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Speaking in Celluloid

Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival celebrates the visions of women filmmakers



Think about this. Here are just some of the things you could learn, viewing the films at this weekend's Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival: why and how women decide to make vows of celibacy to serve others (A Different Path); the endangered lifestyle of a rural family in an isolated hollow of Appalachia (American Hollow); what Vietnam is like now and what impact the war had on American widows and the survivors there (Regret To Inform); the uncanny creative genius of the severely mentally ill (The Living Museum).

Every year, on the first weekend of November, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival celebrates the "drive, spirit and diversity of women" by showing a slate of recent films, most documentaries, made by or featuring women. This year, the festival has added an additional day and a larger venue, and still they are sold out (you can call to be wait-listed on Sunday). But lucky for Springs residents, each year the festival purchases a number of the featured films on videotape, and they can be checked out for viewing from the library at the Fine Arts Center.

Festival organizers previewed 220 films before their final selection of 18 was made this year. Five filmmakers will attend, including one Academy Award winner, Jessica Yu, who won the Oscar for her film Breathing Lessons, screened at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival two years ago.

After 12 years, the RMWFF has become one of the city's premier cultural events.

And among filmmakers, the festival has gained the reputation of being a place where you are treated with respect for your craft, where you are offered enormous hospitality and warmth, and where the experience of watching your film among an auditorium full of enthusiastic women is unsurpassed.

For this article, four filmmakers discussed the films they submitted to the festival, how they chose their subject matter and what it was like to make them.

American Hollow

produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, 90 minutes

New York-based documentarian Rory Kennedy spent a year living in an extremely isolated hollow in eastern Kentucky to make her film, American Hollow. (The youngest child of deceased Sen. Robert Kennedy, Rory is the one whose wedding was postponed earlier this year when her cousin John Jr.'s plane went down off of Cape Cod.)

Developed as part of the HBO series America Undercover, American Hollow will have its television debut on Nov. 29.

Kennedy set out to document the impact of the new welfare laws on poor rural communities and, as she explains in the companion book to the film, "to show that poverty is pervasive in all areas, and that the system was failing to meet the needs of many, especially in economically depressed regions like Appalachia."

Early in the process of filming, she says, "I stopped asking them questions about how they might consider themselves 'victims' of the system, and instead allowed the characters to lead me. It was then that remarkable stories evolved ... American Hollow ultimately asks what is lost and what is gained when tradition dies out."

"We expect Appalachia to be a place of inbreeds and six-fingered children, of hillbillies and moonshine, an America more backwards than backwoods," Kennedy says in the book. "But the more time I spent with them, I was struck by their sense of dignity and pride as they survived life in this forgotten corner of America."

Indeed, what comes through in American Hollow is the complexity of life in Mudlick Hollow, where over 40 members of the Bowling clan presently live in a mile-wide valley in one of the poorest and most isolated regions of eastern Kentucky. An hour's drive from the nearest town, they rely on family for just about everything. And though their lives are riddled with problems commonly associated with poverty -- poor health, abuse, despair -- they are also enriched by the traditions they maintain, and by their closeness.

"I feel like I'm rich, rich as the Lord wants me to be," says Iree, matriarch of the Bowling clan. Sixty-eight years old when the film was made, Iree wrings a chicken's neck with her strong arms and cultivates an impressive garden that feeds everyone all winter long.

In a telephone interview, I asked Kennedy how she found the Bowlings.

"I found them through a social worker," she said. "After driving into the hills for an hour and a half, we came to the Bowlings' place. They struck me immediately as a pretty unique family that had a lot of things going on."

American Hollow is notable for how naturally the subjects behave in front of the camera, and how open and candid they are about their lives.

"Iree really is proud of what she has in Mudlick Hollow," said Kennedy, "proud of her life, how far she has come. She wants to share that with people. She says, 'I ain't got nothin' to hide.' She's willing to share everything, even the things in her past that are difficult. She sees it all as a part of life."

In the film, we see Iree cooking, gardening, caring for her invalid mother and for her retarded sister who lives down the road. She also quilts, and one of the loveliest moments in the film is when she spreads out her intricate quilts along a clothesline, showing them off.

"I've always thought of Iree as a documentarian in her own right," said Kennedy. "When you go into her house, she opens these incredible photo albums and shows them to you. She knows everyone, every connection. I think she felt they had something special and wanted it to be preserved."

