Women in the Director's Chair International Film and Video Festival | Festival | Chicago Reader

Women in the Director's Chair International Film and Video Festival 

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Women in the Director's Chair International Film and Video Festival

The 20th annual Women in the Director's Chair International Film and Video Festival, featuring narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental works by women, runs Friday, March 16, through Sunday, March 25. Screenings are at Preston Bradley Center and Women in the Director's Chair Theater, both at 941 W. Lawrence; Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson; and South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $8, $6 for students, seniors with a valid ID, and members of Women in the Director's Chair. Festival passes are also available; for more information call 773-907-0610. Films marked with a 4 are highly recommended.


Homegirls: New Work From Chicago

Five short videos by local artists. In the moving autobiographical meditation Another Clapping, Chi-jang Yin uses fragments--voice-over, printed titles, phone messages, and old photographs, some with her father's image cut out--to tell the story of a family fractured by domestic violence and the forces of history and to explore the ambiguous feelings between mother and daughter. Footage from the Cultural Revolution, including shots of kids humiliating an old man, forms an eerie parallel to the daughter's alienation. The lively and affecting What We Leave Behind, a collaboration between the Women's International Information Project and several women who have formerly been incarcerated, warns young people about the grim realities of prison life and uses letters and interviews to record the human cost of mothers being separated from their children. The closing statistics on the huge rise in women prisoners--80 percent of them mothers--conclude an effective plea for reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes. 82 min. (FC) (Preston Bradley Center, 7:00)


Four Native American sisters on an island reservation in Quebec battle injustice at the hands of men in this 2000 Canadian feature. Director Shirley Cheechoo (who also plays one of the sisters) captures the dead-end existence of the insular community as well as the humor, the anxieties, and the resilience of her protagonists. Given the film's passion and sincerity, it hardly requires the supernatural element of "the Bearwalker," a malevolent tribal spirit that materializes as a fireball, a vintage Packard, and so forth. Popping up as a convenient plot device, it only dilutes the potency of the sisters' solidarity and moral strength. 82 min. (TS) (Preston Bradley Center, 9:00)


May It Never Happen Again

A screening and discussion with Colombian director Marta Rodriguez. (WIDC Theater, 1:00)

Road Trips

The title for this program of nine shorts and trifles is deceptive: there isn't a single linear narrative among them, and the best entries have more to do with inward journeys than physical ones. The Last Olive, Alicia Scherson's intelligent homage to film noir (and possibly Samuel Beckett), concerns two jewel thieves going out of their minds with boredom as they wait in a seedy motel for a call from their fence. In Sleeping Car, Monique Moumblow ponders isolation, loneliness, and failed love, with moody images shot from a passenger train and dialogue lifted from Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. And in the fascinating, dreamlike The Girl From Marseilles, Cathy Lee Crane uses archival footage, jump cuts, and visual non sequiturs to create a trippy portrait of the troubled woman who inspired Andre Breton to write his classic surrealist novel, Nadja. (Jack Helbig) (WIDC Theater, 3:00)

That Which Consumes Us

Nine films and videos about obsession, mostly involving food or possessions. In Michelle Lewis's De*fat*ting an overweight professional woman talks about size discrimination, her almost frenetic voice-over communicating her addiction as effectively as her late-night forays to buy junk food. In H & G, Esther Duran and Caterina Klusemann's wry, colorful update of "Hansel and Gretel," two children whose parents have abandoned them at FAO Schwarz go home with a witch to her suburban house. In Loss Prevention a 79-year-old shoplifter is arrested for stealing a bottle of aspirin; video makers Jeanne C. Finley and Doug Dubois use lush, almost abstract images to convey the sensuous gratification the woman has sought since childhood, when she stole the candy and jewelry her strict parents denied her. In Hollie Lavenstein's taut, ascetic Cleave a husband swipes his estranged wife's dog, his nastiness in the face of her imploring phone messages leaving a bitter taste--which seems to be the point. 121 min. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 5:00)


