Real Women Have Courage 

On display this weekend at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival

Real women have conflicts, compassion, courage and curves -- all on display this weekend at the 15th annual Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival.

The festival's lone feature is Real Women Have Curves, an independent film drawing lots of media attention in Los Angeles and New York, where it recently opened. Real Women is the story of a bright young Latina girl who wants to break away from the legacy of slave labor and sacrifice that she has been taught by the women in her extended family. It celebrates individuality and independent thought but doesn't lose sight of the power of family bonds. It's funny and relevant, sassy and sweet.

But the real strength of the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival has always come from its willingness to show bold documentary work that moviegoers rarely have the chance to see. Witness the work of three women who will be attending the festival to introduce and discuss their films with festival attendees as well as community groups and students in area schools.

For her film, Refrigerator Mothers, J.J. Henley spent four years researching autism and interviewing mothers who gave birth in the 1950s and '60s to their autistic children, then were blamed for the children's condition and outcast by the medical establishment.

For two-and-a-half years, Tasha Oldham filmed the intimate daily lives of a devout Mormon family, struggling with AIDS and certain death, for her film, The Smith Family.

Lisa Jackson borrowed from her own experience as a victim of violent crime and followed the struggles of the family of a murdered woman as they prepared to meet her murderer in prison in her searing documentary, Meeting with a Killer.

These are not ordinary films. They challenge us to re-examine our attitudes and beliefs about family and faith. They ask us to open our hearts to the extraordinary struggles of others. They ask us to own up to our own humanity.

The Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, homegrown and still dedicated to a warm and friendly moviegoing experience after all these years, has put together an impressive lineup of films for this year's event. We owe them a debt of gratitude for making Colorado Springs a place where filmmakers come together once a year to celebrate the possibilities of film and the courage, charisma, commitment, compassion and, yes, curves, of real women.

The Smith Family

Tasha Oldham didn't set out to be a documentarian, but the Smith family's story was one that begged to be documented.

While working on another film about the lives of Mormon women, Oldham met Kim Smith, a Utah woman whose husband Steve, on their ninth wedding anniversary, confessed to having sexual encounters with other men. Three years later, Steve was diagnosed with AIDS and Kim discovered she was HIV positive.

Devout Mormons and devoted parents of two teen-age sons, Tony and Parker, the Smiths had to decide how to move ahead.

"Kim and Steve thought they were the only ones going through this," said Oldham. "Steve, at first, thought he was the only gay Mormon male out there."

But as the overwhelming response to the PBS broadcast of The Smith Family earlier this year attests, the issues the Smiths faced are not so uncommon among Mormons, indeed among married couples of all faiths. The discussion board at the PBS Web site has logged over 1,000 e-mails responding to the issues raised in Oldham's film -- closeted homosexuality, infidelity, family loyalty and reconciliation.

In Kim Smith, Oldham found a perfect protagonist -- a woman who decides to forgive her husband and keep her family together, no matter what.

"I felt so lucky that Kim was willing to share," said Oldham. "Mormons tend to be private people, not wanting to air their dirty laundry. Kim calls it the 'Mormon happy face' -- you know, everything's just great. But she wanted her story out there, knowing that if she could help one other family, it would be worth it."

The Smith Family is a riveting family saga, and it is a fascinating look at the Mormon community. Throughout the film, as Steve draws closer to death, each member of the family draws on his or her faith and on their identity as Mormons to draw strength.

"Mormonism isn't just something you do on Sunday," said Oldham, who is a member of the church. "It is so who you are, it is engrained into your being. It defines how you want to raise your family."

The Smiths thought they would be shunned by the church when they revealed Steve's secret about his sexuality and the deadly results of his infidelity. But that was not the case. Though Steve was nearly excommunicated, church members rallied around the family during his illness and stuck with the Smiths.

"The church has blown them away," said Oldham. "I, too, didn't know how the members were going to react to the film. But they see Kim as an asset, a strength. They said, 'OK, here's a family in need. We don't really care about the circumstances. How can we help?'"