At the other end of the spectrum in the film is Clint, Iree's teenage grandson, who is desperate to leave the hollow, madly in love with a local girl and stuck between his wish to go and his need to stay. Clint's father and all his uncles, Iree's sons, eke out a living selling moss, ginseng and bloodroot, foraged and gathered in the forest, and drawing public assistance. The families heat their homes with wood-burning stoves, wash clothes with rainwater gathered in buckets and generally dispel the myth that too often links poverty with laziness.

And in spite of their troubles, which are many, they share rich traditions like the Labor Day homecoming when extended family gather from all around for a covered supper in the hollow.

"A big part of the film is the celebration of family and the way they hold on to tradition. I have an enormous amount of respect for the Bowlings for holding it together, for keeping those traditions going," said Kennedy. And the filmmaker makes it apparent in the film that those traditions are threatened, that when Iree dies, the family ties will likely be severed by exterior forces.

"Changes in welfare laws; the infusion of fast-food restaurants; there are too many forces that are going to make it difficult for the Bowlings," said Kennedy.

Bird by Bird With Annie

directed by Freida Mock, 40 minutes

Likely the single most fun film in this year's festival, this portrait of best-selling author Anne Lamott documents the year she published her most recent book, Traveling Mercies. A born-again Christian and liberal activist who openly discusses her faith as well as her past experiences as an alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott talks about anything and everything to her students, to her church congregation and to the filmmaker.

"She does it with such humor," said Mock, in an interview from her Southern California office. "She demystifies tough subjects. She's unafraid, I think. She's worked out those issues of rejection."

Mock was a student at a writers conference in 1996 where Lamott gave the closing address. "I was just swept away by her talk which was so incredibly funny and, at the same time, both practical and cosmic in its ideas," said Mock. "What I found with her humor was that it was very non-egotistical; it came out of pain and survival."

Mock says she immediately knew she wanted Lamott to be the subject of a film. She had just finished a 5-year project, the documentary on sculptor Maya Lin for which she won an Academy Award, and thought Lamott would present an entirely different kind of challenge and opportunity.

"At the end of the speech, I went upfront with all the groupies, people having their books signed," she said. "I gave her a copy of the Maya Lin film and said, 'I'd like to make a film about you.' I told her I'd write later and I did."

Lamott agreed to be filmed, and Mock filmed her for about a year and a half. At the time, Lamott was going out on the road with a new book, so the filmmaker had plenty of opportunities to shoot her speaking to groups in various venues.

Central to the film, however, is Lamott's church outside of San Francisco, where it seems she is most anchored, most at home.

"I knew that the church would be a character in the film," said Mock. "I thought you just have to film what's characteristic of her." Lamott is filmed visiting a nursing home with her son Sam in tow, conducting a wedding between two gay males, walking with her elderly mother, teaching in a local bookstore and generally doing what she does best -- conversing.

"[Annie's] personal is the same as her public persona," said Mock.

Asked if she wanted to say anything else, Mock said she wanted to urge people to support independent films. And she added that she wished she could be at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival. "I love to watch this film with groups of women," Mock said. "It's just so much fun."

Speaking in Strings

directed by Paola di Florio, 73 minutes

This profile of controversial, world-renowned violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg strikes chords that will be familiar to many women. Both renowned and despised for her unorthodox, passionate delivery of the classical repertoire, Nadja has come to be known as the "bad girl of the violin," is considered brilliant by her fans and is characterized as "possessed" by some of her critics.

Filmmaker Paola di Florio, looking for a signature project when she broke away from television production in 1996 to make her own feature film, thought immediately of Nadja.

"I knew Nadja growing up," she said in a recent interview. "Her mother was my piano teacher. She was somewhat of a child prodigy. The whole family was really gifted. It was a very fun place to go to have piano lessons."

Di Florio hooked back up with her friend at a difficult point for Nadja -- she had just played her comeback performance at Carnegie Hall following a suicide attempt. Knowing the strength of Nadja's character and her charismatic personality, di Florio determined she would make a perfect subject for a film about artistic integrity.

"I wanted to make a film about someone who would, against all odds, take chances with their art," said di Florio. "Nadja kept coming to mind. I had been out of touch with her for over 10 years. She had gone off to become, really, an international star in the classical music world. I had gone off to California to be in the movie business."

Di Florio says she did not set out to make a bio-pic, but to use Nadja's difficult and unique journey to explore a theme. "It was about watching a person rejuvenate herself," she said. "A lesson of death and rebirth, of facing fears through art. Through Nadja's story, we see ourselves."

