grace Snitselaar, Mckenna Snyder, Jessica Vangel, and Lucas Vigil
The second annual Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival took place in Bellingham, Washington, over four days in April and brought together members of the community, filmmakers, students, and cinephiles for a celebration of exceptional films made by women filmmakers worldwide. The organizers have modeled their festival on Toronto’s Female Eye, which has been running annually since 2002, and they stress that Cascadia is one of only two festivals in the United States to showcase exclusively women directors’ work. In addition, the festival’s mission is to provide educational opportunities for emerging and aspiring filmmakers and to draw attention to Bellingham and the larger Pacific Northwest as a destination for both filmmakers and film enthusiasts. Located in the northwestern corner of the state about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Bellingham is a coastal town of 80,000 people surrounded by mountains and rainforest. Cascadia’s organizers have taken inspiration as well from the Port Townsend Film Festival a two-hour drive to the south, which was founded in 1999 and floods the much smaller seaside town with film culture and tourist dollars for three days each September.
This review of Cascadia’s second-year festival was written collectively by the twenty-one students in Professor Greg Youmans’s English 464 Film Criticism course at Western Washington University. We split up the festival events among ourselves to make sure each was covered by at least one member of the class. We wrote individual reviews about our respective experiences of the festival and then collaborated to synthesize them into a succinct collective review. In the week leading up to the festival, Cascadia’s Executive Director Cheryl Crooks also visited our class to tell us about the festival’s history and goals and to answer our questions. Because we are all film-studies students at Bellingham’s local four-year university, and because many of us plan to pursue careers in filmmaking after graduation, our review of the festival focuses largely on its connection to the local student population and its degree of success in nurturing emerging and aspiring filmmakers here in town, though we address other aspects of the festival as well, including its internationalism and its feminist politics. Considering the festival’s commitment to including films and perspectives of women of color, it’s also worth mentioning at the start of this review that neither Bellingham nor Western are very diverse: the city is 79% white and the campus 72%.
Cascadia’s 2018 program included 25 short and feature-length films made by 24 women directors, along with various panels and special events. Most of the programming took place at the Pickford Film Center in the heart of Bellingham’s downtown arts district. The intimate, two-theater Pickford has been bringing independent and foreign films to the community since 1998, and for the festival its lobby featured prominent displays of the statistics of women in film, including pie charts depicting women’s roles as tiny slivers in the male-dominated industry. A handful of festival events also took place at the historic Mount Baker Theater, which began life as a movie palace in 1927, as well as up the hill at Western Washington University.
A pre-festival screening took place on campus on the evening of Wednesday, April 11, the night before the festival’s official opening. Sue Useem’s documentary The Peace Agency tells the story of Lian Gogali, a disabled single mother in Poso, Indonesia, and her quest to start a women’s school to bridge the religious divide between Muslims and Christians and to empower young women who have been victimized by over a decade of brutal conflict. Cutting between interviews and classroom footage, the film shows how the protagonist is able to teach her students tolerance, self-sufficiency, and agency in what often feels like real time. Useem is careful to frame the overall story as one of hope-filled success rather than continual struggle, and through her lens the audience is able to experience the thrill of watching a school grow from a handful of students to an empire of education and tolerance. The film was an effective introduction to Cascadia’s activist and international commitments, but the screening was, unfortunately, sparsely attended and felt disconnected from the rest of the festival.
Lynn Shelton’s Outside In (2017).
The true kick-off event took place at the Pickford on Thursday, April 12, with the opening night screening of Outside In, the latest film by Seattle-born indie director Lynn Shelton. The slice-of-life drama was filmed in the small mountain town of Granite Falls, and watching it was a reminder of how rare it is to encounter movies set in Washington state. The numerous shots of forests and rivers gave one of our reviewers, a native Washingtonian, a newfound appreciation for the scenic beauty of the place he calls home. The film tells the story of a man (Jay Duplass) who has been released from prison after twenty years, and explores his complex relationships with an often documentary-like realism, including a May-December romance with his former high school English teacher (Edie Falco). It never feels like the film is trying to tell the audience how to feel about the man’s interactions, instead simply presenting them and trusting the viewer to be able to come to their own conclusions. A Q&A with the film’s producer Lacey Leavitt followed the screening, providing insight on the production process and especially on shooting in Washington. By revealing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Outside In was a fitting opener for the festival. Among other things, it showcased the region’s potential as a film location for the visiting filmmakers in attendance.
