Bleached blonde hair sculpted with the precision of a bird's nest, bold eye makeup carefully hiding wrinkles, all topped off with ruby lips: On looks alone, Irina Markova would be quite the subject for a short documentary. But then there's her career as a poodle-trainer in a Russian circus, her eccentric personality, and the fact that she constantly mimics her dogs' on-stage enthusiasm.
Vance Malone's The Poodle Trainer forces you into Markova's world, and leaves you there to grow increasingly uneasy with the solitude you find. Linda Broker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival since 2001, says The Poodle Trainer was one of the most argued-about films among members of the festival committee.
"We had some people say that this was the best films of the festival," she says, "and others say that the film was taking advantage of a woman who may be mentally unstable, and we shouldn't include it."
So goes the process of selecting films for the 23-year-old festival. But it's worth it, since this year's lineup will inspire discussion and argument on a variety of subjects, from the environment to the ex-gay movement to domestic violence.
Broker uses Mississippi Queen as an example. Paige Williams, a lesbian who lives in Montana, directed the documentary about an ex-gay ministry in Clinton, Miss. — run by her parents. The movie's agenda is not to demonize either side; through interviews with Christian gays, ex-gays and Williams' parents, as well as anecdotes from William's own life and marriage, Broker says the documentary "brings the audience into a conversation rather than alienation."
To ensure conversation continues after the film ends, Williams will be one of six filmmakers coming to the festival to discuss her work. Among the others: Suzan Beraza, director of BagIT (a must-see environmental film, according to Broker); Debra Anderson, director of Split Estate (more on that below); and Colorado Springs resident Cyd Chartier Cohn, director of Return.
Six or seven years ago, Cohn started taking film classes because she was inspired by the documentaries shown at this festival, which she began attending shortly after she moved here 20 years ago.
"I have been an attendee, then on the committee, and now I'm stepping into another role, filmmaker," she says. "I'm looking forward to seeing it from the other side."
Return focuses on former Colorado College political science professor and Colorado Springs City Council member Fred Sondermann. While talking to Gary Sondermann, Fred's son, at her own son's soccer game, Cohn learned of an article his father had written about his experience barely escaping Germany before the Holocaust and going back 30 years later. Upon reading his words, she knew she had to make a film with them.
"I had never heard anyone express their feelings about the Holocaust the way he did," Cohn says.
As explored in the film, Sondermann's words show a reflective mind trying to rationalize his childhood experience and the emotions he felt while showing his family his hometown and concentration camps. The film is pasted together with stock footage as well as home video taken during that family trip back to Germany, all with the narration of Sondermann's words and a collection of interviews. Polishing the film to near perfection is the original score by CC music professor Ofer Ben-Amots.
"The film is special because Dr. Sondermann was a beloved professor at CC and member of this community," says Cohn. "Plus, there are still things happening to this day that are not that different from what happened then."
Split Estate is another documentary poised to hit close to home. It explores the ruthlessness of natural gas drilling in the Rocky Mountains, where families are finding out daily that while they may own the surface of their land, they don't own the rights to the minerals underneath.
"I was completely unaware [of the situation]," says Broker. "I think the more people know, the better they are at making decisions that they may end up voting on."
Sweeping panoramas and visuals, such as a farmer lighting a mountain stream on fire, capture the environmental impact. But the health concerns are a whole other subject that Split Estate tackles successfully with intimate interviews.
Complementing the sentiment of Split Estate is Sun Come Up, a documentary following the lives of the world's first climate-change refugees, the Carteret Islanders, a small group of people bound to lose their traditions forever as their islands disappear amid rising sea levels. It combines Planet Earth-esque shots with up-close looks at the islanders as they search for a new home on the mainland of Papua New Guinea.
The festival isn't all documentaries, though. Fictional shorts like Angry Man explore hard topics (in the case of this film, domestic violence as seen through the eyes of a child) through brilliant storytelling and animation. Nor are all the films downers; shorts like Cried Suicide break up the schedule with comedy.
A favorite of Broker's, Cried Suicide is about a little lie that a woman tells: that she tried to commit suicide. From it comes a string of visits from her friends that eventually turns into a circus. "It was another one we argued about," Broker says. "Some thought it was hilarious, others thought it is too sensitive a subject to be funny."
However, Broker insists, "We take the emotional well-being of attendees into every decision we make — there is always an alternative at one of the other theaters if an attendee is sensitive towards, or just doesn't want to see, a particular subject."
Dancing poodles included.