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Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival tackles timely topics; includes local filmmakers and subjects 

Lost in Tradition

click to enlarge Last Dance at Johnson's Barn - COURTESY LAST DANCE AT JOHNSONS BARN
  • Courtesy Last Dance at Johnsons Barn
  • Last Dance at Johnson's Barn

In its 31st year, The Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival returns this weekend with a wide variety of long, short, narrative, documentary, live-action and even animated films, all meant to paint a diverse picture of current events, interesting subjects and poignant stories on five screens throughout the Colorado College campus.

Once again hosting Q&As and filmmaker forums, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Institute will widen educational opportunities beyond just the subjects of its films, encouraging discussion around the timely topics addressed by many — from the refugee crisis to homelessness.

click to enlarge TransMilitary - COURTESY TRANSMILITARY
  • Courtesy TransMilitary
  • TransMilitary

On Saturday, two local, accomplished filmmakers, Colorado College professors Clay Haskell and Dylan Nelson (a RMWFF veteran), will be on hand after their 2:45 p.m. screening to discuss their 18-minute short, Last Dance at Johnson's Barn. In it, they document not only the last of the traditional barn dances held at a family farm in rural North Dakota, but also paint a portrait of rural America.

"It's a farming community and it's a farming tradition," Haskell says, "and even if we don't understand it anymore, and we're not connected to it, we all know that it's part of our collective national and international history. We all come from an agrarian past."

They hope to convey the sense of that universal connection in this specific story — the story of family patriarch Brian Johnson's illness, Parkinson's disease, and the Johnson family's heartbreaking decision to sell the farm, which affects the entire region.

"I was looking for an elegiac tone," Nelson says. "I thought it was going to be an elegiac story, because it's about the end of something, and as it turned out it's about the end of a life as well as a tradition."

click to enlarge Last Dance at Johnson's Barn producer Dylan Nelson - COURTESY LAST DANCE AT JOHNSONS BARN
  • Courtesy Last Dance at Johnsons Barn
  • Last Dance at Johnson's Barn producer Dylan Nelson

Though by the very title, audiences know how this film will end, that knowing makes the film that much more impactful. "We really want the film to build up and create for the audience the sense of meaning for the barn dance itself, for the tradition of it, and for how important it was for the community," Haskell says. "So that when the film stops at the very end, the audience feels the loss in much the same way that the community did. ... We wanted to stage it in such a way that the audience wants the dance to go on forever."

Another of RMWFF's feature documentaries spotlights two subjects who live in Colorado Springs: Senior Airman Logan Ireland and his wife Corporal Laila Ireland (née Villanueva).

Alongside fellow transgender service members Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook, the Irelands take center stage in TransMilitary, a new documentary covering an important and ongoing issue that resonates especially with the Pikes Peak region's military population.

TransMilitary, screening at 11 a.m. Saturday, gives audiences an intimate window into the lives of these four people, and their unnamed brethren — an estimated 15,000 transgender people serve in the U.S. military — whose careers remain uncertain thanks to the White House's sudden July ban on transgender troops. Though four courts have upheld a preliminary injunction on the ban, meaning it has yet to officially overwrite the 2016 Obama administration decision to permit transgender people to serve, no one quite knows what will happen next.

click to enlarge Last Dance at Johnson's Barn director Clay Haskell - COURTESY LAST DANCE AT JOHNSONS BARN
  • Courtesy Last Dance at Johnsons Barn
  • Last Dance at Johnson's Barn director Clay Haskell

In 2015, TransMilitary directors Fiona Dawson and Gabe Silverman created a short documentary for The New York Times called Transgender, at War and in Love. TransMilitary functions in some ways as a sequel, as well as a more in-depth look at the issues faced by transgender service members over the last six years.

But, as Dawson says: "We made an artistic decision in putting the film together to really focus on the humanity of the story, rather than the tic-toc of the political fallout. ... Regardless of what happens next, we feel like this story is still kind of evergreen, because we want people who don't typically look at a documentary around trans individuals to be able to look at this and kind of get to understand who people are, and decrease transphobia and stigma and stereotypes."

click to enlarge TransMilitary director Gabriel Silverman - COURTESY TRANSMILITARY
  • Courtesy TransMilitary
  • TransMilitary director Gabriel Silverman

The film's emphasis on its subjects ensures that it never feels so political that it might alienate viewers who disagree with its message, and the film proves these transgender troops to be courageous and resilient by anyone's measure. Dawson says their emphasis on completing the mission sets military members and veterans apart from other citizens, and the subjects of this film prove no exception. Opening their hearts and lives to these cameras becomes their mission here.

click to enlarge TransMilitary co-director Fiona Dawson - COURTESY TRANSMILITARY
  • Courtesy TransMilitary
  • TransMilitary co-director Fiona Dawson

"They were willing to put their stories out there for the greater good," Dawson says. "They realized that without any stories, you can't allow people to really relate to what it's like to walk in their shoes, and to realize they're just typical people, typical Americans wanting to get on and live their lives. If you don't show that, then they're not visible, therefore you cannot make change happen."

Viewers can expect a roller coaster ride of emotion: heartfelt coming out stories, intimate portraits of families and relationships, elation at the 2016 lifting of the ban and, ultimately, the gut-dropping impact of Trump's July tweets.

click to enlarge TransMilitary producer and writer Jamie Coughlin - COURTESY TRANSMILITARY
  • Courtesy TransMilitary
  • TransMilitary producer and writer Jamie Coughlin

"Regardless of your party alliance," Dawson says, "everybody speaks highly of service members and veterans. If we're going to use that language, then we really need to know who all of our service members are." She says she hopes the president, members of the Supreme Court, the secretary of defense and other "men in power" watch this film someday. "Because these are the men and women who are defending our freedom that they so highly regard and speak of, and yet any time any of them commend our service members, are they really including all of our service members?"

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