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Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007 | Before Renee Herrell launched what would become the San Diego Women’s Film Festival in October 2003, all she was hoping to do was show images of women who didn’t look like supermodels.

“I was just thinking about the audience,” she says. “Women who look like everybody else. And we can go, ‘I’m quirky like her,’ or ‘Thank God she’s not 5’ 11″ and, you know, a tiny little thing.’”

Since then, the festival has eked out a space for female filmmakers to show their art in San Diego at a time when females in the film industry are starting to claim a stronger voice, says Beth Accomando, film critic for KPBS and a member of the festival’s leadership.

“You’re seeing, I think, a difference in the kind of roles that some of these actresses do take on, because they’re able to say, ‘Yeah, I want a part that I can do something with, that’s meaty,’” Accomando says. “‘I don’t want to be the wife that’s left behind or the mistress or somebody’s secretary.’”

Herrell and Accomando sat down with us in a screening room at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park to give us a sense of the need for the festival. And they gave us their picks for must-see films in the festival, which runs Oct. 4-7.

Let’s talk about how the festival began. What were some of the factors that combined to birth this?

RH: One of the things we realized is there’s not a lot of real images of women out there. And so, really the idea behind the festival was to have these films with women of all different colors, shapes, sizes and to be empowering. …

So, you know, in the first year, I didn’t have this concept of the need for women filmmakers to have their own space until after that festival happened and I started to do my research and find out that women filmmakers are grossly underrepresented and that they need their own space.

Does this festival have a youth bent?

RH: A youth bent would be the wrong way to describe it. A good portion of the festival is dedicated to youth. … Thursday we do a youth film day where we have 500 students come through the theatre and do different sessions.

We show them our youth category and there’s an instructor. She does this whole program — helps them start to talk about film and to break it down — on a technical level, on a critical level, and it’s kind of this neat intro. We also bring youth filmmakers out … with a chaperone, from across the country. Of course they’re jazzed ’cause they’re like, “We’re in San Diego.” And they present. And the students that watch walk up and ask them for their autographs — I mean, these are celebrities in their mind. So we’re creating this community within the festival.

BA: There’s definitely a youth component, but it’s not the sole focus.

Why do women need their own film festival? You touched on that a little bit — I mean, could you see this as a subsidiary of the San Diego Film Festival, or what about the way that you mentioned women have been underrepresented elsewhere necessitates this?

RH: I think women need their own film festival absolutely. We’re the longest-running women’s film festival in Southern California. And we’re only five years old.

BA: If you compare that in San Diego, the Jewish film festival has been running for, like, 17 years; the Latinos have been running for 15 years. Asian Film Festival, I think, is eight. It’s just like the Latino and Asian film festivals. I mean, when you’re dealing with a group of filmmakers who make up a minority within a bigger population, to highlight them is important because they’re not getting quite as much play as everyone else. Diversity is really the key, because if all we had were white males over 40 making films, it would start to get pretty boring.

What are the [stereotypes] in a festival that is named for being a women’s film festival?

BA: That men can’t come. (laughs)

RH: That it’s chick flicks. Or it’s a lot of feminist propaganda. I mean, it’s either a chick flick or it’s propaganda.

BA: Yeah, one stereotyped extreme or the other.

RH: That we’re angry women. When people interview me, the question I get most is, ‘Are you a feminist?’ and they’re asking in a bad way.

BA: I mean, I think part of what’s nice about the festival is that we’re trying to get — within this community of women, which is a minority within this bigger community of filmmakers — a diversity among those women filmmakers. So even though you have all women filmmakers in the festival, no two films are really identical in terms of the perspective they take, even if they’re tackling similar subjects, even if we’ve got five films about motherhood. They can be very different based on what perspective you’re getting. Is it, you know, a poor welfare mom vs. a mom who’s trying to cope with daycare and a job vs. something else? So, I think that’s the key, is to show that within this community of women filmmakers, there’s a lot of diversity as well.

