In the 18 years since the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival first debuted in Colorado Springs, women filmmakers have come of age, particularly in the documentary arena.
Documentarians are reaching wider viewing audiences through public television's Point of View series and HBO, Showtime and Lifetime cable networks, and, more frequently, commercial movie screens.
Champions of documentaries by and for women, the screening committee of the RMWFF watched approximately 200 films before choosing 25 (feature length and shorts) to show at the festival from Friday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Nov. 6.
Here are a few highlights:
Human rights watch
Three outstanding new films address compelling and startling human rights issues.
Searching for Angela Shelton, winner of numerous festival awards in the documentary category, started on a lark. Los Angeles filmmaker Angela Shelton planned to tour America on a bus, find all the other Angela Sheltons she could, and survey them to gather an overview of the thoughts of 21st-century American women. Over the Internet and through telephone books, she identified 40 Angelas.
To her dismay and surprise, she found that 24 of the 40 had been beaten, raped or sexually abused, an experience she shared.
So in Searching, as Angela Shelton crosses the United States from California to North Carolina, she gathers the courage and determination to confront her own abuser, her father. She also reunites with her sister and stepbrother, who also were abused.
The revelations of all the Angelas are candid and appalling, but the sharing of stories with other Angelas provides strength and solace for the filmmaker.
Indeed, Searching for Angela Shelton has become more a movement than just a film, convincing women and men everywhere that they are not alone, and that coming out from the shadow of abuse is a social and moral necessity.
Angela Shelton, who recently testified before Congress decrying the epidemic of domestic violence, including sexual abuse, will be at the RMWFF to discuss her work.
After Innocence, produced and directed by Jessica Sanders, shines a light on men who have been released from prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or murder and incarcerated for many years.
As DNA evidence comes to light and proves their innocence, the stars of this film are sent back into the free world with little assistance beyond what their families can provide, raising the question: What is society's obligation to those wrongfully accused, convicted and imprisoned?
Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, this painfully affecting documentary takes a simple approach. Asking a series of men to tell their stories from beginning to end, it follows their progression from prison stays of up to 20 years to their present struggles to readjust.
Each story carries its own poignancy and outrage, but perhaps the most shocking is that of Wilton Dedge, a Florida man wrongfully convicted of murder who remains in prison another three years after DNA evidence has proven his innocence. Whether Dedge's release actually will come provides suspense that propels the film forward and captivates the audience.
Moving and provocative, After Innocence flies in the face of get-tough-on-crime jingoism, raising a human rights issue the country thus far only has begun to recognize.
Seoul Train, produced and directed by Lisa Sleeth and her partner, Jim Butterworth, explores human rights violations in North Korea and neighboring China where, against the rules of the United Nations High Committee on Refugees, North Korean escapees are captured and sent back to North Korea to suffer unthinkable consequences.
Sleeth says that she and Butterworth made a decision in 2003 to make a film that would "bring some light to an injustice."
"We went in July 2003 to see a New York Times reporter speak about nuclear weapons and North Korea," says Sleeth. "After the speech, we went up to him and he told us about the human rights atrocities there and the breach of international laws.
"We decided to make the film in July 2003, got on a plane to Korea in October 2003 and, in October 2004, [the film] was in the can, a finished product."
Since then, Sleeth, a registered nurse, and Butterworth have taken the film around the country to screenings and meetings and have secured domestic distribution for the film. They soon will release a DVD.
Though Sleeth is encouraged that the United States government has taken action to pass human rights resolutions regarding North Korea, she's frustrated at its unwillingness to enforce existing laws.
The situation she witnessed, she says, is dire.
"Every single month, over a hundred people are being sent back to North Korea. And every day, people there are dying of starvation or freezing to death," she says. "If you speak out about the government, or you try to leave your small community to obtain food, if you beg or steal food, you are severely punished. We know there's cannibalism there. We know there are public executions there."
The film reveals the risks taken by activists assisting the underground railroad to China and the determination of defecting North Koreans to find freedom. It deftly navigates the complex and controversial political and human rights issues.
Sleeth will attend the film festival to screen and answer questions about Seoul Train.
Celebration of spirit
Norton Dill and Anne Wheeler's heartwarming documentary, Kathryn: Story of a Teller, celebrates an extraordinary life in a film portrait of one of America's most beloved storytellers, Kathryn Tucker Windham of Selma.
Windham, a pioneering journalist of her time with the Birmingham News, evolved in her later life into a storyteller who roamed the national circuit, spinning tales of local legends, ordinary life and ghosts, including her own personal house ghost Jeffrey.
Now in her late 80s, Windham guides the film gently but firmly through the streets of Selma, to the church and cemetery of her family's hometown, Thomasville. Through Spanish moss-lined lanes and pine forests to convention meeting rooms, she soothes the viewer with her deep Southern accent and her quick wit.
Selma's racial history -- this was the site of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where peaceful civil rights demonstrators were brutally attacked by state troopers in 1963 -- figures in the story in an unexpected way, as does a pine casket sitting in a wooded cove.
Kathryn: Story of a Teller celebrates the human spirit quietly and distinctively, honoring the need for self expression that animates all people. Wheeler will be on hand at the RMWFF to discuss the film, winner of the Crystal Heart Award at this year's Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
18th annual Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College
Friday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Nov. 6
For complete schedule and ticket information, visit rmwfilm fest.org, or call the Fine Arts Center box office at 634-5583.