Six short films about the issues young people face when teetering on the edge of adulthood. Cusp, Ruth Sergel's dead-on depiction of the emotional growth spurts of adolescence, follows a gawky, strong-hearted 12-year-old as she argues with her single mother, loses her best friend, and learns about adult relationships and femininity. Sergel based the film on workshops with young girls, and the pain and joy are authentic enough to leave you reeling. Ellie Lee's bleak but intriguing Dog Days, based on Judy Budnitz's novel Flying Leap, shows a suburban family fraying out of desperation amid a terrifying future war; the daughter befriends a man begging at the back door in a dog suit, throwing him sticks as if he were a real dog. 93 min. (Jennifer Vanasco) (Gene Siskel Film Center, 6:00)

The Sporting Life

Courtney Hermann's polished and engrossing Granite Janet profiles former Chicagoan Janet LaRue, who took up boxing in her late 30s after she recovered from alcoholism. Without the intrusion of voice-over or talking heads, Hermann crafts a dimensional portrait of LaRue as she discusses her setbacks, pals around with trainers and promoters, and gobbles vitamins while chatting with her kids on the phone. Kristen Nutile's Synchro introduces us to Bill May, the only male in the field of competitive synchronized swimming. He describes his efforts to fit into this traditionally female sport, yet the "discrimination" he's suffered pales in comparison to what women athletes face. Breakin' the Glass: The American Basketball League 1996-1998 examines the women's league organized after the '96 Olympics. Producers Maria Leech and Dina Munsch elicit candid comments from key players and coaches--all of whom seem obsessed with the huge disparity between men's and women's salaries--but only the exhilarating action footage redeems this poorly edited melange of rants and regrets. On the same program, Paula Gauthier's Steers and Queers. 77 min. (TS) (Preston Bradley Center, 7:00)

Stranger Inside

Director Cheryl Dunye reportedly spent four years researching this drama about women in prison, and its authenticity--especially its strong sense of group dynamics--immediately distinguishes it from sexploitation flicks like Chained Heat. Treasure (Yolonda Ross) is glad to transfer from juvenile detention to the state penitentiary on her 21st birthday, thinking that the birth mother she never knew is doing life there, but when she tries to kindle a mother-daughter relationship with a ruthless clique leader (Davenia McFadden) she provokes the jealousy of the woman's other "daughter" (Rain Phoenix). Dunye bluntly portrays the prisoners' brutal aggression, the intense racial antagonism, and the trading of sex for protection, but she's just as interested in the tender camaraderie and in Treasure's moral awakening. Except for an unconvincing coda, the script is excellent, and Nancy Schreiber's fluid camera work and harsh lighting transform the prison into a womb both menacing and comforting. Ross and McFadden turn in riveting performances. (TS) Dunye will attend the screening. (Gene Siskel Film Center, 8:15)

I Am Your Sister: New Work From Les/Bi/Trans Directors

The strongest entries on this program of eight shorts are all slightly surreal. Vivian Sorenson's quirky The Silent Love of the Fish, about love at first sight in a fish market, is both an absurd send-up of lesbian jokes and a sincere interior drama. In Abigail Severance's Bone Wish a woman touches and names her lover's bones, then awakens to find a pile of bones next to her--yet she doesn't seem too disappointed. Less whimsical is Lashambi Britton's I Am Your Sister, in which male-to-female transsexuals describe the discrimination they've endured (including in the gay community) and argue, often movingly, for their authenticity as humans. In Black Sheep filmmaker Louise Glover recalls growing up in Western Australia, where she absorbed the prevailing racism and homophobia and then discovered not only her lesbianism but her aboriginal ancestry, a secret her family had long hushed up. 100 min. (FC) (Preston Bradley Center, 9:00)


The Day You Love Me

Florence Jaugey's documentary follows a series of domestic and child-abuse cases brought to a world-weary female police officer at the Police Commissaries for Women and Children in Nicaragua. More often than not the women withdraw their charges, even when they've been abused badly. The most interesting segment, in which a husband who clearly loves his wife tries to refute the charges against him, suggests that extreme poverty and a culture of machismo drive good men to hit their wives, lovers, and children. Jaugey doesn't provide much sociological context until a textual epilogue, and the short segments begin to blur together with their litanies of threats and thrown punches, but the film should make good fodder for the discussion that follows the screening. 61 min. (Jennifer Vanasco) (WIDC Theater, 1:00)