Friday, April 13, was the first of three full days of festival screenings and events. In the morning, Western’s campus hosted a panel discussion titled “Finding a Film Mentor—Not a Mystery.” The panel, moderated by Bellingham Film founder Avielle Heath, featured Emmy-winning director Mary Lou Belli, producer Tracey Shrier, and production designer Tema Staig, who is also the executive director of Women in Media. The panelists offered insight on getting started as a filmmaker, the experience of being a woman on set, and their personal journeys through the industry. For anyone trying to break into the industry, they offered the advice of networking, holding a joy about your work at all times, focusing on your craft, earning your right to mentorship through hard work, and, for women especially, remaining confident in your accomplishments and never selling yourself short. While all three panelists were white, they touched on the added struggle for women of color getting started in the industry, quoting Ava Duvernay’s statement that she “gets her white boy on” whenever she’s about to go in to a meeting in order to hold herself with the utmost confidence. The panel was a powerful event for the crowd that included many aspiring filmmakers, women and men alike. That said, the end of the event, when discussion was finally opened to questions from the audience, felt rushed. The panelists stuck around for a while afterwards to speak individually with audience members, but many questions were left unanswered. Overall, the panel was encouraging and informative, and we wish it could have been longer.
The first feature-length film of Friday’s program was Fiona Tan’s Ascent. The film takes the form of a photo slideshow of Mt. Fuji, narrated by Tan and a male Japanese correspondent who we’re told journeyed to the mountain’s summit with her. The film emphasizes the significant effect Mt. Fuji has had on Japan, including numerous myths about the landmark. The two narrators use personification to emphasize the mountain’s looming presence: it has been there to watch over the entire history of Japan, and it will continue to watch long after we are gone. Making great use of music and ambient sound to set the mood for photographs from different eras, Ascent proves that a film can have great impact even when it presents just one still image at a time.
Directly following the screening of Ascent was the SVA Short Film Showcase, comprised of six thesis films from New York City’s distinguished School of Visual Arts. A standout was To Be Fiona, directed by Fiona Lu. The animated short movingly presents a meeting between Fiona and her younger self. The colors onscreen often barely reach or seep outside the drawn lines, filling space in casual but pleasing ways. The use of limited animation (using less frames per second than traditional full animation) is effective in signifying a dream-like sequence, as the picture often appears to skip. Our reviewer felt that, despite the quiet nature of the film, a musical score would have enhanced the cinematic experience. Overall, though, the film was heartwarming and well made, and it provided a delightful demonstration of Lu’s abilities as a director, animator, and writer.
The short films were followed by a somewhat impromptu Q&A with three of the directors: Lizz Astor, Demitria Bozas, and Lu. The filmmakers answered a few questions about the inspirations behind their films but were shuffled off before much else could be said. Luckily, one of us was able to catch up with them outside the event. Bozas and Lu spoke of their happiness in being selected by their school to be featured in such a wonderful festival, and Astor, without prompting, proclaimed her adoration for the Pacific Northwest.
Later that evening, festivalgoers were treated to a packed-house staged conversation with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American and third woman to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Boone Isaacs is a perfect example of the type of high-caliber film professional Cascadia is trying to bring to Bellingham and make accessible to people who are interested in working in the industry. However, the vast majority of seats seemed to be reserved for representatives of the local businesses who sponsored the event. This was unfortunate because it left a significant portion of the audience—many of them aspiring filmmakers and students—shoved in the back. While it is understandable that the event’s funders should get pride of place, it does seem that Cascadia’s intention of making the industry accessible to young and aspiring filmmakers fell to the wayside in favor of celebrating the money that got it there. Host Deb Slater neglected to ask questions about recent issues the Academy has faced, such as the #MeToo movement, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, or the slander popular films directed by women and people of color have received from critics. Instead, the conversation was tailored for nostalgia with hardly a word directed toward the present or the future.
Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order (2017).
The Divine Order, the final film of the evening, was a fitting spotlight selection as it presents a compelling portrayal of the power that can be generated by women’s movements, much like the festival itself. Director and screenwriter Petra Volpe and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann mesmerized the audience with their narrative and visual storytelling, and their film brought to light an important event in world history: the struggle in Switzerland for women’s right to vote, which wasn’t achieved until 1971. The young housewife protagonist of The Divine Order is a powerful representation of the transformation of a person by revolutionary ideas. At the climactic moment of victory, the entire theater started clapping in an uproar, overcome by the film’s emotional power.
Saturday morning, April 14, began with a panel at the Pickford on “The Vital Role of the Documentary Editor,” featuring a range of women who have edited everything from documentary features to episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The panelists provided an inside look at what it’s like to be employed as an editor, how much harder they have had to work to prove themselves as women, and how important it is to have a gender-equal environment in the workplace.
The festival’s second shorts program took place early that afternoon, with films covering an array of topics, including grief, coming of age, and, of course, women’s experience, and taking a range of approaches and styles, including many forms of animation.
One Boy in Four Parts, directed by the late Hannah Frank, is a mix of painted animation and still photography, and is reminiscent in some respects of Stan Brakhage’s work. The storytelling is split between a child’s narration and what is presumably the father’s. The audience is led through four parts of the story, seemingly disconnected, with the overarching theme that the boy wakes up one morning feeling as though something is different. The difference ends up being a cognizance of “self” and the idea that he is made up of a bunch of cells.
The live-action short The Door, created by Reem Morsi, is about three Syrian refugees who are dealing with the loss of the woman who is, respectively, their mother, wife, and daughter, in addition to dealing with the different pace of life in Canada. The grandmother and child find a way to soothe their grief by creating a doll using the mother’s possessions to pretend that she’s still there, much to the chagrin of the father who wants to move on. In the end, the entire family is forced to face the truth of her loss and the reality of their new life.
A third notable short was Monica Klemz’s A Singular Garden, which screened before the first of the evening’s features. The experimental documentary explores the relationship between history and location in an urban garden buried within Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Historic photographs set within the city and garden are shown counterpoint to contemporary images of the same locations. The film is overlaid with sounds and music reflecting each time period, such as the noise of trains or cars distinct to each era. The film functions as a time capsule, bringing disparate generations into the same diegesis and showing they are disjointed only in the element of time.
The diversity on view in these shorts continued with the two feature films that rounded out Saturday’s events, one from Iran and the other from China. In general, the last two days of the festival, both Saturday and Sunday, emphasized non-white, non-western perspectives and representations, and explored a range of issues and identities that were not on view in the Thursday and Friday evening screenings.
Yassamin Maleknasr’s Women of the Silk Road (2017).
The first of the features, Women of the Silk Road, ambitiously follows director Yassamin Maleknasr as she befriends four independent, working-class women during her trek along the Silk Road through Turkey, Oman, Iran, and Tajikistan. We befriend the four women with her, learning about their fears, ambitions, successes, and failures. Each one represents a different aspect of how the Silk Road has affected women, across several different generations and geographic locations. Their stories highlight in particular how cultural and industrial changes have hindered women artisans.
Angels Wear White, which was Saturday’s final screening, is a deep dive into the issue of police and government corruption and does not shy away from the difficult subject of child molestation. Despite the cruel fates of some of the characters, the film also has a transcendent beauty. Director Vivian Qu places heavy significance on the color of white as she plays with the concept of innocence. Angels Wear White focuses on the bonds of sisterhood while also exploring the social standards that lead people to make selfish decisions. This film was important for the festival because of its unflinching depiction of the complex relationships between women, which can range from solidarity to betrayal.
