As a lifelong lover of cinema, Rebecca Martin has experienced firsthand how the art form brings people together. When she desired to geek out about movies with people who shared her passion, she started the Chicago Film Lover Exchange in 2011, a meetup group that currently has over 6,600 members. Though a great many of the group’s participants were women, Martin noticed that the vast majority of published critics throughout the country were middle aged white men. This inspired her to found Cinema Femme in the summer of 2018, an online publication that amplifies “the voice of the female experience” with its extensive coverage of films directed—and reviewed—by women (or “womxn,” an inclusive term utilized by Martin that encompasses the trans and nonbinary community). Next month, the publication will host its inaugural edition of the Cinema Femme Short Film Festival from Thursday, August 6th, through Sunday, August 9th. Tickets for the four short blocks go on sale today, July 24th, while all of the virtual panels, Q&As and other events will be free and open to the public.
“I started Cinema Femme because I wanted more female voices in the film discourse, as well as more stories about female filmmakers, to be elevated,” said Martin. “The publication began by balancing interviews with film criticism. Our audience became largely comprised of female filmmakers who were gravitating towards these interviews. One year and a hundred interviews later, this festival just seemed to make sense because all of these womxn who had invested in the magazine had also produced their own amazing movies. I wanted to give these emerging female filmmakers an opportunity to show their work while connecting with womxn who have been in the industry for a while. I can see the womxn whose films will be screening at this year’s festival going on to having amazing careers, and though I don’t have a lot of money myself, I do know people who can help them. What I want this festival to do, more than anything, is to help these womxn have exciting careers that will enable their stories to live on. I want young girls to see that there are female filmmakers out there who they can look up to and make them realize that their dreams are reachable.”
The first female-directed film Martin recalls falling in love with at a young age was “A League of Their Own,” 1992’s rousing portrait of the trailblazing female professional baseball league, though she wasn’t aware at the time that it was directed by Penny Marshall. It was roughly a decade later when Martin stumbled upon the picture that has gone on to become her all-time favorite, and that is enhanced immeasurably by the distinctively feminine perspective of its creator.
“I fell in love with cinema in a deep way when I saw ‘Lost in Translation,’” recalled Martin. “Prior to that film, I had never seen a story incorporate so many different elements of music and beauty. One scene that I’ll always remember from that movie takes place in a forest where Scarlett Johansson is just walking around, hopping along rocks in the water, as the camera closes in on various trees and the dew on the leaves. When I heard that Sofia Coppola had directed the film, I realized that she was the first female filmmaker that I had become obsessed with. This movie was such a departure from the films I had grown up with, like ‘Star Wars,’ that it made me want to explore all different kinds of films, particularly those that went deeper than the mainstream.”
That description certainly applies to all 20 of the short films screening as part of Cinema Femme’s upcoming festival, which is powered by the Seed&Spark online platform. Each short block contains five short films of various genres that were helmed by female-identifying filmmakers from all over the world. A virtual Q&A for each block will be moderated by a different filmmaker who has made her mark in the industry, such as Lara Gallagher (“Clementine”) and Alice Waddington (“Paradise Hills”). Two virtual events about distribution are scheduled for Friday, August 7th: the first is a panel moderated by French journalist/filmmaker Nora Poggi, podcast host of “Creative Distribution,” while the second is a workshop with writer/director Christina Raia, who serves as Seed&Spark’s head of education.
The following day, Martin will host a special tribute event for Chicago-based director Jennifer Reeder, whose recent film, “Knives and Skin,” garnered international acclaim, and was cited by the Cinema Femme founder as one of her most cherished films of 2019. Reeder was also singled out by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho as one of the 20 emerging directors he believes will be pivotal to the next two decades of cinema. Martin is especially excited to have not only one but two of her cinema heroes gracing the festival with their virtual presence.
“A lot of indie filmmakers are involved in supporting Seed&Spark’s online festival platform, which was started in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Martin. “I was provided with a list of filmmakers who could potentially participate in one of our festival panels or events, and when they asked me who my first choice would be, I said, ‘Karyn Kusama hands down.’ A number of her films are among my all-time favorites and she epitomizes the sort of person who serves as an inspiration for emerging female directors. Karyn is great at bringing a rawness to whatever genre she happens to be tackling. We’ve seen so many films about aging detectives who are usually dudes that drink all the time and get all the womxn. I loved how Karyn cast Nicole Kidman as the old detective who boozes up in ‘Destroyer.’ She plays a majorly flawed character and is amazing in the role. The same could be said of Michelle Rodriguez in ‘Girlfight,’ which also subverts gender tropes with its story of a female boxer. ‘Jennifer’s Body’ blew my mind as well with its fusion of a monster movie with an authentic exploration of female relationships. Though it was marred by misleading marketing during its initial release, the film is now embraced as a cult classic, in part because of the great collaboration between Karyn and screenwriter Diablo Cody. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have Karyn be a part of our inaugural festival.”'
Kusama will moderate the virtual Q&A for the fourth and final short block, which provides a sublime example of the diverse and provocative work being showcased by the festival. It contains an arresting psychological thriller (”Claudia Lee’s “Clan”), a touching and intimate documentary (Gabriela Ortega’s “Papi”), a visionary triumph of surrealism (Desireé Moore’s “Over and Under and Through”), a laugh-out-loud comedy (Jorja Hudson’s “Withdrawals”) and an unsettling portrait of the daily violations endured by women (Victoria Malinjod’s “Don’t Burst My Bubble”). At the awards show that concludes the festival, four of the winning filmmakers will be entered into a six-month Womxn to Womxn in Film Mentorship program. Filmmakers Deborah Kampmeier (“TAPE”), Patricia Vidal Delgado (“La Leyenda Negra”), Laura Moss (“Fry Day”) and Haroula Rose (“Once Upon A River”) are among the participating mentors.
For its inaugural year, the festival is being sponsored by RogerEbert.com and is partnering with Mezcla Media Collective, a hub that lifts up over 500 women and non-binary filmmakers of color in Chicago. In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Martin has scheduled a special panel on August 8th to elevate the work of Black female filmmakers. RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert will serve as moderator for the Black Female Filmmaker Renaissance Panel, which boasts a formidable line-up of directors including Channing Godfrey Peoples (“Miss Juneteenth”), Ashley O’Shay (“Unapologetic”), Numa Perrier (“Jezebel”), Christine Swanson (“The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel”), and Sandrel Nicole Young (“Training Wheels”). Though Martin is open to the possibility of making future installments of her festival in-person events once the world has begun to heal, she values how virtual platforms are far more accessible to viewers regardless of their location or circumstances.
“What’s special about this virtual film festival and other online film events is that anybody can go on and not only watch them, but participate in the discussion,” observed Martin. “People who tune in for our festival Q&As and panels can submit their questions for the filmmakers, while connecting with the Cinema Femme community in our chat thread. All of this is making the world feel less small. It brings something to people that they are excited about and makes it tangible for them. Womxn in the industry can show their unity and support for emerging voices by viewing their work and asking them questions. Viewers who wouldn’t normally be able to attend events like Cannes can now be a part of the conversation. My whole life has been, in a way, about building communities, and it is my goal with this festival to take that to the next level. Getting all these extraordinary womxn together on one platform to share their experiences is a dream come true.”