For the past three decades, the St. John's International Women's Film Festival has been shining the spotlight on female filmmakers, and the entire province, in a big way.
Deanne Foley was 18 years old when she took a seat inside the theatre at the historic LSPU Hall in downtown St. John’s. The year was 1993, and it was the first time the university student had attended the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival (SJIWFF). It was also the first time the aspiring filmmaker could see her dream becoming a possibility.
It was a short piece by local filmmaker Anita McGee, based on the poem “Out on a Limb” by St. John’s writer Geraldine Chafe Rubia, that caught Foley’s attention. You might call it her lightbulb moment.
“It was really striking to me that someone in my own community had actually made a short film… I think that was very inspirational to me,” she says.
Still, Foley says, a career in film seemed out of reach. “There was a film industry here, but I don’t think it was as well known... it wasn’t a common thing, when I graduated from university, to go to film school. So that wasn’t really presented as a choice.”
Flash-forward to present day and the St. John’s director, writer and producer has won numerous awards and accolades for her work, including her first two feature films: Beat Down, about a teenaged girl, played by Marthe Bernard, with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler; and Relative Happiness, about a B&B owner (Melissa Bergland) looking for love. She’s also had all her films screened at the same festival that inspired her all those years ago.
“They’ve been incredibly supportive of my work over the years, from my first short, which was Trombone Trouble, and that was back in the early 2000s,” Foley says.
Last year, Foley both opened and closed the SJIWFF respectively with An Audience of Chairs (her critically acclaimed film based on Joan Clark’s novel of the same name) and Hopeless Romantic (a collaborative effort with five other Atlantic Canadian filmmakers). She’s also returned to the festival as a guest panelist over the years to share her experiences and expertise with other aspiring and emerging filmmakers. Not bad for a “young girl from the suburbs” who sat in that darkened theatre and dreamed about one day seeing her own films on the big screen.
A Bold Vision
Success stories like Foley’s is what the SJIWFF is all about. Back when it was formed in 1989, the festival was a small affair with a big vision: to support and promote the work of women employed in the film and television industries around the world. It was founded by Dr. Noreen Golfman and a partner, who helped lead the festival’s activities for the first few years before retiring from her role, and organized out of Golfman’s home.
“Everything was done out of my living room, and I’ve got the boxes and the archives still in my basement to prove it,” Golfman laughs.
In the beginning, the festival was purely a volunteer effort and consisted of a single evening of screenings. This was before a time when film buffs could easily go online to track down indie releases that tend to fly under the radar of mainstream cinemas.
“I just was really focused on giving our local audience an opportunity to see material that they would not ever have a chance to. And, of course, we’re talking about a kind of pre-digital age, too. So the exhibition of films in a theatre was really the only way you could see this material,” Golfman says.
“I also was really interested in fostering a climate or a culture where women would feel comfortable making this stuff in the first place. And so having an exhibition space for them really helped give them something to shoot for.”
While the film festival has helped foster the acceptance of women in the industry locally, Golfman says,
it appears to have had an even larger impact.
“A lot of people said that to me over the years, that [the festival] has had a big role in the success of the industry itself. And at first I said, ‘Oh, that’s not true, we’re just a little festival.’ But I’ve come to see it and believe it, frankly, myself.”
That “little festival” has since become one of the longest running women’s film festivals in the world and has helped put St. John’s and the entire province on the map. Today, the SJIWFF operates year-round, bringing workshops, educational boot camps for youth, and film screenings across the island and into Labrador. Each fall, the festival culminates in five days of events and screenings including documentaries, short films and features from local, national and international filmmakers. It’s hectic, Golfman says, but also a lot of fun.
“It’s a kind of five-day marathon of networking and socializing and partying. Our tagline is ‘films by women, made for everyone.’ So this is not a woman exclusive or gender exclusive event, for sure.”
Adjusting the Lens
This fall, the festival will ring in its 30th anniversary October 16 - 20 in St. John’s, and there’s certainly a lot to celebrate. This year alone, the festival made USA Today’s list of 10 best film festivals worth travelling for; it was inducted into the ArtsNL Hall of Honour for its contribution to the cultural life of Newfoundland and Labrador; and Dr. Golfman, founder and chair, was also named Woman of the Year by ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists).
In 2016, Telefilm Canada also recognized the SJIWFF team for their work toward gender parity; and in 2014, Women in Film and Television Vancouver honoured them for their leadership in the Canadian movement for gender diversity in the film industry.
Golfman says she never anticipated this kind of success, and credits it to the festival’s staff, board and volunteers (about 75 each year, some of whom have been with the festival since the start), past and present, who’ve worked tirelessly to make it all come together.
“We have a very strong volunteer culture on this island,” she says. “There’s never, ever been a problem with finding people to volunteer their time. We’re talking about a lot of time. Just this summer alone, we’ve had almost 600 submissions, and it’s a small group of us who are really watching all those films... It’s a pretty big testament, I think, to get a very fundamental commitment to seeing this great project realized every year.”
But the festival’s not just about a bunch of people getting together to enjoy great films. Through its Film Industry Forum, the SJIWFF brings in industry leaders for panels, workshops and face-to-face meetings, allowing filmmakers and other creators to pitch their ideas, get advice and make connections. It’s these kinds of opportunities, Foley says, that make all the difference.
“And having international filmmakers come and other filmmakers from across Canada - I think it’s really built a family,” she adds. “I’ve attended a lot of festivals from around the world and you can kind of get really lost in the wave... it can be quite huge and impersonal. But I feel like in St. John’s, Jenn Brown (SJIWFF’s executive director) and her staff do such an incredible job of making filmmakers not only feel welcome, but connecting them to the different events, and being able to create a festival where people get to know each other.”
While women working in the film industry have made great strides, there’s still much work to be done. In fact, according to the 2019 report from Women in View (a national non-profit that aims to strengthen gender representation and diversity in Canadian media), “Women’s share of writing, directing and cinematography work in both film and TV remains below 25 per cent,” with women of colour and Indigenous women not sharing the same gains as others.
Events like the SJIWFF, Foley says, are needed now more than ever. “We’ve slightly adjusted the lens to include more female filmmakers in the industry, but the numbers are still quite dismal [and] we do not have gender parity,” she says.
“It’s so important for a festival like the Women’s Film Festival, that 100 per cent supports female filmmakers in this province and around the world. And it’s important that people come and support it.”
To discover more about the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival and for a schedule of this year’s events, visit their website: Womensfilmfestival.com
-by Linda Browne