And across countries, too. We’ve got … 22 different countries represented this year. So we’re not focusing just on U.S. filmmakers or English-language films, but we’re trying to say that women filmmakers in the U.S. are looking at problems that are very different from women filmmakers in, you know, foreign countries.

RH: And that shows the fact that it’s spread, not just outside of San Diego, but outside of the U.S. Thirty percent of our submissions, out of 400, are from foreign countries. Which is huge, you know — it’s huge to have a presence on an international level.

You’ve mentioned that this is a festival meant to generate and to propel positive messages or positive images. What are the things — are there subjects or are there images, particular images like violence against women, or something like that — that would be one of those things that flips the switch on a film being selected?

BA: It all depends on the film itself. Each film is judged individually. It’s not like we would say, if there’s a rape in a film, we’re not going to show it. What is the context? How is it shown? And because you have women making the films, you run across far fewer stereotypes of those kind of issues than you do if you were just looking to the mainstream movie population. Yes, I don’t think something will automatically cause you to be rejected. But we look at each individual film, and there are some images presented that we feel like, ‘Oh, that’s not an image we want to present,’ because it’s neither empowering, nor is it accurate.

RH: But we want diversity, too. We have films that are going to make you laugh, that are silly. Then we have intense films that are global, controversial issues. The key is that we get to show all of these and let people discuss them.

BA: And sometimes they’re just films by women filmmakers that don’t necessarily have to have a distinct message. There’s one 60-second animated film; I think it’s called “Barney the Terrier.” And it has nothing to do with women’s issues at all. But it’s a clever, funny animated film that is made by a woman filmmaker. And let’s showcase those women as well. They don’t have to be tackling women’s issues overtly, but just the fact that they’re making films, and they’re getting to present their point of view, that’s a good thing.

Can you give us an idea or a couple of ideas of films that are going to be screened in the festival that you’re particularly excited about?

RH: I’m excited about opening and closing nights. Friday night (opening), we are premiering “Nina’s Heavenly Delights” by Pratibha Parmar. She’s an Indian filmmaker and it’s an indie film. … But very few times does it come up that there’s a woman filmmaker film out there at the time of our festival.

… And our closing night film is by a filmmaker named Eunhee Cho, and it’s called “Inner Circle Line.” She’s Korean. And we’re actually bringing her over, and every year we have a Woman Filmmaker of the Year, and she’s ours this year. …

BA: And that one has an interesting twist where you’ve got two characters — a male and a female character — who have the same name and who have these parallel stories. And so, if you’re trying to connect it too early, then you’re like, ‘Am I getting it?’

RH: And then their lives intersect and you get it. And it’s absolutely beautiful.

BA: For me, a couple of the ones that really stood out:

One thing that’s really interesting to me is the artistic process. So we have two documentaries that show the artistic process — both made by women but one focuses on a woman artist, who’s Suzan Pitt. The documentary’s called “Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision” and she does absolutely amazing animation. The only way I can describe it is it’s very handmade — she draws these hundreds of drawings for the animation and then she’ll dip them in color and crinkle them up and iron them out and shoot them one at a time. So it’s very tactile compared to getting on your computer and digitally altering each frame.

So, this documentary goes into this process and her dedication to it and the fact that she doesn’t always have the money to finish these projects.

And then there’s another one called “Mr. Dial Has Something to Say.” And that is a male filmmaker who’s the focus of this; he’s an African-American artist. And part of what this film deals with is the marginalization of him as an artist because he’s African-American and he’s been labeled a folk artist, which they feel is kind of demeaning to what he does.

And so, again, both of these films look at the artistic process. And it’s fascinating because it’s looking at it both from the artist’s perspective and also bringing in this real-world sensibility of, OK, you’ve made this work of art and people think it’s great. How do you get it out to the broader public?

And I think that’s what the festival’s about, too. We’re got all of these great works of art, and we want them to go out to a bigger audience, and how do you get people to come in to see them? So those are two documentaries that I would highly recommend.

— Interview conducted by KELLY BENNETT

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