Queer women of color film fest grows up
by Heather Cassell
The eighth annual Queer Women of Color Film Festival is rolling out the red carpet in a big way this year at a larger and more central location.
It will also be showing seven films from Colombia and Chile.
This year the festival, produced by the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, is themed "I do, I don't," and focuses on marriage equality. It will move downtown to the Novellus Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from its former home at Brava Theater in the Mission district, opening its doors to more attendees than it ever has in the past.
The festival's theme and international component is very timely considering President Barack Obama came out last month in support of marriage equality. A couple weeks later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's board passed a resolution in support of same-sex marriage.
Marriage equality was the conversation among the new class of QWOCMAP film trainees during the four-month intensive training program in 2011. The conversation among the filmmakers was deeper than simply legislation, said Madeleine Lim, 48, a butch lesbian and founder and executive director of QWOCMAP. The students examined what marriage equality meant for them as people of color and the bigger effect on their lives, said Lim.
"How do we best advocate for our multiple communities?" asked Lim, who was already working in South America translating QWOCMAP's unique filmmaking training program to emerging filmmakers with the assistance of their new friends at Mujeres Al Borde (Women on the Edge).
Reel girl power
In 2010, QWOCMAP partnered with Mujeres Al Borde, a Colombian feminist organization that uses art – performance and visual – as its primary tool for social justice.
Mujeres Al Borde modeled its own filmmaker program, AL Edge Audiovisual School, and vision after QWOCMAP's program. Members of Mujeres Al Borde worked with filmmakers in their own country and Chile under QWOCMAP's guidance in a pilot program to produce the documentaries that will have their U.S. debut at the festival this weekend.
"To transform the world is important that our stories exist, are seen, heard, listened, shared," wrote Ana Lucia Ramirez, a bisexual woman who is one of the founders of the 11-year-old organization, in an email interview translated using Google Translator. "Stories that happen in our towns and our cities, in our languages, our accents, our voices and words."
It is "vital" that we "count," she wrote. "Video is our best ally."
The documentaries had their world premiere before an estimated 3,000 attendees at the Feminist Encounter of Latin America and the Caribbean in Bogota, Colombia last November.
"The films are incredibly powerful and very moving," said Lim, who attended the conference with T. Kebo Drew and Liliana Hueso.
Moviegoers will have an opportunity to speak with two of the filmmakers, Cristina Rodriguez and Claudia (last name not provided), both workshop leaders and members of the school, after the showing on June 9. The talk is sponsored by the Astraea Foundation and the Global Fund for Women.
The filmmakers were unable to respond to a request for an interview for this article.
Dianne Gallo, a straight ally who is the program officer for the Americas of the Global Fund for Women, hopes that the films created by Mujeres Al Borde, "can reach a broader audience." She hopes more "exchanges will happen in the future" that will "strengthen the transnational activism."
Silver screen dreams
Lim knew she wanted to be a filmmaker since she was 15 years old. Her desire to make movies came to her during a "huge dramatic" argument with her then-girlfriend. She stepped outside of the situation and thought this would make an "interesting film one day," she said.
Drawn to the power of how stories unfold through moving images, Lim, who was born in Singapore to a family that had limited resources, immigrated to the U.S. more than 25 years ago to pursue her "big dream," she said.
Landing in the San Francisco Bay Area, she took night classes, worked at cable access as a crew member, and graduated from San Francisco State University's film program before she began her film career.
Simply being a queer woman of color filmmaker wasn't enough for Lim, who often found herself one of a handful of women like her at film festivals, she said. The absence of seeing more women like her inspired her to launch QWOCMAP.
"I love being with other queer women of color, being with folks in the community. I couldn't think of anything better to do," said Lim, who for the past 12 years has taken the grassroots film organization from a $15,000 annual budget to an estimated $300,000 today. The organization is currently run by a staff of four and a half employees and is hitting a whole new stride this year.
Lim's philosophy for queer women of color is not to wait for someone else to tell their stories and get it right, but take control and tell them themselves, she said.
"Let's do it for ourselves. Let's learn how to tell our own stories. Learn how to use the camera. Learn how to compose wonderful images. Learn how to convey our messages in a really effective way and represent ourselves. That's the premise behind taking this internationally," said Lim. One of her desires is to continue exporting QWOCMAP's program as a way to counteract homophobia that has been taken to other countries by conservative religious organizations.
"Film is so powerful. It has the power to sway emotions. It is a very powerful tool [and] we've just never had much access to it," continued Lim, who pointed out that if there are 20 different films showcasing what it is like to be a lesbian it breaks down the hate messages that are being spread.
J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the Astraea Foundation, a 35-year-old lesbian feminist granting organization, and a filmmaker, agreed.
"Frankly, cultural production is deeply, deeply, deeply responsible for what our collective imagination can conjure up as a community ... saying our rights are human rights [and] that they should be demanded and acquired on a global platform regardless of location and in ways that are culturally relevant to all of us," Alotta said.
The festival's move from its home for the past five years was "very bittersweet," said Lim. She and her staff tried everything to make the space at Brava work, but the venue simply couldn't accommodate the number of moviegoers who came out yearly to the festival, she said.
The new venue will be able to seat 755 attendees, including more than 40 spots for wheelchairs and a section for service animals. Due to needing subtitles for the Spanish-language films, the festival will offer simultaneous translation with headsets this year, Lim said. She is attempting to increase the number of QWOCMAP films having subtitles to broaden the audience to those who are hearing impaired, she said.
"It's really important for me that our festival is intentionally inclusive," said Lim.
This year's festival features Love Ability , a film about disabled lesbians made by Alisha Byrd, a 37-year-old disabled queer woman who wrote, produced, and directed the film. Lim also pointed out that the festival has increasingly offered gender queer and transgender films.
Lim is also very excited about Corazon de Familia (Heart of the Family ). The film about Chicana queer families, a part of the festival's family series produced by QWOCMAP, will appear as a part of the festival's same-sex marriage features.
QWOCMAP filmmakers are excited to present their films to a wider audience in the new theater.
"It's an incredible moment to be able to invite and welcome everybody into their doors," said Aba Taylor, a queer woman in her 30s, who is the director and producer of Coming in America , a film that explores the African queer diaspora.
She is humbled and a bit overwhelmed that her first film will be viewed by such a large audience, she said.
"We get to explore more by expanding our venue and stepping out in San Francisco this way," agreed Brenda "B. K." Williams, a queer woman in her 50s who will be showing her third film made through QWOCMAP, Her Path Home.
Williams hopes that tourists visiting San Francisco will be enticed from the streets into the film festival.
The QWOCMAP Film Festival is open to the public from June 8-10 at 700 Howard Street. Admission is free. For the schedule, visit http://www.qwocmap.org/festival2012/schedule.html.