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Windows to the Soul 

Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival offers glimpses of life seldom seen at your local movie theater

Why extol the virtues of a women's film festival?

Because: A) It (The Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival) is locally produced and operated by a devoted group of volunteers who, over the past 12 years, have put Colorado Springs on the map of many notable filmmakers; B) It's a weekend of celebrating the art and cultural identity of women as explored in the medium of film; C) It's a great chance to spend a leisurely weekend watching movies and bonding.

All of the above.

But the best reason to honor our own women's film festival -- to be held this weekend at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Colorado College campus -- is because rarely, if ever, does the average moviegoer get the chance to see such compelling topics so sensitively addressed onscreen. In a multi-billion dollar enterprise that regularly delivers endless reels of sci-fi schlock, romantic goo, adolescent filth and superhero kill-a-ramas to multiplexes around the world, opportunities to see films that address contemporary issues of our world, our bodies and our souls come few and far between.

Founded in 1988, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival is one of the oldest such festivals in the world dedicated to work by and about women. Each year, a group of 25 Springs women work year 'round to screen over 200 films, make selections, manage the logistics and stage the three-day event. Last year, over 4,800 volunteer hours were logged.

Each year, a group of filmmakers are invited to attend the festival, to participate in a filmmakers' forum on the second day and to go out into the community to show their films to select audiences on the first day. Former notables in attendance include Academy Award winners Jessica Yu and Allie Light. This year's festival will host seven filmmakers, including Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid whose film, Long Night's Journey Into Day, has already been awarded the Golden Spire at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, and will undoubtedly receive Academy Award accolades as well.

As in years past, this year's festival covers a wide spectrum of subjects and treatments, including short form, feature-length narrative and documentary and animated films. A Korean orphan, adopted by American parents in the 1960s, searches for identity in First Person Plural. A dance company in the Netherlands that transcends gender stereotypes of age, strength and beauty is documented in Can't Stop Now. The power of images, fed to women by corporate advertising, is explored in Beyond Killing Us Softly: The Strength to Resist.


The eyes have it

This year, two unique and vastly different feature-length films address the struggle for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Eyes of Tammy Faye, a documentary in the American kitsch vein but with an important underlying message, chronicles the bizarre life and times of 1980s Christian broadcasting icon, Tammy Faye Bakker. The film received wide commercial distribution, but never made it to Springs theaters.

"I think the eyes are windows into the soul, so when someone close to me dies, I always ask for their glasses," says Tammy Faye, serious as a judge in the film's opening moments. Hers are perhaps the contemporary world's most famous eyes -- spiked with mascaraed lashes that seem to have a life of their own. "Without my eyelashes," she says, "I wouldn't be Tammy Faye. I don't know who I'd be, but I wouldn't be me."

Alongside her longtime husband and sidekick, evangelist Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye pioneered the "electric church," from the mid-'60s to the late-'80s when the Bakker's network, PTL (Praise the Lord) became one of the world's most powerful broadcasting arms.

Most Americans remember the widely televised downfall of the Bakkers and PTL. By the late 1980s, their empire included Heritage, U.S.A., a 2,500-acre gospel-based theme park in North Carolina that was second only to the Disney parks in attendance annually. But at the same time Jim was prayerfully soliciting the television-watching public for contributions to his dream park, he was publicly outed as an adulterer (remember Jessica Hahn?) and the finances of his empire were investigated by Charles Shepard, a Charlotte reporter.

Bakker defended himself on the air, and Tammy Faye backed him each step of the way until finally, in 1989, following PTL's bankruptcy, Jim was tried for fraud, was convicted and carried away to prison, sobbing and bound in handcuffs. Tammy Faye responded publicly with a song, "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand." By 1992, the Bakkers were divorced and their PTL experience, which during its heyday was broadcast 24 hours a day, was over. All that remained was the question: Whatever happened to Tammy Faye?

Documentary filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey asked that question and found that while Tammy Faye may have faded from the public eye, her garish and bold internal spotlight never stopped shining. The portrait they paint is of a simple, vibrant, intelligent woman who was able to maintain a unique integrity while being ridiculed by most of the world (remember the T-shirt, "I Ran Into Tammy Faye at the Mall"?) as her world crumbled around her.

Narrated by Ru Paul, the film explores Tammy Faye's upbringing, her early career, her religious inspiration, her camp appeal and her unflinching spirit. And interestingly, it depicts her as a woman of pure motives who was simply caught up in a phenomenon which outgrew her and which turned on her spitefully when she became too successful for comfort.

