Roger Ebert Home

Cinema Femme Short Film Festival to Have First In-Person Screenings at the Music Box Theatre

Samantha Sanders' "Swimming Through."

For the first time since its inception amidst the alienating days of the Covid-19 quarantine, the Cinema Femme Short Film Festival will be hosting its first in-person screenings on the evenings of Sunday, April 30th, and Wednesday, May 3rd, at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. This is the fifth installment of the festival founded by my wife, Rebecca Martin Fagerholm, publisher of Cinema Femme Magazine, an online publication devoted to spotlighting the essential work of female and non-binary filmmakers. What has proven to be a thrilling surprise for Fagerholm in the weeks leading up to this year’s festival is the sheer number of its selected filmmakers who have announced they will be traveling to the Windy City on their own dime to attend the screenings of their work. 

“I guess I didn’t realize how far out of the pandemic we were because I’m just shocked that so many people are coming from all over the country to see their films in person,” marveled Fagerholm. “It makes me really excited because for the past three years, we’ve just been doing it online and on Zoom, and that community has really grown. I started this festival because I realized that the audience for our magazine mostly consisted of emerging filmmakers who were interested in reading our interviews with underrepresented artists who were like them, specifically women and non-binary people. They were starting to feel seen for the first time, so it made sense for me to create an event that would enable them to connect with these industry professionals on a personal level.”

Four of the festival’s selected filmmakers will receive a six-month mentorship with a seasoned filmmaker through Cinema Femme’s Breaking Down Walls mentorship program, named after a memorable observation made by Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler during her interview with Cinema Femme. “We aren’t just taking down ceilings, we are busting down walls,” said Beachler, who became the first Black recipient of the Best Production Design Oscar for her work on 2018’s “Black Panther.” “Because you take out a ceiling and the building will stand, but if you take out the wall, it will fall. My whole thing is take out the wall and redesign the building. That’s what I’m trying to do.” This year’s participating mentors are editor Stephanie Filo (“A Black Lady Sketch Show”), producer Julie Keck of Nia Tero (a group amplifying Indigenous narratives), filmmaker Isabel Sandoval (“Lingua Franca”) and actress/artist/filmmaker Melora Walters (“Magnolia”).

The twenty films in contention for the mentorship program were selected by Fagerholm and her programming team composed of actor/filmmakers Emily Robinson (“Eighth Grade”) and Ashley Shelton (“War Pony”), and contributing critic Peyton Robinson. Shorts Program #1, “Let’s Chicago,” which features the work of Windy City filmmakers, screens at 7pm on April 30th. The selections include Samantha Sanders’ gorgeously lensed “Swimming Through,” Alyssa Thordarson and Michael Glover Smith’s sublimely nuanced “Paper Planes,” Margaret Kallas’ superbly crafted two-hander, “this is not the morning i thought i was going to have,” Lua Borges’ poetic stunner, “Dois Estágios (Two Stages of Blood)” and Juli Del Prete’s shattering “Caroline.” Each in-person screening will be followed by Q&As with the filmmakers in attendance.

Tiffany Tenille's "Albion Rose."

Shorts Program #2, “Before Midnight: Part One,” scheduled for 9:30pm on April 30th, spotlights the pleasingly trippy work of directors from all over the country: Jessica Liu’s exquisitely quirky “Dog Lady,” Giovanna Miolina’s haunting “Deer Girl” (her other short on the festival circuit, “Hickey,” is also a must-see), Tiffany Tenille’s utterly mesmerizing “Albion Rose,” Rachel Rambaldi’s impeccably performed “Herly” and Claire Leona Apps’ refreshingly unpredictable “Ages of Man.” “Albion Rose” marks the first directorial effort of Tenille, who earned acclaim for her debut performance in Numa Perrier’s prize-winning 2019 feature, “Jezebel,” which was based on the director’s own experiences at age 19. For Tenille, “Albion Rose” is an equally personal effort, inspired in part by the intensely close relationship she had with her sister while growing up in the foster care system. During a recent chat via Zoom, Tenille told me that she is thrilled to be having her first film screened in her hometown of Chicago, where she studied acting at DePaul University alongside classmates Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”), KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”). 

“I know it’s weird, I know it’s off-the-wall and I know it doesn’t fit into what would be considered a ‘Black film,’” said Tenille. “I’m excited to expand the vocabulary of cinematic language regarding what Black film can be. Jordan Peele is putting Brown people in spaces that we’ve been shut out of, or just didn’t have the opportunity to participate in, and I’m on a mission to do that. In ‘Albion Rose,’ I really wanted to play with magical realism and psychological horror. Festival programmers are the gatekeepers, and I just wish more people were as brave as Rebecca in their selection of films. After facing mountains of rejection, here’s someone who looks at my work and says, ‘We’ve got to pay extra attention to this person.’ Do you know what that does for someone’s confidence? As artists, we are honored just to get our work seen in front of an audience, and everyone is getting unique attention at this festival. I feel so taken care of already.”

