Getting women in the room

Boulder International Film Festival screens LUNAFEST shorts

'Jesszilla' follows the story of a 10-year-old girl who wants to be a professional boxer.

Maybe it comes as no surprise, but sexism is alive and well in the film industry. Women filmmakers are often forced into alternative methods of funding, whether it be through independent production studios or funding their own projects, and women have fewer opportunities to break into the film industry than their male counterparts. Men produce, direct and star in most blockbuster movies and remain in the highest paid positions of Hollywood. But there are institutions that give women the opportunities they deserve and the support they need in order to get over these barriers. To support female storytellers, the Boulder International Film Festival is again hosting the LUNAFEST program, a traveling film festival composed of short films made by, for and about women.

“We’ve worked with [LUNAFEST] in the past and we are working with them again this year. We’re really excited about that because it’s a good time to feature these films,” says Kathy Beeck, who, along with her sister Robin, co-founded the Boulder International Film Festival in 2004.

LUNAFEST will screen nine films at the Boulder Film Festival this year. One of the films, Jesszilla, directed by Emily Sheskin, is a documentary about a 10-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a professional boxer.

The film’s subject, Jesselyn Silva, aka Jesszilla, has a hard time finding other children to spar with, especially girls, but she doesn’t allow that to stop her training. Her father, Pedro, supports her, but worries about her future in the sport.

“Right now, at 10 years old, there’s no kids getting concussions, there are no serious injuries,” he says in the film. “But when they become adults and they got the strength to actually knock somebody out, then it is a whole different ball game. In my opinion, I tell her boxing isn’t forever.”

But Jesselyn disagrees with her father and says her goal is to make it to the Olympics and win three gold medals.

The film shows Jesselyn’s struggles and triumphs. In one scene Jesselyn has a headache, but her coach tells her to push through, and though she has trouble performing, she keeps on with her training, allowing the viewer to see the drive she has at 10 years old.

“I loved the idea of profiling a young girl’s journey in a male-dominated combat sport,” director Sheskin explains on the film’s website. “It’s no secret that women’s boxing has nowhere near the participants — or the money, or the audience — that men’s boxing has.”

According to Sheskin, the short is part of a bigger project that will document Jesselyn for years to come. Though Jesselyn has already faced some barriers, including unsupportive comments from her schoolmates, Sheskin hopes to capture Jesselyn reaching her goal of making it to the Olympics.

“I hope the end result is a work that is as much about girls breaking athletic barriers as parents fostering drive in their children — encouraging them to do what they love, and to do their best,” Sheskin writes.

Sheskin has been involved in many award-winning projects. She was recently featured in Vimeo’s “10 Groundbreaking Women In Film to Watch in 2017.” She is also a member of New York Women In Film and Television, a non-profit association that advocates for equality and support for women in the film industry, and she hopes to have enough notoriety one day that she only need include that she loves cats on her bio to be hired.

‘Waiting for Hassana,’ directed by Ifunanya Maduka, tells the story of one of the Nigerian girls abducted in 2014 in the town of Chibok. Courtesy of Boulder International Film Festival

According to statistics gathered by LUNAFEST, there are 2.13 male short-film directors for every female director. In 2000, Kit Crawford, founder of LUNABAR, realized women needed more representation in the film industry and founded LUNAFEST.

Suzy Starke German, program director of LUNAFEST, joined the project eight years ago.

“My background was more in the commercial feature film world,” German says. “I had worked in marketing at Lucas Films for 12 years, so I had worked on all the Star Wars franchises. I had been very much in that blockbuster world.”

Throughout her childhood and young adult years, German never realized the limitations that were put upon women. Once she started working for major studios she noticed that the majority of people working on these films were men, prompting her to eventually change course and work for LUNAFEST.

A study done by LUNAFEST in 2015 sought to answer questions about why barriers exist for women in the film industry. Findings suggested that mentorship and networking opportunities play a big role. There are few women who hold leadership roles in the industry, creating few mentorship opportunities for future generations of women. The networking opportunities are equally lacking for women and are, according to German, perhaps a crucial component.

“If you’re not able to network and be in the rooms where these decisions are made most often, it’s in those rooms where the financing comes through for a project, so a lot of women don’t even get in the room,” German says.

In 1916, Lois Weber was the highest paid director at Universal Studios. ‘Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber’ examines her achievements. Courtesy of Boulder International Film Festival

Another factor to consider is the way we consume media, or perhaps more appropriately, how we fail to consider the media we consume.

“There’s a lot of people out there who never really even paid attention to the fact they they’ve never seen a film directed by a woman,” German says. “It’s a whole culture that has been nurtured and not questioned.”

Short films, German says, are often a “calling card” for many women to get their start in the film industry to get bigger projects and funding.

“For us, the opportunity for short films came about because we knew we wanted to share several people’s stories,” German says of LUNAFEST’s focus on short films. “The short story platform became a way to get six to 10 women’s stories.”

Director Joey Ally follows a group of Asian-American manicurists working in a nail salon in the short film ‘Joy Joy Nails.’ Courtesy of Boulder International Film Festival

And it’s a form that is becoming more and more popular these days.

“Maybe it’s because our attention spans are shrinking,” German jokes. Kidding aside, LUNAFEST is showing short films to create as much opportunity for women as possible. On average there are 200 LUNAFEST screenings each year across the nation.

“I have a feeling that going forward we are going to hear a lot more women’s stories,” Beeck says. “We have found that when there is something going on that is a societal change, we see that reflected in the films down the line and we will be as open to them as we have been.”

Women either directed or produced 60 percent of the films screened at last year’s BIFF.

“We don’t set out to have a certain number of films directed by women, it just turns out that those were the best films,” Beeck says. Despite industry shortcomings, women are hitting the mark.

Turns out, they make the best employees, too: Women make up most of the staff at BIFF.

“We have a lot of girl power around here,” Beeck says. “And we like it.”

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