That is certainly true of the film; but Speaking in Strings is also a compelling portrait of a musical genius. Some of the performances in the film are among the most moving musical moments this moviegoer has ever witnessed. Nadja is a true original, and the power of her personality translates directly into her playing of the violin, though her style has often been too overpowering to suit critics.

At one point in the film, Nadja's publicist says she was asked: "Can't you do something about her facial expressions? Her movements onstage?" Critics have characterized her work as "mannered, distorted, over-reflected, hormonal."

Meanwhile, the artist was struggling with her own intensely personal loneliness while maintaining a strenuous life of touring and recording.

"I'm sure she was wary of letting herself be exposed," said di Florio. "She was very moved by the film, though I think it was very hard for her. She had no final say in the editing; I sent a cut to her as soon as I had finished my final cut.

"I got on a plane that day, very nervous about what her reaction would be. When I arrived in New York, I walked in the door of my mom's house, and my mother was standing there with tears in her eyes. She was on the phone with Nadja."

Nadja triumphs in the film, and di Florio chose to end it on a hopeful note, with Nadja playing a chamber piece alongside friends at the Aspen Music Festival. "I chose the last frame very intentionally, with her in mid-bow, looking up, playing with her friends, to leave it on an upbeat note."

Speaking in Strings will be broadcast on HBO in December.

Paola di Florio will be in attendance at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival.


produced and directed by Cauleen Smith,

82 minutes

Inspired by the rhythms and lyrics of hip-hop music of the early '90s, filmmaker Cauleen Smith set out to make her first film, the story of a young Oakland girl, sensitive to the tragic, senseless waste of life going on around her.

"Drylongso" is an African-American term that means "ordinary" or "just the same old thing." Smith's film addresses the tragic ordinariness of everyday violence against young African-American men, and how it affects the women of the culture. The main character, Pica, is a failing art student who begins snapping Polaroids of young, black men she believes are part of an endangered species.

Told as a narrative rather than a documentary, Drylongso develops the character of Pica as well as a friend of hers who goes around dressed like a boy to protect herself from an abusive boyfriend.

"I shot it starting in August of 1995, and it wasn't completed until May of 1998," said Smith. "I was waiting for money; starting and stopping in the cutting and editing process.

"It's pretty much wholly fiction, though I created the characters out of a lot of people I knew."

Smith originally intended to do a short film, using the idea of working with Polaroids to show the endangerment of black males. But soon she realized there was no attendant discussion of African-American women and how the carnage affected them, so she wrote the script around Pica.

"I show it a lot in high schools," she said.

Drylongso is playing currently on the Sundance Channel and has played all across the country, at film festivals and art cinemas.

"It plays particularly well in big cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, across the Midwest. It seems that the middle of America is so saturated with mainstream media, and stuff like this doesn't usually show," said Smith. "I think film festivals are more important in the smaller cities than in the big cities, where independent films are more readily available for viewing."

Drylongso moves slowly and deliberately through difficult territory, but is ultimately very moving, depicting a huge social problem in very personal terms. "You have to pay attention," said Smith. "If the audience hangs in, they'll really enjoy it."

Outreach Events

Each year, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival schedules events out in the community. This year, three films will be shown in public venues. All are free and open to the public, and the filmmakers will be available for questions and answers following the screenings.

All screenings are

on Friday, Nov. 5.

The Healing Years, a film about three women who triumph over past sexual abuse by writing letters, keeping journals and finding hope in survival. 11:30 a.m., at the Center for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, 19 E. Cimarron St. Bring a sack lunch if wanted. Director Kathy Barbini will be in attendance. Call 632-1462.

Speaking in Strings (see p. 19).

2 p.m. at Los Robles Nursery and Caf, 918 W. Costilla St. Lunch will be served in the caf (come early to be seated), with live violin music by a symphony musician, followed by the screening. Director Paola di Florio will be in attendance. Call 636-3258 for more information

Old Man River, writer-performer Cynthia Gates-Fujikawa's one-woman show about the life of her father, a Nisei actor who had another family before hers, lost in the Manzanar relocation camp. Illustrated with film clips, family photos and scenes from Manzanar. At noon in the WES room, Worner Center, Colorado College. Sponsored by the departments of women's studies and asian studies. Cynthia Gates-Fujikawa will be in attendance. Call 389-6607.

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