Clelia Goodchild's "Pluma."

The other two in-person screenings on May 3rd begin at 7pm with Shorts Program #3, “Festival Director’s Cut: Breaking Down Walls.” It includes Kiki Allgeier’s “Pigeon,” starring Larisa Oleynik (from Nickelodeon’s “The Secret World of Alex Mack”) in a wonderful performance, Noam Argov’s riveting “Sulam (The Ladder),” Clelia Goodchild’s captivating “Pluma,” Lorraine Sovern’s quick yet unforgettable “Forward Fast” and Emma Duvall’s galvanizing fact-based gem, “Julia.” I had the privilege of meeting the French-born Goodchild during her recent visit to Chicago and we spoke about her exhilarating portrait of the real-life “Pluma Family of Drag Queens and Kings” in Barcelona, which is all the more urgent at a time when Republican lawmakers are attempting to ban drag in the U.S. It was the daily life of her subjects that interested Goodchild more than their drag performances, and she credits her late mother, poet and stage director Eva Barbuscia, as the driving force for her throughout helming the project. Barbuscia wrote the poem at the end of the film specifically for the drag queens and kings, and passed away a month later, before Goodchild had the chance to edit the film.

“I think having a space for a festival like this is so, so important,” stressed Goodchild. “The competition out there is incredibly fierce, especially after Covid. So many films weren’t screening for a long time and are now all competing for attention. My film illustrates the importance of having a safe space, and I feel that festivals like this serve as a safe space for female filmmakers. You know that the people around you have gone through the same things, and may have had the same questions regarding their capabilities or how they will balance work with motherhood. I think just having a space that allows for us to be vulnerable and open about our experiences, while sharing our work with other female filmmakers is really special.”

Sannah Kim's "Babyface."

Last but not least, Shorts Program #4, “Before Midnight: Part Two,” which screens at 9:30pm on May 3rd, features such unmissable titles as Melanie Zoey Weinstein’s euphoric “Spanko,” Sasha Briggs’ electrifying “Panda” (with a cameo from Phil Dunster of “Ted Lasso”), Deborah Kampmeier’s “The Mark,” a deeply chilling showcase for its gifted leading lady Sophia Adler, Annika Chavez’s surrealistic marvel, “Helium,” Sannah Kim’s brilliant “Babyface” and Sophea Kim’s majestic big screen experience, “Grey Feather.” The star of “Babyface,” Sofia Joanna, is quickly proving to be one of the most remarkable talents of her generation, delivering here on the promise of her breakout work in Jacqueline Xerri’s short, “Monkey Bars.” Her role as Lux, an adolescent who senses the toxicity of her older sister’s boyfriend, was embraced by Joanna as a gift, since it enabled her to play a teenage girl who was challenging, exciting and above all, felt real to her.

“I moved to LA a few months ago, and everything looks a little different when you’re going through really big life changes,” Joanna reflected. “I realized that so many of the films, TV shows and other media that I was taking in while growing up were created by men. At the top of each corporation or production company, there was a man. Many of the female characters I grew up watching who made me want to do what I’m doing now and what I will hopefully be doing for a very long time were the figments of a man’s imagination, and that is so mind-boggling to me. That realization made it so much more important for me to identify the rooms that I want to be in and the people that I want to work with and then take that and run with it. I have been so lucky to work on stories where I play teenage girls created by young women. I’m noticing that it’s become a pattern for me to work with young, female-identifying filmmakers who are at the beginning of their careers or are emerging in some capacity, and I love it. They still have access to what it was like to be a teenage girl.”

Filmmaker Emily Hagins.