On & off the Rez: New Work From Native American Directors

Three documentaries examine the rich cultural and spiritual lives of Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada. In the four-minute Indian Cars, Laurie Raisch brings surprising insight to life on the Leech Lake Reservation in Canada by focusing on a quirky yet significant detail, asking friends and family what makes an Indian car (one answer: "A lot of rust"). Lena Carr explores her cultural ties to the Navajo in Kinaalda, taking an intimate look at her niece's traditional kinaalda coming-of-age ceremony (a ritual Carr never underwent) and thoughtfully connecting it to the tribe's understanding of community. The only thing lacking is an interview with her niece, whose voice is never heard. Sandy Osawa's On and off the Rez With Charlie Hill, a profile of the Native American stand-up comic, is the weakest of the three, a hodgepodge of history, personal reminiscences by Hill and friends like Steve Allen, and performance clips from the Tonight Show and other venues. The comedic bits are funny ("A man told me to go back where I came from, so I camped in his backyard"), but they fail to sustain the hour-long running time. 120 min. (Jennifer Vanasco) (WIDC Theater, 3:00)


From Bombay to Chicago: New Work From Indian & Indian-American Directors

In Resurfacing, Chicago video maker Sheelah Grace Murthy presents a striking tableau of herself and three sisters lying in a bathtub, each seen in close-up in one of four panels. Each recalls the joys and pains of their childhood, echoed sometimes by the others, and remembers their mother's stroke and slow death; their girl talk can be mundane and self-absorbed, but their solidarity in retracing a common history is fascinating. In Paddana, Song of the Ancestors (1999) three women from different generations of a south Indian household learn to cope with one another after the oldest begins communicating with the spirit of a dead sister. Director Anula Shetty is sensitive to the women's psychology and their village's traditions and superstitions; unfortunately her narrative technique is as old as D.W. Griffith's. Farida Pacha's blatantly polemical From Bombay to Mumbai blames India's socioeconomic ills on global capitalism, focusing on two women as case histories. On the same program, Seema Shastri's Why Is God . . . 103 min. (TS) (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

Two-Way Mirrors: New Work From Asian & Asian American Directors

In Straight White Men & Me, Taiwanese-American lesbian Antonia Kao discovers through her casual, anecdotal interviews with five men that they can't be pigeonholed, though her inventively edited video is really about her, playfully pouring out her soul to us and bantering with her subjects. Grace Lee's sensitive and carefully crafted The Ride Home concerns a young woman and her physicist father coming to grips with the accidental death of her sister. In Kit Hui's Tofu a Cantonese woman tries to win her grandson's affection with a plate of the title food--a baffling conceit, though the film does manage to convey an old-world insularity that's alien to the boy. Jia Hong's Being Different is basically an infomercial for Camp Sejong, a summer retreat for Korean adoptees that was formed after the LA riots. On the same program, Kyunghee Yi's To Be/Not to Be. 96 min. (TS) (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


Screening & Discussion With Marta Rodriguez

The Colombian filmmaker will discuss her work and screen The Brickmakers and Love, Women and Flowers. (Gene Siskel Film Center, 6:00)

Private Properties

Liberal intentions and feminist sentiments have seldom been expressed as dully as in this quartet of videos. One marvelous exception is Meredith Holch's Hdwd Flrs, No Fee, No Pets, a combination of cutout and clay animation that recounts an obscure antirent rebellion of the 1800s while slyly drawing parallels to the current real estate squeeze in New York. Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson call for dignified treatment of Native Americans in the slow-paced Homeland, juxtaposing the one-room shacks of four Lakota families on the Pine Ridge Reservation with the harsh and beautiful South Dakota landscape surrounding them. And details overwhelm context in Sree Nallamothu's Thirst, about a longstanding dispute over water rights between underclass Malas and their higher-caste neighbors in a province of India. On the same program, Ursula Biemann's Writing Desire. 118 min. (TS) (WIDC Theater, 7:00)


