The Girls On Film Festival is a new feminist film festival in Melbourne, screening a series of retrospectives to celebrate women in film. We caught up with festival director Karen Pickering. It opens on 12 September with a screening of The Runaways (pictured above).
How did the Girls On Film Festival come about?
Well I love movies, I love feminism and parties. I guess I had to find other people who loved those things as much as me, and that wasn’t too hard. This made me think that there would be people pumped about parties as well!
We’re ten months pregnant with the festival right now. We’ve got a huge team. I co-presented a screening of The Punk Singer at the George Revival Cinema last year and was having a chat with Gus Berger, Cerise Howard, Tara Judah and Ben McKenzie who are now a part of the GOFF family. I often didn’t go to film festivals because I found them a bit stuffy, a bit boring. Certainly they were mostly movies made about men by men. I thought, what would a film festival look like if I was in charge?
There are so many different cultural festivals, particularly film festivals in Melbourne; did you find it difficult to enter this market? What was your approach in distinguishing the festival?
Never mind the market, we had to start with the calendar! That was tricky in figuring out where to place ourselves. We had to make sure we weren’t treading on the toes of other film festivals, cultural events and feminist events. Once you take these events out of the picture in Melbourne it’s actually pretty tough. But once we did that all of us in the team knew that there was a huge appetite among feminists for entertainment that wasn’t sexist. The other thing is that there is a big appetite among people who love film and pop culture for feminism. From the very beginning we all found that anyone we spoke to about this idea really jumped on board eagerly. We found all the way along that people said to us, “I can’t believe this didn’t exist already.” And I said “let’s find a feminist film festival and we’ll all go!” We found there are festivals where they show films that are exclusively made by women, which is certainly a feminist event. But we thought there was still room for movies not necessarily made by women but have a strong feminist sensibility or that are really beloved by feminists. We are also pretty ashamedly lowbrow; we love our pop culture and entertaining blockbusters too. That’s how we position ourselves. And definitely alongside other awesome existing events. We’re definitely in partnership with festivals and other cultural events. But we were certainly offering something that didn’t exist already.
How important was your crowdfunding campaign in gaining exposure for the festival?
It was important. What people don’t really understand about any crowdfunding is that it’s really only partly about the money. It’s really your chance to define yourself and be open and responsive but build a community and build a base that are with you from the very beginning and are really activated and inspired by what you’re doing, literally, because they invest money. But they also feel strong ownership over the event and we love that. It means we’re constantly in correspondence with people who are our Pozible supporters! It’s really good to know we don’t even have a festival yet but we already have a community.
Do you think crowdfunding is part of the permanent future of smaller festivals?
Yeah, I guess for us it was really effective for a few reasons. I think a lot of people will feel the same way we did. We didn’t want to be beholden to any corporate interest that was going to water down feminism. We didn’t want to be going through a huge, long and possibly unsuccessful grant application, and we wanted to do it as soon as possible. We wanted to take it straight to people. For us, we didn’t need that much money. It meant that the crowdfunding goal was realistic. I think it’s tricky – I‘m still really glad that big budget projects get made whether they’re films, or film festivals, or television shows or anything. There’s stuff you can do with a lot of money that you can’t do when you have no money. I’m really passionate about women getting access to some of that money. When you’re talking millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve still got a massive problem of only men being in the driving seat. I’d love to see arts ventures look at gender and women, but for us crowdfunding made perfect sense.
I guess going back to the party vibe you mentioned; your festival does have a very fun, energetic vibe to it. Is this a way of making feminism exciting and accessible to the public? Especially with negative stereotypes being generated and the Women Against Feminism Campaign in the media at the moment.
A lot of people have asked me that. Not so much about the Women Against Feminism Campaign because I think it is just a handful of people and the media have just jumped on because it’s a really convenient story but lots of people have asked are you trying to make feminism feel fun and accessible? I kind of have to honestly say that’s just how it feels! I’m aware I’m an incredibly lucky person and am an incredibly privileged person but I feel like the relationship and the community I have with feminists is incredibly fun and exciting and vibrant and isn’t a drag, it’s not a drain on my energy, it’s a boost! Of course there are days, weeks, months and we’re losing the battle and you’re really fighting and you’re really up against it. But what I have always loved doing is making; Cherchez la Femme is the other show I run every month. I’m also producing a show at the Melbourne Fringe called Wham Bam that’s a showcase of women comedians.
