This past weekend, I attended Lunafest, a traveling film festival showcasing diverse films about women by women. Lunafest is celebrating 20 years of inspiring films. The theme this year was “Someday is Now,” a call-to-action inspiring not only women but everyone to start achieving their goals today. The festival featured seven short films, ranging from upbeat features to heavy, intimate stories. I viewed the films at the Garfield Theater thanks to Cincinnati World Cinema.
dir. Holly Morris
Overexposed follows a group of thirteen women on the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition in 2018, directly challenging preconceived notions that women are not suited for arduous expeditions. They fight through the rugged tundra carrying hundreds of pounds of camera equipment without any dogs or sleds.
It’s incredible to watch these women make this journey. Watching them trek across thin sheets of ice (that are only walkable three weeks out of the year, mind you) made my knees wobble.
While researching the docs beforehand, I thought Overexposed was going to be my favorite. Unfortunately, the film lacks cohesion. The narration is intrusive and it exclusively shows the perspective of Holly Morris. Comparatively, the other women on the expedition dealt with far greater hardships and generally seemed a lot more interesting than Morris. She actually left a few days into the expedition, which made her narrative even less remarkable.
The doc was impressive in scope, but I wanted to hear more from the twelve other women taking on this hike. Perhaps a feature-length film would satisfy what this short was lacking in.
Knocking Down the Fences
dir. Meg Shutzer
If you are like me and not remotely into sports, don’t let that discourage you from watching Knocking Down the Fences! The doc follows AJ Andrews, a professional softball player for the Akron Racers. She was the first woman to win the Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2016. The doc allows AJ to speak on what it's like being a woman in sports, the skepticism and sexualization alike. AJ makes less than $15,000 a year. MLB players can make up to 650 times more than that. The doc features her sister, friends, mentors, and teammates. They speak highly of AJ, all concluding that she deserves better. Due to the marginalization of women's sports, AJ isn't getting the recognition she deserves. Her story is inspiring and can call attention to gender inequality within the athletic industry.
A Line Birds Cannot See
dir. Amy Bench
I was initially skeptical of A Line Birds Cannot See. I had never seen an animated documentary before. I was curious about how Amy Bench was going to tell the story without showing any faces. The film follows a young woman who grew up in Guatemala after her mother decides to leave her father and come to Texas. Her mother then sent her to Mexico so she could cross the border with a coyote. By the end of the film, I thought Amy Bench made the right decision in making the identities anonymous. Not only does it give the woman and her family privacy, but it also gives you a better understanding of the struggles she faced without inserting graphic or exploitative recreations. The musical score is fantastic and it successfully sets the tone for each scene. The 2D animation reminded me of old cartoons where the images seemingly vibrate back and forth. The ending was satisfyingly heartwarming after the heavy story.
The Scientists Versus Dartmouth
dir. Sharon Shattuck
The Scientists vs. Dartmouth was by far my favorite doc. It covers the sexual assault allegations made by six female students at Dartmouth College in 2019. When the students showed resistance to their professors’ advances at a bar one evening, the professors threatened their grades and reputations. The film explores the kinds of gendered power dynamics present in an academic setting. Not only was the doc very captivating; it felt real. The interviews of the students were genuine and I felt a connection to each one. The film ended up being my favorite because I could empathize with their struggle to speak out against someone who could ruin their whole lives. The film makes successful use of its “ivy league” aesthetic, and features some impressive drone shots and animated sequences.
Until She is Free
dir. Maria Finitzo
I’ll admit it. I am still at the point in my life where I giggle when people talk about sex. Until She is Free was… interesting. The doc followed Sophia Wallace, an artist in New York City who makes art inspired by the female reproductive system. She is the creator of “Cliteracy,” a project that empowers women to take ownership and love their bodies. This doc was kind of... weird? I am all for body confidence and women taking ownership of their bodies, but for the entirety of the doc, I was left asking myself, “what am I watching?” Sophia Wallace was very entertaining and a little kooky. I felt as if this was the weakest doc because it seems like it didn’t really have a purpose, aside from advertising Wallace’s art. It was a bit all over the place. In one scene she would be singing to her baby and the next she would be painting “clit” on a wall 100 times. There was a lot of giggling in the theater. Sex Education would approve!
dir. Tracy Nguyen-Chung & Ciara Lacy
Connection is about the art of fly fishing and its importance in keeping Native American culture alive in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation. Autumn Harry, a Paiute woman who grew up on the reservation, has been fishing for as long as she can remember. The cinematography is absolutely stunning. It features the beautiful mountains behind Pyramid Lake and some thrilling scenes of fly fishing in action. I wish I felt like I was watching the story of a woman who fly fishes in order to feel connected to her tribe and not an ad for Orvis. The frequent shots of Orvis gear and supplies took a lot of attention away from Autumn’s story. I couldn’t find a picture without a little Orvis logo in it! (see photo above)
Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business
dir. Christine Turner
At 93 years old, Betye Saar is an American artist who uses whatever she can get her hands on to create repurposed masterpieces. She is best known for transforming racist memorabilia into art that makes a political statement. Betye is a very entertaining woman. Despite her age, she continues making art, and there seem to be no signs of her stopping. She’s funny, upbeat, and wacky, and that really shows through in the doc. The music was loud and funky, reflecting Betye’s personality to a tee. This doc allowed me to leave the festival on a positive note!
Due to the fact that Lunafest was my first film festival, I can’t really compare it to anything I’ve ever seen before. Each doc told a different story, but all of them had a common theme of navigating adversity or change that has been wrought in a particular community. My favorites have to be The Scientists vs. Dartmouth and Knocking Down the Fences. Those two were very captivating and ended on more optimistic notes, i.e. the professors going to trial and AJ Andrews winning a Rawlings Gold Glove.
Props to Lunafest for bringing together such a diverse selection of films this year. From its humble beginnings in 2000, the festival has come a long way in showcasing women in film. The majority of the docs can be found on YouTube, and if not, they can be found on Chicken and the Egg Productions’ website. Lunafest is now headed to Reading, PA on Sept. 30th and virtually to New Jersey on Oct. 6th.