"It's so often true that Christians are one army that kill their wounded," says entertainer Pat Boone, referring to the humiliation heaped on Tammy Faye and Jim while fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell walked away with the empire and their dreams.

As in the Larry Flynt bio-pic of a few years back, Falwell is painted as an overly-ambitious, cold villain who would crucify his enemies to remove them from the ascendency to power. Whether that's an accurate depiction or not, openly gay Rev. Mel White, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, argues in the film that Falwell and the Bakkers were definitely not cut from the same cloth.

White praises Tammy Faye for her unbridled energy and her Christian embrace of outcasts, even on nationwide television. "[Tammy Faye] embraced those rejected by other Christian communities," says White, referring specifically to a PTL broadcast in which Tammy Faye speaks with an HIV-infected minister and weeps when she learns he has been cast out by his congregation. That segment is followed by the guest appearance of a sex therapist, graphically demonstrating the mechanics of penile implants, a sight you'd hardly expect on a Christian broadcast.

Tammy Faye openly describes her struggle with prescription drug addiction, the troubles of her children, Jamie Charles and Tammy Sue ("I practically had both of my children on TV"), her bout with cancer and her unyielding faith in Christianity and humanity. "I don't label people," she says. "I refuse to label people. We're all just people made from the same old dirt. And God doesn't make junk!"

The film is playful but deeply respectful, entertaining and moving. Tammy Faye, bold and outspoken, garishly made up and dressed, turns out to be a little bit like many middle-aged women who've been, figuratively speaking, to hell and back.

"I want to go back to the trees, the flowers, the grass, my kids and grandkids," she concludes. "That's really all there is."


Restorative justice

Possibly the most important film being shown at this year's Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival is Long Night's Journey Into Day, a wrenching documentary that covers four specific cases brought before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings.

When apartheid officially ended in South Africa in 1993, Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed the need for "understanding but not vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation." Tutu expanded the meaning of prosecutorial, retributive justice to include "restorative" justice by forming an officially sanctioned committee which could offer selective amnesty to individuals who confessed and asked forgiveness for crimes committed under the former racist system. He and others instituted the Truth and Reconciliation process, delicately but forcefully chronicled in this film.

Filmmakers Frances Reid and Deborah Huffman, who will be in attendance at this weekend's festival, filmed the proceedings of four separate cases, all of which were broadcast live on the radio across South Africa. The first involved an American, Amy Biehl, a Fulbright scholar who was stoned and beaten to death by a mob chanting anti-white slogans in 1993 Capetown. Biehl's parents attended the Truth and Reconciliation hearings of Amy's confessed murderer, Mongezi Manqina, and offered their public forgiveness, going so far as to meet and embrace Manqina's mother who grieves openly over the image of Biehl's family at their holiday table, their daughter's plate permanently missing.

Manqina's testimony is chilling: "At first, to tell the truth," he says, "I didn't care. What the hell? She's a white woman." He goes on to beg the Biehl's forgiveness, explaining that the same week he had seen a black student, shot dead by a policeman before his eyes. He argues that his rage was prompted by the perverse logic that, "by killing anyone whose death would force the government to pay attention to the plight of the black people," his actions, at the moment they occurred, were justified.

Manqina's testimony and others' ask the unanswerable question: Should convicted murderers be granted amnesty because the political circumstances of the time induced them to commit the crime? Neither the answer nor the process is that simple, the filmmakers are careful to point out.

When Robert McBride, an African National Congress freedom fighter asks forgiveness for bombing a Durban bar and killing three white women, the sister of one of the victims does not accept his claim of political naivet. Bird, who joined the ANC at age 22, testifies that, when he joined, he knew he faced killing people and possibly losing his own life. "I reasoned that apartheid was the major cause of this tragedy," he says. His victim's sister doesn't accept that explanation and makes it clear she never will.

Eric Taylor, a white, ex-security forces officer convicted of assassinating Fort Calata, a rural anti-apartheid activist, claims in his Truth and Reconciliation hearing that he killed Calata because it was part of his job description. Sworn to uphold apartheid, Taylor dispassionately explains how he promised to uphold Christian principles, thereby justifying the destruction of atheists and communists like Calata.

Remarkably, after seeing the American film Mississippi Burning and reading the biography of Nelson Mandela while in prison, Taylor says he experienced a change of heart and decided to apply for conditional amnesty. "They were succeeding in toppling the government," he confesses to the committee. "I believed this violent onslaught could be stopped. I hit [Calata] as hard as I could, approximately where the head joins the neck."