Joanna has also played an indispensable role in this year’s festival, serving as its Creative Director, while Carolann Cohen Grzybowski devoted her own time and talents as the team’s Social Media & Operations Assistant. All four shorts blocks will also be available to stream virtually on Eventive from Friday, April 28th, through Thursday, May 4th, with live online Q&As scheduled for each. Actor/filmmaker Clare Cooney (“Runner”) will moderate Shorts Block #1 at 8pm on April 28th, Numa Perrier will moderate Shorts Block #2 at 8pm on Saturday, April 29th, Patricia Vidal Delgado (“La Leyenda Negra”) will moderate Shorts Block #3 at 3pm on Monday, May 1st, and Ashely Shelton will moderate Shorts Block #4 at 3pm on Tuesday, May 2nd. Sandra Lipski’s visually beguiling “Mi Isla” will be added to the virtual Shorts Block #3, while Joshua and Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s vital and powerful muckraking short, “Regenerate Ojai,” narrated by Laura Dern, will receive its own spotlight screening at 6:30pm on May 1st. Rebecca Tickell delivered one of the best child performances ever captured on film in John D. Hancock’s 1989 Christmas classic, “Prancer,” before going on to helm several environmentally conscious documentaries with her husband, Joshua, including “The Big Fix,” “Kiss the Ground” and the upcoming “Common Ground,” which has already won the Human/Nature Award from this year's Tribeca Film Festival. She will participate in a live Q&A following the virtual screening, moderated by Rebecca Fagerholm. 

I will have the pleasure of moderating the virtual Q&A at 4pm on April 29th for the annual Tribute event honoring a filmmaker who exemplifies the spirit of Cinema Femme. This year, the festival is celebrating Emily Hagins, a remarkable writer/director from Austin, Texas, who has been conjuring delight for 17 years with her trademark mixture of terror, satire and disarming sincerity. She made history with her feature debut, 2006’s zombie thriller, “Pathogen,” which she helmed at age 12, making her the youngest U.S. director in history. The production itself was chronicled in the thoroughly entertaining documentary, “Zombie Girl: The Movie,” which is included among the extras in the recent pristine Blu-ray release for “Pathogen” from AGFA + Bleeding Skull. Hagins has continued to excel in her craft with each subsequent feature, including the marvelous coming-of-age film, “Grow Up, Tony Phillips,” starring her frequent collaborator Tony Vespe, and the endearing horror comedy “Sorry About the Demon,” which was recently released on Shudder. Now at age 30, Hagins has found new meaning in her previous work. 

“One thing I really felt the weight of in my 20s was being a woman in film and feeling like an outsider,” said Hagins. “Over that decade, I gradually felt pressure around not fitting in with my peers and it kind of weighed on my heart a lot. While recently rewatching the films I made before all that, like ‘Pathogen’ and ‘Grow Up, Tony Phillips,’ I was reminded of why I love doing this, and that was separate from the social pressures. It was a nice palette cleanser that affirmed what is magical about movies to me and what those observations were in my childhood about life, some of which still ring true to me. Sometimes you have to dig below the surface to find that again because having that kind of youthful energy is important to the creative process.”

Hagins is honored to be the tribute subject of this year’s Cinema Femme Short Film Festival, and says that she is always looking for ways to be a supporter of the independent film community as well as women in film. She believes that one of the positive effects of a horror film is in how it strengthens the community among audience members who view it together, and notes that there are many similarities between scaring people and making them laugh, since both utilize setups and payoffs. Rather than rely on the instantly dated cultural references often used by Hollywood to win over younger viewers, Hagins aims for a timelessness in her work, and knows that if it feels honest to her, it will likely ring true to the people who are watching it.

“I have been told at various points in my career to only write movies about women,” said Hagins. “I do have lots of scripts with female leads, but all I’m saying is that some of these movies are getting made and some of them aren’t, and I’m not the one financing them. But I never liked that idea because men write movies about women and I think women should be able to write movies about men. I love the movie ‘Big,’ which is directed by Penny Marshall, and co-written by Steven Spielberg’s sister, Anne. That movie is about Tom Hanks’ character, but there’s such a tenderness to it that I believe is indicative of the right gender combination going on behind the scenes with the creative choices. There’s a scene where he’s having an intimate moment with a woman, but it’s not gross. It’s a very emotional scene.”

“I feel that a female perspective can illuminate the tenderness and vulnerability in stories about men,” Hagins continued. “I want to see way more women in front of the camera and more stories about women, because men can relate to women as well, but I also feel inspired to write for both genders. I would love for men to write more women characters because I think it increases your empathy and your understanding of the people around you. Your characters should be diverse and interesting and different from you. You should challenge yourself and you should be open to that collaboration. I didn’t realize that there was sexism in the industry until I was about 20 years old. It took a long time for me to realize that there was a little bit more of an uphill battle for me at times, but I’m really grateful to have created a strong foundation before getting to that point. People don’t ask me anymore, ‘What’s it like to be a woman filmmaker?’”

The Cinema Femme Short Film Festival runs online April 28th through May 4th on Eventive, and will have in-person screenings at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on April 30th and May 3rd. The festival’s virtual events will be streamed live on its YouTube channel. For more information, visit the official site of Cinema Femme.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

We Grown Now
Blood for Dust
Dusk for a Hitman
Stress Positions
Hard Miles


comments powered by Disqus