On Sunday morning, April 15, in a partnership with Bellingham Film, Cascadia hosted a Live Script Studio in which participating screenwriters presented scripts in progress to a panel of industry professionals. It was an opportunity for the public to observe a collaborative pre-production process.
Reem Morsi, an Egyptian filmmaker with two short films in the festival, presented a new screenplay for the Script Studio’s consideration. The screenplay was nuanced, carefully structured, and affecting in its relation to Morsi’s own experience of losing her father as a young girl. The panel’s professional and constructive “flow” was interrupted by an inappropriate comment from one of the panelists that she found the script “unrelatable.” While the matter of judging scripts will always be subjective, for a festival with ‘international’ in the title it was expected the panelists would be more culturally aware. The other scripts presented lacked the depth that Morsi’s script exhibited, yet we listened to inordinate praise of a script that rehashed the premise of the Will Ferrell film Stranger Than Fiction. It included the lead, a black man in Seattle, being chased by his own narrator and led into fights with ninjas, aliens, and Congolese soldiers. To modernize the script, another panelist suggested these be replaced by “#MeToo women,” white supremacists, and violent NRA supporters, which was a confusingly tone-deaf comment. It was incredibly discouraging to hear a male panelist representing a women’s film festival conflate survivors of sexual violence with a hate group. The culturally diverse and celebratory elements of the larger festival were dimmed by these insensitive panelists.
Michele Westmorland’s Headhunt Revisited (2017).
Sunday afternoon’s Local Filmmaker Program presented Redmond-based director Michele Westmorland’s Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas, and Camera. The documentary explores white American portrait artist Caroline Mytinger’s travels and paintings of Melanesia in the 1920s. Readings from Mytinger’s journal are interwoven with footage of Westmorland’s own journey through Melanesia as she engages with locals in the area eighty years later. Many of the family members of the people Mytinger painted explain that Catholic missionaries stopped their cultural practices and that they are now foraging for references to the past that can help them revitalize their traditions. A key element of Westmorland’s film is the presence of Jeffry Feeger, a Papua New Guinean artist who, in the exhibition “One World, Two Visions,” has paralleled Mytinger’s work with contemporary interpretations of her portraits. While the animations dotting the film were underwhelming, the rest of the film served the director’s vision of instilling an appreciation of the “art that spans oceans and decades.” In the Q&A after the screening, Westmorland explained that the film’s beautiful orchestral melodies were based off a Melanesian lullaby. In the film’s finest moments, it feels as if Mytinger’s portraits captured and sealed away much of the region’s erased culture and that Westmorland is able to bring it back.
Following Headhunt Revisited was the final event of the festival, the Indigenous Filmmaker Program. The showcase included a short and a feature followed by a ten-minute Q&A with one of the directors. The short, NiiSoTeWak: Two Bodies, One Heart, directed by Jules Koostachin, is about the director’s young sons and the significance of twins in their Cree culture. The film’s interview format makes it feel as if it is supposed to be informative, i.e., that it is supposed to explain to its viewers, including non-Native ones, what it means to be Native twins. However, the twins themselves don’t seem to know and aren’t very concerned with finding out. The shots are beautiful and it was clear the entire audience had the same loving reaction to the family. Still, we were left without an answer to a question that is not only in the title but explicitly asked in the film: what does “two bodies, one heart” mean to these Native boys? During the final Q&A, Koostachin explained that she made her film not necessarily to inform, but to present a more positive side and create feel-good footage amidst the devastating suicide crisis in her community.
Kirsten Carthew’s The Sun at Midnight (2016).