Calata's wife does not oppose Taylor's amnesty, but expresses her own irreconcilable grief at the hearings. "What hurt me the most," she says, "was to hear that ... after he was killed, his body was burned. That hits me a lot. Even now I can't make peace with that."

The fourth and most complicated case explains the death of seven boys gunned down by security forces on the same spot where Amy Biehl was killed in Cape Town, eight years earlier. Of the 25 officers who were convicted of killing the "Gugulatu 7," two applied for amnesty -- one a white man who denies the victims were racially targeted, the other a black man, Thapelo Mbelo, who says he was ordered to entrap them.

The families' responses range from disbelief to horror to relief, and, ultimately, are not reconciled. "Forgive me, my parents," begs the black officer, to which one of the mothers responds: "How do you feel about selling your own blood?"

Long Night's Journey Into Day bravely illustrates the difficulty of telling stories that must be told if truth is ever to be faced. A Maya Angelou poem, intoned by a white South African journalist half-way through the film, expresses this central theme starkly and beautifully:

History despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived

But if faced with courage

Need not be lived again.

Films like this one teach us the power of remembering and the danger of forgetting -- the immutable lesson of history.


In the pines where the sun never shines

Last year's film festival saw director Rory Kennedy's gracious homage to a rural Appalachian family, American Hollow. This year the Appalachian exploration theme continues, viewed from two very different perspectives.

Songcatcher, winner of the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is the gentle fictional tale of Dr. Lily Penleric, a prim musicologist who collects English ballads and is completely taken aback when she discovers the songs in pure, unadulterated form deep in the Appalachian mountains where her younger sister has taken up residence as a schoolteacher. Janet McTeer, who received unanimous accolades last year for her film debut in the indie hit Tumbleweeds, plays Penleric alongside a rich supporting cast.

Pat Carroll, who hasn't had a film role in ages, is wonderful as old Viney, a mountain herbalist who is the first native to sing into Lily's cumbersome recording device. Viney is also the grandmother of good-looking loner and ultimate love interest, Tom, played very nicely by Aidan Quinn. Tom resents Lily's intrusion into the mountain folks' ways, but eventually is swayed by her unerring dedication to the task, her stately physique and the promise that she will someday usher him out of the hills to a new life.

Other hill folk include Rose Gentry, played by folk/country songstress Iris Dement, and Dexter Speaks, a banjo-picking local played in a short cameo appearance by Taj Mahal.

Jane Adams gives a lovely turn as Elna, Lily's sister, who carries on a secret love affair with her sister schoolmarm, Harriet Tolliver, and singer Emmy Rossum is more than tolerably sweet as the county's requisite orphan, Deladis, who becomes Lily's research assistant.

Director Maggie Greenwald wields a quiet hand and lets the story tell itself with the help of some rich cinematography by Enrique Chediak. Some Appalachian stereotypes (crude rednecks, homophobes, Bible thumpers) are revisited relatively unimaginatively, but they do not, thankfully, ascend to the film's central focus point. That is reserved for the musical tradition of the mountains, the rightful star of this sweet, entertaining film.

Songcatcher will likely make it to a theater near you sometime in the upcoming year since it has been picked up for distribution by TriMark Pictures, but RMWFF will enjoy one of its few non-commercial screenings.

Ironically juxtaposed is the Appalshop documentary, Stranger With a Camera, directed by native Kentuckian Elizabeth Barret. Stranger, which has aired on PBS, revisits the 1964 murder of Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O'Connor in Jeremiah, Kentucky, at the hands of Hobert Isom, a cranky local who was fed up with being exploited and exposed by the media.

Barret, who has stood "on both sides of the camera," remembers her Whitesburg, Kentucky, childhood, and the flood of cameras that descended there in the early '60s to expose America's darkest pocket of poverty. "What is the difference," she asks, "between how people see their own place and how the people who film it see it?" Barret's community was depicted by the media as "the center of America's poverty belt," a distinction that did little to promote local pride, ignoring the cultural wealth of the place while succumbing to a patronizing "save the aborigines" mentality.

The film asks if filmmakers can show poverty without insulting the people they portray, how much is it the media's obligation to show, and what are the responsibilities of filmmakers who take images of other people and use them for their own purposes. Barret does not condone Isom's action, but puts it in the context of the place and time, concluding that, to some degree, media infiltration into the community was also responsible for the violent turn of events.

Stranger With a Camera shows the flip side of the Appalachia explored and, yes, exploited, in Songcatcher and in many documentaries, making the point that a place belongs first and foremost to the people who live there. The responsibility of observers to tread lightly -- and with respect -- is the filmmaker's burden and solemn duty.

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