Meeting with a Killer

The idea of restorative justice -- a system that focuses on the healing of victims and families by mediating open dialogue, allowing perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions-- is not exactly evident in the daily television barrage of crime and punishment bluster and bravado. But for a victim or the family of a victim of violent crime, says filmmaker Lisa Jackson, it can be life-changing.

Jackson, who has long been involved both personally and professionally with victims organizations, came to know Ellen Halbert, a victims' rights advocate who herself was the victim of a rape, several years back.

"When Ellen was going through the training to become a mediator in the Texas Victim/Offender Mediation Dialogue program, we thought of the idea of filming a mediation," said Jackson. "When she got the assignment to mediate the White case, she thought of me immediately."

The Whites, Linda and Amy, were grandmother and granddaughter, mother and daughter to Cathy who was brutally murdered at the age of 26 by a drug-addled, troubled young man named Gary Brown. Jackson's film Meeting with a Killer chronicles the intense preparation of the Whites and Brown to meet face to face, and their eventual coming together in a Texas penitentiary.

"It was a very, very intimate process," said Jackson. "That seven-hour process, when they actually met, was the most powerful, intimate thing that I have ever been witness to, after 30 years of documentary filmmaking."

Equally as powerful is seeing the encounter on film. Meeting with a Killer places the unthinkable before an audience's eyes, asking how a mother can face her daughter's killer, how a killer can own up to his actions and how far mercy can be strained.

"When someone is convicted of a violent offense, the system takes over," said Jackson. "The victims are left out there trying to figure it out for themselves." Mediation, she says, offers victims a chance to find out for themselves what happened and why, and how they can begin to move on.

Mediation also begs the question of whether our nation's rush to impunity, stricter sentences and harsher punishment is an effective deterrent for perpetrators. Jackson observes that Meeting with a Killer was receiving critical acclaim -- it was the first Court TV documentary ever nominated for an Emmy -- at a time when most films being made were about the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, with America as victim.

"Revenge was the very subtle context of much of the coverage of 9/11," she observes. "This film really holds out the possibility of redemption."

And it raises many questions that America's legal system seems unwilling to discuss.

"I want to raise the question: Do we have the spiritual strength of will to examine the death penalty and other extreme punitive measures?" said Jackson. "Because clearly they do not work. They are not stopping people from killing.

"We don't look enough within ourselves at how our culture breeds violence, perpetuates and encourages violence."

Refrigerator Mothers

Producer J.J. Henley became interested in making a film about autism when her son, Timothy, was diagnosed with the developmental disorder. Henley took her toddler, who had no language and was exhibiting some bizarre behavior at the age of three, to the doctor and ended up undergoing a humiliating course of shame and blame.

"The pediatrician looked at my son, Timothy, for about three seconds, and said 'There's nothing wrong with your kid -- this was in 1996 -- but you are overbearing and highly neurotic,'" said Henley. "In other words it was my fault that he was the way he was."

Henley sought other opinions, and when her son was diagnosed as autistic, she began researching his case and came across references to what she refers to as "this era of blaming mother," the 1950s and '60s under the tutelage of famed pediatrician Dr. Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim likened autistics to concentration camp prisoners, responding to their frigid mothers in the same way that prisoners responded to cruel, controlling prison guards.

The proposed treatment: Remove the autistic child from his mother.

"I had experienced my own moments of blame as a mother," said Henley. "When there's something wrong with your kid, it's very natural to blame yourself. But professors by then were telling me it had nothing to do with me.

"I wondered what it must have been like for women raising their autistic children while being blamed for their condition."

Henley put notices in autism organization newsletters and eventually narrowed some 170 respondents down to nine who were interviewed for the film. Seven of them appear in the final cut of Refrigerator Mothers, a riveting look at the obstacles these women had to overcome to preserve their relationships with their children and to protect their own battered psyches.

Henley, who partnered with veteran filmmakers David E. Simpson and Gordon Quinn to make the film, hopes audiences will walk away seeing the devotion of these mothers to their adult children and their unwavering dedication to them.

"It's one of the ironies of the 'refrigerator mom' theory that here was a generation of women told by everyone, in some cases their husbands, that they were to blame. And yet they remain their children's greatest advocates," she said. "Their greatest loves, their greatest supporters.

"I hope that comes across."


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