The Founder of Texas Theatre's Women-Centric Film Festival Hopes It Will Soon Be Irrelevant

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Justina Walford is the founder director of the Women Texas Film Festival (WTxFF), the first event in the state to exclusively showcase cinematic work created by women in high-profile positions. But perhaps more important, Walford was just slipped a coupon for a free coffee, an unexpected perk of being on the same Pokemon Go team as her local barista.

“Just a moment, I need to Instagram this,” she says while framing her shot of the gift. In a few moments she snaps back, ready to topple a celluloid patriarchy and unite a scattered wave of disenfranchised filmmakers.

Walford and her husband John Wildman officially traded New York for Dallas about nine months ago. They quickly set out to connect with their new, Southern film community and in doing so uncovered a very specific need. “It all started with me going on Facebook and saying, ‘Is there a women’s film festival that I can volunteer for, or apply to work for in Texas?’” she asked.

The response floored her. “They said, ‘There’s nothing like that here. Just go make it.’”

So, they got to work. And other local film-lovers and festival organizers reached out, eager to lend a hand through volunteering, programming assists, advice and technical support.

This weekend at Texas Theatre (Aug. 19 to 21), Dallas will get to enjoy the end result of those efforts and see films that celebrate women in high-visibility roles: directors, producers, writers, editors, composers, directors of photography, cinematographers and so on.

It’s kind of a big deal.

Gender inequality in film is such a long-running point of contention that it may be incorrect to call it a hot-button topic, but each year the numbers come out it’s the cause for deflation in women who are pushing their way through an industry already difficult to maneuver.

Last April The Guardian pointed out that two major Hollywood studios, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, are not slated to release any films directed by women through 2018. Fox hasn’t released a female-directed movie since 2010.

In the nuts and bolts of the math, things get even more unsettling, especially when you consider men and women are graduating film schools at equal rates.

For 2015, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that women accounted for 9 percent of directors (a slight improvement from 2014, but dead-even with 1998). In other visible positions women composed “11 percent of writers, 26 percent of producers, 20 percent of executive producers, 22 percent of editors, and 6 percent of cinematographers.”

For all of those reasons, you’d think Walford and Wildman would want their film festival to be wildly successful, and in an immediate way they do. But their long-term strategy is to root for its demise.

“There’s a point where I want to say, ‘This festival is not relevant anymore,'” says Walford with a shrug and a wave. “But just yesterday I read about that festival [in Spain] with zero women directors.”

Beyond the primary issue, that we have a systemic condition in film and television that keeps women from achieving professional and economic equality, the implications of these numbers run much, much deeper.

By limiting the stories we’re able to consume, we’re stifling voices that give new perspectives on how to better understand and relate to one another in our media-soaked culture.

“We kind of learn about sex and relationships through the movies we watch,” Walford says. “… All I know is that I’m supposed to look like Phoebe Cates when I come out of a pool.”

But there’s hope. Last year the ACLU got involved on a national level, launching an investigation of Hollywood’s hiring practices and labeling the current treatment of female directors a civil rights violation. Here locally, we now have Walford’s festival, which serves both as an opportunity to bring these women together as a network, and for the public to directly support the efforts of female creatives in film.

Raising the curtain as WTxFF’s 7 p.m. Friday opener is Girl Asleep, a completely unique take on a coming-of-age story. Directed by Rosemary Myers and produced by Jo Dyer, this film taps into a transitional teenage sweet spot and fills the screen with quirky charm. With an almost handmade haunted dollhouse design, the film creaks open the door of fear, power, sexual curiosity, embarrassment, wonder, imagination and disco. You know: the complicated psychological wire nest of teenage emotion.

From the candy-dipped predators posing as friends to the overly eager boy-next-door, Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) must navigate her own role in the social strata on the cusp of her 15th birthday. Doing so will require bravery, humor and a little magic. (Advice: Bring an extra pair of pants, as Girl Asleep will surely charm yours right off.)

MA (Saturday, 3:15 p.m.)
In WTxFF’s feature category, you’ll want to catch the gallery-ready MA. Written, directed, choreographed and brought to life by its lead multi-talent Celia Rowlson-Hall, the film reinterprets the Virgin Mary’s journey as a piece of explorative, contemporary art. She trades mangers for seedy motels, Bethlehem for an open desert road, and a north star for a striated pastel sky, stretched out over mounded miles of bleached sand. (Think New Testament, with a Hudson filter.)

The film is a stunner. Without a single word uttered, it immerses you. Here bodies play with usable space, creating sculptural interest that adapts with each morphing physical form. Any still frame from this film could live comfortably in a modern art space. Aesthetics aside, MA is also a complex examination of the value we place in virtue, of uninterrupted faith and of chastity and gender roles in male/female power politics.

42 Seconds of Happiness (Saturday, 1 p.m.)
Writer and director Christina Kallas brings an unconventional take on tangled relationships in this improvised work, set on film. Her method is experimental: She wrote a fully cooked screenplay, then shared bits and pieces of need-to-know narrative with her actors.

“She’s planted enough strong things in it that keep [the story] moving forward,” explains Walford. “And as someone who comes from theater and has seen theatrical pieces done that way, it’s really powerful to watch because you’re seeing something organic.”

On the Farm (Saturday, 5:15 p.m.)
This new work of true crime by director Rachel Talalay (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Tank Girl) retells the gritty story of Vancouver’s most pervasive serial killer, or rather, of the lives he affected.

Based on the eight-year investigative research done by author Stevie Cameron, Talalay's film gives voice to the addicted, abused and marginalized women who were preyed upon, and who were largely ignored by law enforcement during the time of the murders. Talalay has always celebrated strong female protagonists in her work, and On the Farm continues that tradition with leads you instinctively root for.

ToY (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
Originally a consideration for the Dallas International Film Festival, ToY is directed by Patrick Chapman and produced by Lije Sarki and Roberta Munroe. When WTxFF had a film drop out, ToY came recommended by DIFF’s James Faust. Once Walford watched its “devastating love story” unfold, she knew she had to have it.

“I think I had seven different emails from her, and they were all in caps,” said Wildman, smiling over his wife’s initial excitement. The pair quickly locked ToY down and placed the dark look at relationships in their Saturday lineup.

Miz Markley and Me (Sunday, 7 p.m.)
“Miz Markley and the short that proceeds it are the only documentaries that we have in the whole thing,” Walford explains. The full-length doc is a year-in-the-life of a Dallas musician, directed by Sharie Vance. “It’s two women who are not 25, who are getting older, who are both talking about their insecurities, about pursuing their dreams … and how they find courage in each other.”

Preceding it is The Puppet Lady, student Kate Gondwe’s short film. Walford felt that Gondwe’s youthful energy pairs nicely with the determined spirit of Miz Markley’s leads, so you’ll catch both in one sitting.

If you love shorts, you’ll have lots to pick from during the festival’s four shorts showcases. Why so many? Well, women have exceptional difficulty getting feature-length funding.

“They’re not given half a million to a million dollars to create a movie that’s 90 minutes or more,” Walford points out. “They’re given maybe five grand or 10 grand — well, that gives you five minutes of creation time.”

“I have to show shorts,” she says. “That’s the only way you’re going to see the best of a woman’s work.”

Women Texas Film Festival runs Aug. 19 through 21 at Texas Theatre (231 W. Jefferson Blvd.). You can buy a shorts pass badge for $27.25, a full-access festival badge for $125, or individual tickets for $11. Visit womentxff.org

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