Monday, September 12, 2005 | Imagine Clora Bryant, smack in the middle of the Bebop revolution, a female trumpet player in the predominantly male world of 1940s jazz.
Visualize surfer Rell Sunn, the Queen of Makaha, dropping in on a massive wave at Sunset Beach, between chemotherapy treatments.
These inspirational women are the protagonists of The San Diego Women Film Foundation’s Summer Film Series 2005. And what better way to tell their stories of struggle and success than on the screen?
The images are immediate and the narratives provide a living history.
“Our mission is to empower young women through positive film media,”
SDWFF’s pro-women programs counter the negative images offered by mass media. Hollywood bombards young women with images of beauty that can lead to a lack of self-esteem, says Herrell. There are not enough diverse, positive and realistic role models on the big screen.
“Sex sells,” she said. “Not enough women have enough people telling them that they are beautiful as they are.”
Herrell is not, however, trying to tear down Hollywood. She believes that there needs to be “an education of what these images really mean.”
Summer Film Series host Giovanna Chesler, producer/film director and assistant professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, affirms that “pop movies” can be as powerful as experimental films.
“I enjoy mainstream films that play with gender roles,” she said.
“They can be truly subversive because they reach a mass audience. The audience might not be completely aware that it’s a feminist work or presenting homosexual characters.” There simply needs to be more diversity in film, according to Chesler.
SDWFF runs three main programs to educate and promote women filmmakers. Divas Direct Film Workshops for Girls is a series of film programs for young women that teaches the nuts and bolts of video-making, use of story boards, sound equipment and editing. Divas Direct has a strong media literacy component, helping students to become critical viewers.
San Diego Girl Film Festival is an annual event that attracts hundreds of attendees and is held in the fall. This year’s festival will showcase 50 films by female directors.
And the year-round Film Screening Program individually highlights local women filmmakers by providing a venue as well as panel discussions.
The protagonists in each selected film are unique and complex. “In mass media we are generally given fairly simplistic versions about women,” said Chesler. The foundation events show sides of women that are generally not presented in the mainstream.
This feature documentary on trumpet player Clora Bryant tells the story of a woman who dared to play “a man’s instrument.” Bryant was the only woman to play in a Charlie Parker ensemble. She performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday during her 60-year career.
“Hopefully, one of the lessons is perseverance,” said Davis, who worked on the film for 18 years. The filmmaker also views Bryant as a positive role model for today’s female musicians.
“I have always seen her conduct herself in a very respectful manner in a world that is constantly plagued by drugs and alcohol and whatever vagaries there are in being a star. She stayed true to herself,” said Davis.
Davis met Bryant at UCLA while studying film and folklore with Professor Beverly Robinson. “I was foraging in a world of few established black women directors,” said Davis. The two connected partly because Bryant was also in a field that did not have a lot of women.
A native of Philadelphia, Davis credits her family as the main inspiration behind her creative process.
“Being raised in a colorful family of storytellers that talked a lot of jive played into my love of language and images. My dad is one of my biggest influences. He was the neighborhood raconteur, and he would take me to see theater and the arts,” she said.
Davis realized the power of film during her junior year at Brown University. She traveled to Kenya to work with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, journalist and teacher at the University of Nairobi. He took actors to listen to the stories of people who lived during the Mau Mau period in the 1950s when Kenyans were struggling for independence.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o saw that directors in Kenya made films about animals, but never about the people. He built an arena and a stage for people to come and do “witness telling.” When more than a thousand people showed up on the third night, the government called the gathering seditious and bulldozed the arena.
“It was then that I realized that media is powerful, and that set me on the path,” Davis said.
Her film work includes “Mother of the River,” a drama for children and adults about a young slave girl; “A Powerful Thang,” a love story set in Afro-Ohio; and two inter-related love stories that offer a view of black deaf culture titled “Compensation.”
The screening of “Trumpetistically Clora Bryant” will be preceded by live performances from poets Stephanie De La Torre (Brujas y Bellas author), Angela Boyce (former Oakland and Sacramento Slam Champ), Shannon Bates (sax player/poet from the Museum of the Living Artist in Balboa Park), Zuri Waters (painter/sax), and Rachel Winchester (local performance poet).
The event will be held in the Arts and Entertainment Center, 3026 University Ave., in North Park. Reception and live performances begin at 6 p.m. Entry is $10 and includes food and wine. The film screens at 7 p.m. Visit http://sdgff.org/home.htm for more information.
Michael Klam is a freelance journalist and San Diego author who moderates poetry and art events in the Museum of the Living Artists.