Adults recall their childhood encounters with the supernatural in this triptych of stories written and directed by Australian filmmaker Tracey Moffatt. In the first an aboriginal boy is pursued by a swamp monster who may be the spirit of an American GI, and in the second a ghost train materializes in front of a family's house at night. The third is a convoluted tale that has something to do with a dancer, some seedy businessmen, and a guy who dresses up as Frida Kahlo. Stephen Curtis's impressionistic set design is the only truly effective element in this 1993 feature, which is hobbled by cartoonish performances and often incoherent story lines. 87 min. (Reece Pendleton) (Gene Siskel Film Center, 8:00)

Private Investigations

In much detective fiction, unusual people are marginalized by society, yet the truly evil lurk behind masks of respectability; these four shorts use the narrative techniques of whodunits to humanize outsiders and attack the arbitrary standards of the mainstream. Marusya Bociurkiw's Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Haunted Body (1999) is a campy send-up of the unbelievably wholesome, sexually naive girl detective, but it makes some powerful observations about the sexual abuse of children and about Freud's controversial vacillations regarding the truthfulness of his patients' repressed memories. Similarly, in Mako Kamitsuna's beautiful modern noir Betty Anderson a female police detective's search for a missing child causes her to question her rigid worldview and pushes her into a personal crisis. (Jack Helbig) (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


Media Grrls: New Video by Young Women

Twelve videos by young women (many of them still in high school) that honestly examine their own or slightly younger girls' lives. Emily Green's searing self-portrait My Name Girl recalls the early tapes of Sadie Benning: a fragmented style and shifting modes of representation (uncomfortably close close-ups, voice-over, writing words directly on her body) convey Green's conflicts, self-doubts, and emotional instability even better than the scars on her wrists. Jessika Tindall and Adi Hoag's Girl From Me gives a bleak, biting view of adolescent sex--the guys just don't care about them--and one of the young Latinas in La Raza Productions's Tonale argues that women don't need a man to "tell us what to do." Natalie Neptune's Zerzura intercuts the stories of three women about to graduate high school; one still gets clobbered by her mom in the supermarket, while another is planning to become a marine. In Communication Gap, Boakyewaa Boakye repeatedly tries to connect with her father by interviewing him on video; after first dodging her and then arguing with her for days he finally opens up, becoming "more interested" in her life. 96 min. (FC) (South Shore Cultural Center, 3:30)

Family Media-tions

Only six and a half minutes long, Hope Hall's moving, sometimes baldly manipulative This Is for Betsy Hall speaks volumes about our obsession with body image. Framed as a letter to her anorexic mother, it uses still photographs and home-movie footage to sketch a sad, uneasy, almost skeletal woman who's determined to keep her rail-thin appearance even when eight months pregnant; most of the sound track consists of a tearful phone conversation between mother and daughter. Susan Brunig's Francine Rises profiles a wife who murdered her abusive husband by setting their bedroom ablaze as he slept. Nonlinear in construction, it too often lapses into willful, arty obscurity, but the most successful sections capture with absolute clarity the woman's searing rage. Two other shorts were not available for preview. (Jack Helbig) (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

In the Mix: Stories of Incarcerated Women

Our draconian anticrime measures have seldom seemed more horribly misguided than in these three videos: one woman gets four years in the pen for breaking her brother's truck windows in a fight, and another gets fifteen for shoplifting. As the documentary When the Bough Breaks vividly points out, most of these women are mothers, and their incarceration is especially tough on their kids: in one case a son is housed with a father who used to beat him, and in another the children become homeless after their house is condemned. Producer Jill Petzall's arty effects are annoying (the white backgrounds behind her subjects seem more appropriate to fashion photography), but the mother who is released, gets high at home, and winds up in prison again brings us back to tragic reality. Carol Jacobsen's Scott Segregation Unit is even more horrific. A prisoner chained to a bed because of her many suicide attempts is gassed and also raped; constructed from footage shot by prison guards, it presents the screaming woman from their perspective and shows how prison dehumanizes captor and captive alike. Alexandra Juhasz's In the Mix, a compilation of work by several artists, is the most interesting stylistically, using animation to emotionalize the experience of confinement. 115 min. (FC) (South Shore Cultural Center, 7:00)