The feature film of the program was The Sun at Midnight, directed by Kirsten Carthew. In this case, the director’s intention was conveyed before the screening in the form of a prerecorded introduction. Carthew explained her goals of providing exposure to the beautiful and unique Northwest Territories in Canada and showing how nature can be a place for healing. Although Carthew is from a township within the Northwest Territories, she is not Native herself, and she spoke of the additional goal of accurately showcasing the Gwich’in way of life from an outsider’s perspective. The film tells the story of Lia (Devery Jacobs), a sixteen-year-old runaway who inevitably gets lost in the massive, unfamiliar land of the Northwest Territories, where she is discovered by Alfred (Duane Howard), a hunter determined to find a missing caribou herd. The two main characters’ journey is engaging albeit a bit formulaic (one reviewer compared the familiar plot structure to a mad-libs entry). While the acting is uneven, the all-Native cast is a refreshing change from the whitewashing prevalent in many movies. The film’s strongest asset by far is its cinematography and the way it highlights the scenery, so much so that the Northwest Territories becomes its own character in the film. The significance of this would have been lost on some of our reviewers, however, without Carthew’s remarks before the screening. As such, it would have been beneficial to make the importance of Lia’s reconnection to the land more apparent to viewers who aren’t familiar with Native cultures.
The Indigenous Filmmakers Program raised the important question for us of whether it is the filmmaker’s or the festival’s responsibility to contextualize cultural meaning—or if perhaps the onus falls on each individual viewer. In the case of both films, hearing from the directors helped to clarify the films’ intent and meaning for those of us who are not Native. Because the Q+A with Koostachin was so important, some of us wish the Cascadia organizers had conducted it better, with the projector turned off and the houselights on for more easy interaction between director and audience. But another reviewer, who is herself a Native woman, thinks Cascadia’s organizers did a fine job conducting the Indigenous Film Program and that the problems of meaning should be attributed to the films themselves. While Indigenous filmmakers certainly do not need to explain themselves in everything they do, these two films, including one created by a non-Native director, felt like they were intended to offer a clear explanation of Native cultural identity but then fell short of delivering on it.
Executive Director Cheryl Crooks told our class that Cascadia does not take on an explictly feminist label. A clear political commitment would be good, however, especially since so much of the festival conveyed the limited ideology of a white feminist viewpoint: not only the foregrounding of white filmmakers and white women protagonists in the first two evenings’ showcase films, but also the repeated emphasis on single-issue activism for inclusion and representation, the lack of cultural sensitivity on view during the Live Script Studio, and the lack of intersectional analysis during the Conversation with Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Additionally, while most of the films screened were insightful and entertaining, Cascadia seems to have missed the mark in advertising to diverse demographics. A majority of the audience were older people, which isn’t surprising seeing that Bellingham is a popular place for retirees. Although this may be great for overall turnout, it shows a lack of promotion on the organizers’ part to the younger people who are also in Bellingham. Western Washington University is a significant feature of the city, but there were hardly any students at the events beyond those who had to go for a class. In the coming years, it would be beneficial to advertise on campus more, as it would enhance and diversify the festival’s audience and help Cascadia meet its stated mission of promoting film to younger and local filmmakers.
Despite the room for improvement, Cascadia has the potential to be a productive and empowering space for the younger generation in Bellingham, among whom there are a plethora of filmmakers and photographers who aspire to work in the industry. There will always be something to fix. Keeping in mind that this was only the festival’s second year, and considering the organizers’ plans to expand it, it seems clear that some slight logistical improvements and a continued effort to seek out exceptional and diverse films will lead to a third iteration with an even more positive impact on the community. Cascadia has shown us that despite the talent, craft, and heart that went into each of the films screened, they are marginalized and would likely never have reached us without the festival. Cascadia is doing the important work of bringing to light the hardships women face in the male-dominated film industry, and also bringing women together to surmount these hardships. It’s worth mentioning too that the festival paid every filmmaker whose work was shown, including those who made shorts, which is not a common practice. As one of only two film festivals in the United States that put a true focus on women directors, the only way is up.
This festival review was written for an undergraduate film criticism class, taught by Dr. Greg Youmans, at Western Washington University.