In between films

Reflections on the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival

Last week marked the 22nd year for the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. Some numbers that might give you an idea of the scope of this festival: this year there were eighty films chosen from the 468 submitted, over half of which were international submissions. Seventeen of the films screened were made by residents of the province, officially breaking the festival’s record for local content.

The festival also hosted a number of Film Forum events, giving delegates a chance to attend workshops on pitching and the art of adaptation, a master class on script development, and a conversation with visiting filmmaker Ingrid Veninger.

I spent much of the week dashing around the city, trying to take in as much of the festival as I could and still make it to work on time. And though I was sorry to miss out on some of the programming, I was happy I caught as much as I did. The afternoon documentary screenings I attended were filled with great crowds who were in no hurry to leave, and instead lingered at the L.S.P.U. Hall to talk about the films.

Panel discussions and lunchtime conversation

After two beautiful documentaries on Thursday – Tashina and How does it feel – there were box lunches waiting for us in the Second Space and the crowd dispersed into huddled conversations in circles of chairs or crouched on the floor. A sold out Friday afternoon screening of Jessica Seibel Newsom’s Miss Representation, a documentary on the problematic portrayals of women in the media, was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by local filmmaker and newly elected MHA Gerry Rogers. And again, people stayed, wanting to share their reactions to the film, curious to hear those of others.

These in-between moments, and the conversations that arise in them, have always been one of my favourite parts of the festival. You can plan a panel discussion, certainly, and in the case of a film like Miss Representation, be assured that you will run out of time before people run out of responses. But I think equally if not more satisfying are the impromptu discussions that can follow a film, whether inside the theatre or out.

The stand-out experience of the festival for me came on Friday night. Ingrid Veninger’s feature film i am a good person/i am a bad person, in which a mother and daughter travel together to Europe before parting ways to confront the difficult decisions facing them both, screened in the final slot of the evening. Before the film started, Noreen Golfman, chair of the board of the festival, introduced Veninger, and forewarned us that due to the late hour at which the film would finish, the need to vacate the Hall and the party awaiting us, there would be no Q&A after the film, though Veninger would be otherwise available for those who wanted to chat. I was a little disappointed initially, as I had missed the conversation session the previous day due to a change in scheduling, and I was curious to hear more from Veninger herself. But it was Friday night, and totally understandable. We settled in for the film.

A pregnant pause

I loved it. Veninger and her own daughter play filmmaker Ruby White and her daughter Sara, and the film, following them from Toronto to the UK, Berlin, and Paris, is intimate and bold and unfailingly honest. When the film was over, even though it was past eleven on Friday night and there was a party kicking off just down the street, nobody moved. There was a pregnant pause, a feeling of expectation. I felt that I wasn’t alone in not wanting to leave just yet, not feeling ready to be finished with this film, this night. And then Golfman stood from her seat in the back and said that well maybe, since Veninger was still there, if we wanted, she could take a few questions? There was applause and then nobody moved as Veninger laid aside her backpack and came down to the microphone.

She took a few questions about the production and the script (a crew of four, a cast of twenty-three, and a script that left room for the unscripted reactions of the real world: in a subway tunnel in Berlin, Ruby hands out flyers for her film ‘Headshots’ while wearing a homemade ‘bloodied’ bandage around her head. These are not extras she’s confronting). She spoke about the moments that were simply the unexpected result of the outside world passing through what was attempting to be a constructed shot, real life intruding on a fictional bubble: the longhaired poet who walked into a scene wanting to read his work to the two women, the Berlin soldier who offers Ruby a hug – and a real hug, not just a quick pat on the back. She didn’t speak long, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. But I left feeling buoyed and excited, and with a feeling of faith renewed, though I wasn’t even sure in what. Veninger’s energy was infectious and the film so genuine. But later I thought that perhaps it was also simply that the moment for that conversation had been recognized, and gladly seized.

She spoke about the moments that were simply the unexpected result of the outside world passing through what was attempting to be a constructed shot, real life intruding on a fictional bubble…

Maybe it doesn’t sound all that remarkable, or perhaps it seems like I’m treating as extraordinary something that happens all the time at film festivals, whether impulsively or according to schedule – a filmmaker answering questions about her film. But when I briefly spoke with Veninger the next night, in a noisy crowd outside of the Ship, it was all we talked about – the openness of everyone in the room and how that moment was acted upon and how it did feel special, like the best kind of collective audience experience. I’ve since thought about how maybe the possibility of this kind of experience is a large part of why I come out to the festival, why I watch films in a theatre when these days it’s far easier to do so at home: the festival creates a space in which it is possible for these impulsive little conversations to occur, and I love it for that.

The festival has grown mightily since its inaugural one-day event in 1989, including more and more films every year, and it seems to me that there has also been growth in the scope of the kind of filmmaking they showcase. And yet, with all this, there is still an impulsive spirit about the whole week which I hope they never outgrow. That room to play is the best part.

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