Missing Parts

Elisabeth Subrin's video The Fancy, about photographer Francesca Woodman, is one of the best art documentaries I've ever seen. Woodman, who committed suicide at 22 (on the eve of Ronald Reagan's first presidential inauguration), has attracted some cult interest with her nude self-portraits, which conceal more than they reveal. But rather than present her work on camera, trying to encapsulate it in a few phrases and leaving the viewer with a false sense of understanding, Subrin describes Woodman's life in voice-over, panning over objects arranged to represent her possessions (clothing and shoes laid out corpselike in plastic bags), showing empty, ruined rooms, or using models to reenact her poses. With its taut imagery, the tape shows how distant and unfathomable another person's life can be and made me want to explore the mystery further through Woodman's photographs. Also worth seeing on this program of seven short works are Janice Inskeep's Can I Get You Something?, which seems to portray an abusive relationship through bizarre juxtaposition of puppets and Chicago cityscapes, and Wendy Snyder MacNeil and Alice Wingwall's Miss Blindsight/The Wingwall Auditions, in which a photographer struggles against failing eyesight, the camera following her intimately as she runs her hand along walls, perceiving through a combination of light and touch. 112 min. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


The Black Atlantic

Two short works: I Was Born a Black Woman and La sangre llama. (South Shore Cultural Center, 3:30)


A feature directed by Chicagoan Zeinabu Irene Davis (A Powerful Thang, Mother of the River), inspired by a 1906 poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar and set both near the beginning and toward the end of the 20th century. The film intertwines two love stories involving deaf culture among black people and features the same two actors, Michelle A. Banks and Chicagoan John Earl Jenks; the dialogue alternates between American Sign Language and spoken English, both subtitled, and the music is performed by two Chicago-based musicians, pianist Reginald R. Robinson and African percussionist Atiba Y. Jali. (South Shore Cultural Center, 7:00)

What Is It Like for You

Four films and videos about transgendering. In A Boy Named Sue, Julie Wyman tracks the six-year transformation of Sue, a "butch dyke," into Theo, "a big old bi-trans man with a pussy." Sue lives with a "femme/queer woman," and they and their friends wonder whether the relationship will survive Sue's transformation. As it turns out, Theo's testosterone shots change his personality as well as his body, and he becomes troubled by our culture's negative examples of masculinity. The story is inherently interesting, but Wyman's images mostly just illustrate the sound track, and she never explores the deeper contradiction between Sue's moving lament that "people are just so ruled by what they see" and Theo's obsession with his newly emerging body hair. William Virginia Basquin also challenges traditional notions of masculinity in The Ride, a strange, slightly spooky cab ride in which the driver first identifies herself as "Susan," then himself as "Steven." 73 min. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

The Trouble With Normal

This program of six videos makes me wonder if the practice of celebrating difference has gone too far. In Velveeta Krisp's Toilet Mouth a man licks a toilet outside and in, but the austere black-and-white cinematography fails to convey his apparent passion. In Nest of Tens, Miranda July oddly juxtaposes a lecture on phobias with three weird stories (in one, a businesswoman encounters a little girl who folds the skin on her arm to make erotic-looking cracks). Though the lovemaking in Mirha-Soleil Ross's Dysfunctional seems more sensitive than in the average porn film, the only real point here is that both the man and woman have penises. The strongest entry is Emily Died, a continuation of Anne Robertson's ongoing diary. Occasioned by the death of a three-year-old niece, it powerfully renders Robertson's recurring mental illness through obsessive repetition of images and ideas and a stereo track that superimposes her voice as she questions the meaning of her life. 87 min. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


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