No one is going to argue that Hollywood is a land of equal opportunity. More than a century after Los Angeles became the center of the filmmaking industry, it continues to be a male-dominated realm, one where women can rarely be found behind the camera.
The rise of independent film has changed that, however slowly. And one of the best showcases for the progress that women filmmakers have made is here in our backyard. The Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival has been around for 27 years, making it the longest continuously running festival of its sort in North America.
This year's event will screen 40 features, shorts and documentaries, all by female directors, except for one token male. But while the festival's name might suggest otherwise, a number of the films center on male protagonists, such as Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens in Christina Turner's documentary Homegoings.
Others, like Cary Bell's Butterfly Girl and Kate Logan's Kidnapped for Christ, chronicle the lives of women and men in situations that reach well beyond any gender boundaries.
In the case of Butterfly Girl, the focus is on Abbie Evans, a Texas teenager with epidermolysis bullosa, a life-threatening skin disease that forced her to spend much of her youth in the hospital.
During the crowdfunding campaign for the film's making, the documentary was titled Merch Girl, since Evans was often on the road selling merchandise for her father's band in honky-tonk bar rooms. It was retitled when the focus shifted more to Evans' affliction.
"'Butterfly children' is what they call kids with ED, because their skin is so delicate," explains director Bell. "Originally we thought it was just gonna be a short film about a girl selling merchandise. But the more we got to know Abbie, and the more she opened up that part of her life to us, the more we came to realize that we have a feature film here about how Abbie was able to define herself outside of her disease.
"For strong women, you can definitely see so much of yourself in Abbie. I know I can.
"I was at a festival where the film screened at last month," adds the director, "and someone said that, if all teenage boys would watch this, they would treat girls differently from a young age. I thought that was an interesting comment."
Butterfly Girl will also ring true for the families of children with the disease at a time when AIDS is still stigmatized and the media is spreading hysteria about Ebola.
"It's a genetic disease, so you can't catch it," explains Bell. "But oh gosh, yeah, it's a huge hurdle, especially for kids, because the parents worry their kids will play with the child and catch what they have. It's just about ignorance and education, you know? And fear. Everybody is afraid."
Fear is also a motivating factor in Logan's Kidnapped for Christ, but the results are far more extreme. The documentary is set in a Christian boarding school, based in the Dominican Republic, where "troubled" kids are hauled off and subjected to behavioral modification that the school refers to as "culture shock therapy."
Asked how she feels about coming to the home of New Life Church and Focus on the Family to screen her film, the director says she's largely optimistic about the reception it will receive.
"On the one hand, the Christian community has actually been very receptive to the film," says Logan. "Because it's not anti-Christian or anti-religious at all, despite the provocative title. You know, it's really anti-child abuse."
Still, the director also recognizes that her film's main character, a gay teenager who's shipped off by his parents to be "cured," is more than likely to make some of the Focus crowd uncomfortable. Which, from her viewpoint, makes the screening that much more important.
"I think I would much rather have it play in Colorado Springs than play it in San Francisco," she says. "Because I think that it's just more important to share this other side of things with people that might not agree with it, rather than just preaching to the choir."
Bell, meanwhile, is about to begin work on her next project, and has no qualms about revealing its subject matter. "The next film will be about a group of women that are lady hustlers — let's just put it that way — women that come from an urban environment and work in and around the hip-hop scene."
Having recently moved to Los Angeles, Bell is amazed by the degree of sexism in the industry. "It's blowing my mind, how prevalent is," she says. "It's everything from being the only woman in the room to being treated in a certain way that you know you wouldn't be treated if you were a man.
"But you can't really say that out loud, you know?" she adds with a laugh.
Even so, filmmakers like Bell do have at least one advantage.
"I think the way women can become bigger and better directors is that you're going to have an angle or a look at a story in a way that the man wouldn't get," she says. "I would like to think that the movies that I'm going to make are movies that men could never make."
So proud of you Catherine!!! I knew you could do it!!!
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