Annual festival fetes women's role in filmmaking

Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF POWFEST - 'The Sisterhood of the Night,' a modern-day Salem witch hunt thriller by Caryn Waechter, is the opening night film for the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival.Tara Johnson-Medinger, the executive director for the eighth annual Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival, watched as the Best Director award at the 87th annual Academy Awards went to somebody other than Ava DuVernay for “Selma.”

“It’s unfortunate that the Academy didn’t step forward. She would have been the first African-American woman director ever nominated,” Johnson-Medinger says. There were protests planned, headed by Al Sharpton, to challenge the lack of diversity in the voting panel after the snub; although, ironically, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu became the first Mexican director to win Best Director for “Birdman.”

Women are making more strides in filmmaking, in the path set by the likes of Barbara Streisand (“Yentl,” “The Prince of Tides”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) and Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for Best Director — the first for a woman — for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009 and also drew high praise for “Zero Dark Thirty,” and now with DuVernay. But, women are still far behind men in getting opportunities, which bothers many women, including Johnson-Medinger.

Hence, the formation and continuing dedication to POWFest, which features films and shorts at the Hollywood Theatre, March 12 through 15 ($8-$10 each movie, $40 festival pass,

Johnson-Medinger spent time working for local and network television (FOX) in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She moved to Portland in 2002, wanting to get out of the business, but with passion still burning in her heart.

“That was a time of my life I was starting to look at the statistics of women represented in media and leadership and organizations,” she says. “With FOX, we had some powerful women who were leaders when I was there. I had a unique experience in terms of being with a large media corporation.

“But the statistics are terrible, especially for women in the director’s chair. Women are taking on a lot more independent films and crossing over into television, which is exciting, to take on the director’s chair. But the percentage of the top grossing films — 7 percent are women directors. It comes down to organizations that hold the purse strings, and putting more women in that position. There are a lot more women producers, and they need to commit to putting women in the director’s chair.”

With POWFest, although it’s Portland and not Los Angeles or New York, Johnson-Medinger believes she can help foster change and, at least, promotion. The festival has hosted several prominent directors in the past: Allison Anders, Irene Taylor-Brodsky, Bigelow, Gillian Armstrong, Amy Heckerling, Barbara Kopple, Ondi Timoner, Penelope Spheeris and Joanna Priestley.

This year’s festival has 62 films, with women as directors or co-directors, including:

• “The Sisterhood of the Night” (5 p.m. March 12, opening night), by Caryn Waechter, based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Milhausuer, is a story of friendship and loyalty set against the backdrop of a modern-day Salem witch trial, with teenage girls slipping out of social media and into a mysterious world deep in the woods.

• Directed by Alix Lambert, “Mentor” (6:30 p.m. March 13) is about Mentor, Ohio, a place selected as one of America’s top 100 places to live in 2006 and 2010, although five teenagers committed suicide among those five years. The film follows the families of two of the victims and examines the bullying that led to the suicides. With a local bullying case at Wilson High recently, “it’s such an important film,” Johnson-Medinger says. “But, it’s incredibly difficult to watch.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF POWFEST - Part of POWFest, after an accident, Dr. Grace Drammann (with Dalai Lama) turned to her Buddhist spirituality, the subject of 'States of Grace.'• “States of Grace” (6:30 p.m. March 15, closing night), from Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman, is about the transformation of a Bay Area family and the resilience and healing power of community and spiritual practice. For Dr. Grace Drammann, a pioneering AIDS specialist, a routine commute across the Golden Gate Bridge turns tragic, when another car crashes into her, and she awakes from a coma and surgeries with her mind intact and body in tatters, but she returns to her Buddhist community with her partner Nancy (Fu) Schroeder and their teenage daughter, Sabrina.

There also are shorts each night, with highlights being “The Punishing Business” by Heather Harlow (March 12), “American Gladiators” by Lara Gallagher (March 13), “The Night Is Ours” by Aubree Bernier-Clarke (March 13) and “Rodeo Dog” (March 15), about a third-generation Oregon family, their dog and their small-town rodeos, by Rebecca Hynes. They are all

local directors.

• The sixth round of shorts includes the Youth/POWGirls Showcase, which features new movies by the POWGirls, “Great Expectations” and “Words of Wisdom” (March 15). POWFest and MetroEast Community Media have partnered to host POWGirls 2015, a filmmaking workshop for girls 15 through 18 years old; for 30 hours, a group of 14 girls conceived, wrote, filmed and edited the two films, which will screen at 3 p.m. March 15. Participants came from Lincoln, Madison, Parkrose, Beaverton, La Salle, Silverton, Oregon Virtual Academy, home school, Early College High School and St. Mary’s

“This program has really caught fire,” Johnson-Medinger says. “It goes above and beyond making a movie. We offer criticism and foster them, especially if they want a media career. ... It’s bringing POWFest full circle with POWGirls.”

Johnson-Medinger says that 50 filmmakers will be appearing at this year’s festival.

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