I’m often found at that intersection of feminism and entertainment because I think entertainment is not a dirty word and neither is feminism. I think within entertainment circles I often think that “this is such sexist bullshit!” and I want to make it more feminist, and in feminist circles I think “guys we don’t have to be so negative all the time and we can party together!” And that’s a legitimate way of protesting and expressing our feminism.
I was going to say in regards to your program, I think that by choosing Fairy GOFFmothers from a variety of artistic backgrounds, as well as hosting events, these screenings do foster consciousness raising surrounding feminism in different areas of the entertainment industry more broadly.
Yes, absolutely! That was completely conscious on our part, and GOFF is really a big party, but what do you do at parties? You meet people and you talk to them. At our party you’ll watch movies too but you’ll find other people like you. You make friends and that’s the power, well, another one of the powers of turning up to this is that you invite feminists to come together in a happy, relaxed environment so they bond. Then you stay in touch, and give each other support and you might flick ideas each other’s way and you might collaborate on things and projects. And you think well that’s how it starts! You invite people to be in the same place together and they look around the room and there are one hundred, two hundred people there and they think well I’m not imagining it. I’m not alone and I don’t have to sit in a dark room and sit reading feminist theory bashing my head to a rock. So, that’s how I see it. Definitely GOFFMothers was really important to get right. We have women from film backgrounds, music…
And Sarah-Jane is a master, she’s brilliant and she’s in a really sexist industry. We wanted to take her work and say look how incredible this woman is! She works across all this different media and is up against less talented men who get more opportunities and that’s bullshit. And Cerise is an incredible film critic. I think criticism is very very important to all the production of all art, and I think criticism is very important to the arts community. Cerise is also a rock and roll babe and has played in a lot of bands.
Is this where the music influence of the program comes in?
Well yeah, exactly! We knew she would be down to have a good time and come to a festival that would have live music and bands in between sessions. And Anna Barnes is the same. Anna used to manage bands and now writes plays and beautiful non-fiction work for girls. And Nakkiah is just a powerhouse. She’s won just about every theatre award going and now she’s starring in a TV show on ABC next year. I mean we have all our bases covered and all of those four women are makers of feminist art and we wanted the audience to meet them and follow their work always.
Why do you think your program has such a strong focus on music?
We did that on purpose because whenever we had those conversations about what is GOFF? We always came back to the fact that it was a mix tape. Like a mix tape of movies instead of songs. Most of us grew up in a time before the Internet. I remember getting my first CD player and mixtapes were very important in sharing ideas and showing someone you love them. We wanted to make GOFF as a way of sharing ideas and telling people we love them. And we love feminists and movies. When you’re putting together a festival that is not like other festivals, I think you need a strong structure, an idea to tell people what it is. When we came up with the idea that GOFF was like a live mixtape that was really built into the bones of the festival. Everything we programmed and everything we booked in and around films, including the movies themselves was a nod to our riot girl roots and many of us had discovered feminism through music and the name is a tribute to that as well. But that was very deliberate! Maybe next year it will be something else or maybe the music thing will stick.
I guess continuing on with the program, aside from T Is for Teacher, you have opted to screen retrospectives instead of new films by feminist filmmakers. What prompted this decision?
Well, we think that some of the movies that are older didn’t get the appreciation they deserved at the time. Radiance, Whale Rider and Heavenly Creatures – these are extraordinary films. We did want to spread films out over a number of years because a number of our audiences might not have seen these films when they came out, certainly Heathers and lots of younger feminists who I have met in the last few months have been saying how much they’re looking forward to seeing Heathers for the first time. Also, for other people in our audience and older people in our audience, it’s a kind of reconnection with something. It’s a reconnection with a time when you may have just discovered feminism or felt more angry or energised or more something. And I found that when I saw The Punk Singer it just set a fire under me. I just remembered exactly how I felt when I first heard that music and I thought that’s powerful! It’s kind of muscle memory of how to scream and dance and let it all go. And also that feeling of being alone with your music, with your headphones on, and being lost in it which I think teenagers do more instinctively because they want the world to fuck off and they want to spend time by themselves and listen to music, and go deep. That’s kind of what we wanted, to bring back some films we thought were underrated and to screen some that are hugely popular in a context that was specifically feminist.
