Festival of films by and for women

BRATTLEBORO — This is the 26th year of the Women's Film Festival, and the films are a grab bag of documentaries, thrillers, romances, family dramas and short films — all of them revealing, as intended, a great deal about the state of the female 50 percent of the human condition.

The Festival, a fundraiser for the Women's Freedom Center, will be presenting 40 films — 13 documentaries, 10 feature films and 17 shorts — from around the world. All the films are directed by women, for women and about women.

The festival begins on March 10th and runs to March 19th. All the films will be shown at the New England Youth Theater. For a description of the films and the schedule, go to www.womensfilmfestival.org.

The search committee looked at an overwhelming 196 films to narrow festival offerings down to 40. As usual, they didn't start out with a theme in mind. The themes come through the viewing. This year there are two: women's activism and queer and lesbian life.

"What I always find fascinating is that as we begin to cull through the list, themes always emerge and each year is unique," said Vickie Sterling, the head of the WFC and the festival. "More than a dozen of the films in the festival are documentaries focusing on activism in all different parts of the world, from Mexico and El Salvador to China and Los Angeles. A half-dozen of the films focus on the lives of queer and lesbian women and range from documentaries and dark comedies to fantasy films and dramas."

Marginalized lives made more visible have become one of the hallmarks of this festival. Also, in terms of style, the festival helps new and experimental female filmmakers find an audience.

The festival kicks off with an electric disco-themed gala on Friday, March 10 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

"Bring your platform shoes and favorite 70's outfit," says the WFC. The

gala will begin with a reception of champagne, wine & hors d'oeuvres, followed by a screening of the film "Jewel's Catch One."

"Jewel's Catch One" tells the story of Jewel Thais-Williams and her club, "The Catch", the oldest Black-owned disco in America and one of the original safe spaces for both the LGBT and Black communities. The film celebrates the four decades during which the "Catch" helped break down racial, social, and cultural barriers.

Thais-Williams opened her bar after a nearby bar refused to serve African-Americans. She named it Catch One because many of her patrons were cruising, trying to "catch one" for the evening. It slowly became a gay bar, and Thais-Williams became a mother figure, especially during the AIDS crisis when she provided comfort to black gay men rejected by their families and church.

Thais-Williams, now 77, has lived a life of remarkable achievement. She founded the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Food Pantry in South Los Angles. With her wife, Rue, she founded Rue's House, the nation's first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children, most of whom were poor and black. After the life-saving AIDS medications became available in 1996, they transitioned the house into a sober-living facility.

Thais-Williams was a true pioneer. An African-American lesbian who becomes more beautiful as the years pass, she kept her disco going through good times, when it was the Los Angeles haunt of major celebrities (Madonna learned how to Vogue there) to the hardest of times, when criminals burn her out because she wouldn't sell.

And because Thais-Williams is determined (and tougher than nails), she wouldn't sell after the club was burned down, either. Instead, she just rebuilt the place.

In the late 1990s, Thais-Williams became enraged after an appointment with a culturally incompetent doctor. She went back to school, flew to China to study traditional Chinese medicine, became an acupuncturist and, in 2002, opened The Village Health Foundation as a low-cost clinic that provides alternative health and well-being care for her mostly minority clients.

"Jewel's Catch One" is a compendium of interviews cut with footage shot in the dark and noisy club. That makes this worthwhile film sometimes difficult to watch.

Some of the films were shot clandestinely, which also makes for viewing problems. Take "Hooligan Sparrow," an picture short-listed for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film, by Nanfu Wang, follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) as she protests sexual abuse in southern China.

The film begins after six elementary school school girls, in 2013, are sold as bribes to government officials — by their principal! And, as it turns out, the practice is far from unique in corrupt modern-day China.

Because of her protests, Ye Haiyan is evicted, beaten, imprisoned and forced to move halfway across China by a government which, instead of rewarding her for her efforts, wants to make her disappear. Like the treatment of the great artist Ai Weiwei, with whom Ye Haiyan collaborates, how she is treated is a scary indictment of what it's like to be on the wrong side of a powerful and vengeful government.

Watching the film, your heart is in your mouth not only for Ye Haiyan, but for Nanfu Wang. Does she finally smuggle her film out of China and make it back to safety in the U.S. She does, and the film is the result.

The importance of a festival supporting women filmmakers making films about women's lives cannot be understated. Few would argue, for example, that last year was not an especially good year for women. And then came the election.

"Recently, the world became an even more uncertain place for women," Sterling said. "We believe it is more important than ever to be a platform for women's voices and to offer inspiration whenever possible - we do this continually through our work at the Women's Freedom Center and once a year at the Women's Film Festival."

Tickets for the gala are $30 and are being sold now - to purchase online, go to womensfreedomcenter.net - click the donate button, put "gala ticket" in the message line and the center will mail them out to you. Or you can call the Women's Freedom Center 257-7364 or email email:advocates@womensfreedomcenter.net.

Individual tickets will be $9.00 for general admission, $8.00 for students/seniors. A five-movie pass is available for $40. Passes may be purchased at Everyone's Books in Brattleboro and World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield,

online through Paypal at womensfreedomcenter.net. Once on the website, put "film pass" in the message line and the center will mail them out to you.

Or call the center.

Joyce can be reached at joyrand@sover.net


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