Reelwomen

They take the leading role at a film festival that celebrates their contributions as directors, producers and actors

October 23, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

No one has an easy time of it, breaking into the movies. But for women, gaining a toehold in the business side of filmmaking is especially hard.

"It's a big deal for women ... to be able to direct films, to have some kind of major role in the making of a film," says writer-producer Arlette Thomas-Fletcher, a native Baltimorean whose first film, Assault in Brooklyn, will be on the 8 p.m. opening-night shorts program when the second annual Baltimore Women's Film Festival kicks off this evening at Landmark Theatres' Harbor East.

"I don't think any women have won an [Oscar] for directing," she said.

Thomas-Fletcher and another half-dozen or so women from the Baltimore area will be among the dozens of filmmakers whose work will be featured at the festival, which runs through Sunday at the Landmark. Most are young, still experimenting and still trying to find an identity and establish a reputation in an art form traditionally dominated by men.

That's one reason why they so welcome this four-day festival, which will showcase more than 100 films, including the work of filmmakers from all over the world. All have either been made by women, feature women prominently or deal with issues of special concern to women. Half of all proceeds from the festival will be donated to the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center.

"Women are grossly underrepresented in the film industry," says Brandy Baker, a former Green Party organizer and University of Baltimore graduate student whose short, Both, is part of the Experimental Films program set for 10 p.m. tomorrow. "To focus on people who have not been represented in Hollywood, whether it's women or women of color ... is great. I think we bring a lot to the table."

The festival lineup is devoid of any big-time Hollywood stars (save for actress Lynn Redgrave, who will be in town tomorrow not to promote a film, but to autograph copies of her book, Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery From Breast Cancer). But the films to be shown at the Landmark this weekend are an eclectic bunch, from brief experimental shorts without any recognizable faces in them to feature-length films starring actors whose faces may prove familiar, if not their names.

The actors whose work will be shown at the festival include Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who stars in The Pack (7:30 p.m. Saturday), a drama about secondhand smoke, and Dominic West (300 and HBO's The Wire) and Doug O'Lear (The Wire), co-stars of Hold On (4:30 p.m. Saturday, part of the Comedic Shorts program), a comedy about a paraplegic physicist's search for love.

With lots to gain, these are filmmakers happy to push boundaries and anxious to see if the results catch anyone's eye. For many, this is their first time watching their work on the big screen, with an audience on hand to provide instant feedback.

Baker's Both, for instance, uses still photographs of two women enjoying an autumn day to suggest volumes about the value of companionship, peace and synchronicity. "I think I'm kind of anti-script," says Baker, whose film was the final project for her visual aesthetics class. "I try to convey what I'm trying to say in images, which I think can be more powerful than words."

Thomas-Fletcher's 10-minute Assault in Brooklyn is a plea for humanity and selflessness played against the backdrop of a vicious assault and its aftermath.

"I like to make humanitarian-type films," she says, "films that make people want to make a difference, want to help one another. I like to bring a positive voice to things."

Not all the artists featured in the festival are newcomers, but even the veterans say they appreciate the chance it gives them to reach an audience.

"The fact that there's something like this, that promotes smaller productions, is really wonderful," says actress Philippa Berrington-Blew, a native of South Africa who has lived in Baltimore since 2000. "One doesn't often get the opportunity to promote one's wares, to play for a wider reach of audience than just close friends and relatives."

Berrington-Blew, a star of South African soaps (Generations) whose work in this country has been limited to serving as Nicole Kidman's stand-in and occasional body double on The Invasion, stars in Parting Ways (8 tonight, part of the opening-night shorts) from Baltimore photographer Peter Mullett. The 33-minute film, shot entirely in Baltimore (mostly Mount Vernon and Mount Washington), details the final meeting of a divorcing husband and wife and watches warily as the pair separate without ever coming totally clean about what might happen next.

"This festival fills a void, in that it focuses on women and women's issues," says Mullett, who made his reputation as a fashion photographer in England - his work has appeared in such magazines as Elle and Vogue - before coming to the U.S. in 1981 and moving to Baltimore shortly thereafter. "It's hugely important."

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