I think The Runaways, that is our opening night film, was definitely overlooked because it was an unusual film. It’s made in a really experimental way by a female director with a female cast and essentially centres on this love story between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie played by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and Kristen Stewart is reviled by the media. I don’t think those things are accidental, I think the movie got lost because of sexism. They’re such examples that went into the decision of programming.
I guess on the flip side you’ve got a film like Ponyo that’s so important to young people and feminism as well. What makes that film important to your program?
We needed ten films and it was a tricky balancing act figuring out what mixture of narrative features and documentaries, what mixture of old and new, what mixture of movies from the West and movies from outside. Movies that centred on characters that weren’t white middle class women – that was hard. It was hard to balance in ten films and we didn’t have enough money to run longer than two days.
Ponyo was a really early inclusion because we were all, I mean, I’m a real Miyazaki tragic, and all Miyazaki films are feminist and it’s very hard to decide what one to choose. But we wanted to have a film that little ones could come to, and mums and dads and Ponyo is definitely the least scary of Miyazaki’s films. And Ponyo is a great role model, she’s fun and herself, she’s not sexual in any way and does her thing. It’s amazing to see how Disney reimagined The Little Mermaid compared to how Miyazaki did and we want to have that. Same as Whale Rider, we want to have some alternative movies for young people and kids that people could bring their sons and daughters to that would be outside the standard fare they get at the local cineplex.
A number of your feminist classics you’ve programmed are directed by men. Do you think you’re making a statement on the gender gap in Hollywood and mainstream cinema? Or do you think these films are comparative points to your more recent films, looking at how women have become more prominent as directors?
I think men can obviously make feminist movies and so much of it is in the reading and how we place it in a particular context. But what all the movies had in common was how they positioned women and men in quite a subversive way. And they all show women as really powerful, complex agents in their own stories and the male characters are always deeply flawed or vehicles to help understand the female characters, which really is the reverse of the gender split in most Hollywood cinema. That was interesting to us, 9 to 5, our closing night film, was made in 1980, literally off the back of the second wave of feminism in which women, working class women, went into the workforce in huge numbers in the US. And that movie is really about that, going from factory work into office work and finding you can wear nicer clothes and things can look like they’re better for you but they’re actually really shit. And if you’ve got a sexist pig in charge of things, things would be the same whether you’re working in a factory or an office in New York City. It’s a hilarious movie and a political movie about class and gender obviously, and it’s an underrated movie again but these three comic leads do such hard work in this film and create this amazing ensemble and everyone remembers the song! It’s a great film and we wanted to show it in that context. Heathers is also directed by a man and Heavenly Creatures because Fran Walsh co-directed with Peter Jackson.
We feel strongly that men can make feminist pop culture narratives that are feminist and women can create narratives that are sexist or they can be neutral. I mean Kathryn Bigelow is obviously a hero to many feminists and women directors but are her films feminists? They don’t have women in them. The Hurt Locker for instance is a movie that has no women in it and reinforces traditional narratives around masculinity. Women directors don’t have to make feminists films, absolutely not, we are interested in showing films that are entertaining and feminist.
Who are some modern feminist directors you think audiences should seek out?
That’s a good question. I saw 52 Tuesdays directed by Sophie Hyde, that is a great movie and Sophie is a great talent and somebody to watch and follow.1
Do you see your festival expanding and continuing next year? How would you expand on your program?
We definitely want to be a permanent fixture on the Melbourne arts community calendar. We’re already thinking about how to do that, for 2015 and beyond. And also one of our directors, Gus Berger, owns Blow Up Cinema, so we’re mobile! We have a movie screen so we’ll travel! We’re already thinking about how many places around the country we’d love to see GOFF at in an interstate town or city but for now we just want to get through this weekend!