AFI Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) Showcase preview

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on May 11, 2009

When I added the press and PR responsibilities for “big AFI” to the “joint custody” agreement I had previously with AFI FEST and AFI DALLAS, one of the programs I immediately looked forward to working with was the AFI Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) program.

Each year, the program gives a handful of women an opportunity to develop a short film script and then direct the film under the watchful eye and guidance of the American Film Institute, yet ensure that they take full responsibility for their own projects. Upon being informed of its existence, it struck me as a workshop that effectively could serve as that connective tissue for talented women that had a career or background in other areas of filmmaking or storytelling, but hadn’t found the way or the means to get themselves behind the camera in a true director capacity on one end of the spectrum or needed to round out their filmmaking experience so they could take the next logical career step at the other end.

And honestly, since I am still learning about the program – that’s simply the way it looks to me from the outside. But even if the truth falls a somewhat short of that potential, it still is giving a dedicated push or assist to female filmmakers. And that alone makes it a very cool, if not absolutely vital program and as far as I’m concerned, a small, but brilliant gem in the AFI crown of programs, film festivals and achievements.

Basically, following the dynamic and ambitious programming and presentation that both AFI FEST and AFI DALLAS have become known for the last couple of years, AFI DWW is one of those things that genuinely makes me proud to be at the American Film Institute. All three are forward looking and thinking celebrations of film and filmmaking artists not rooted in the past, yet taking a respectful lead from the artists that preceded them. Few things are more fun and exciting than a director coming back to AFI FEST or AFI DALLAS with their first feature after we gave them their first red carpet experience with one of their short films. It just gives you a sense that you’re helping somehow, shining the light on someone and giving encouragement to the filmmaker and in a small, but important way – validating the time, the creative energy, the dedication, even the money they had to put out to get their work made. And all of that applies here as well.

I’ll state it bluntly: AFI DWW is one of those programs that makes this place relevant.

So tonight at the DGA Theatre will be the unveiling of the films the seven participating women of the last workshop has created. And the combination of the films together will make for a great program. Perfect? No. Of course not. But across the board, they show great ambition for storytelling and exploring what can be done with film. And what I love the most – no short cuts, no cynical audience assumptions and certainly no laziness here.

Anyway, here are some brief thoughts on each film:

Mary Ann Kellogg’s ABUELO follows the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather following their first meeting. He has come to America from Argentina to watch over her so her father can work. There is a language barrier and she doesn’t make the situation easy on him from the outset. However, the old man has some tricks up his sleeve and watching what transpires is genuinely joyful. Kellogg began her career as a dancer with Twyla Tharp, is an Emmy nominated choreographer and she displays real grace with the film. She even incorporates dance into the story deftly, subtly, beautifully, in a way that reminds you how cool it can be onscreen after garish show-tinny (yeah, I meant “tinny”) things like High School Musical have long convinced you otherwise.

Dominika Waclawiak’s GOSIA’S WITCH also takes a child’s view of things. This time the little girl in question is dealing with a nasty headmistress at her Catholic school. And the way she does so, is through entering the world of a children’s story her mother has read to her. Waclawiak has worked as a visual effects artist on more than a few films and she translates that into delivering a magical little film with hints of Guillermo del Toro’s work. Films focusing on kids can be tough for me to hang with, but she stops well short of cloying with her little actress, telling me her talent isn’t completely tied up with production design and art direction.

Meredith Berg’s VOID is a supernatural thriller about a female FBI agent investigating a series of grisly murders in a small, desert town. What she finds through her investigation is the involvement of a little boy in a way she never could have imagined. Berg has a love for/background with editing comic books and graphic novels and this short film has the kind of darkly clever premise and twists within it that are borne directly from that world. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it bears some DNA from the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “It’s a Good Life”. I will also add that Berg doesn’t shy away from the gore – and the horror genre could use a smart female storyteller not afraid or shy to dole out some scares from her perspective.

Alexa-Sascha Lewin’s THE HONEYSTING shows us some very clear parallels between hunting big game and operating within Chinatown’s black market underworld for the “spoils” of that hunting. What I initially liked about it was the way Lewin refused to show her hand as to the real connections between the two worlds until she absolutely had to. Then ultimately, I was impressed by the fact that she has made a movie with a cause that doesn’t broadcast to you what the cause is. Lewin has spent several years as a natural history filmmaker and I have to believe that it took some doing to show the restraint she does here to allow the narrative of her film deliver the punch, rather than doing so through some preachy exposition.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s INK also manages not to preach – to the choir or otherwise – as it shows us the last days of a tattoo artist and single mother dying of AIDS and determined to do so with grace. It is simply told, but not in a way without giving some visual flourishes. There is also a very nice balance between the intensity and immediacy of the emotions (especially between the mother and her young son, struggling to deal with the encroaching reality ahead for the two of them), yet framed by a lyrical quality that is more than understandable knowing the nature of Jean-Baptiste’s acting work as well as her composing background. It also features a wonderfully nuanced performance by Theresa Randle in the lead role – clearly another beneficiary of being directed by Jean-Baptiste.

Joanna Jurewicz’s ROOMS also benefits from the talents of Jean-Baptiste – this time as the actress plays the lead character of an immigrant maid at an airport hotel who cleans up the rooms of the travelers in a solitary daily work routine. It is a subtle work that shows a deft touch in opening up the woman’s lonely world without ham handedly delivering a moment of pathos for the lowest common denominator viewing the film to understand. Instead, the film allows the cumulative effect to creep up on us as we watch the woman allow herself a touch of hope of real human connection with one of the hotel’s guests. And to Jurewicz’s credit, the ending is as expected and melancholy as scenarios like this all to often are.

Joy Gohring’s 18 is about a teenage girl facing the decision of whether or not to remove her mother from life support when she is given power of attorney on her eighteenth birthday. That’s the “gift” she receives. The gift Gohring gives the audience is doing everything she can to not address the dilemma directly, not to give us a textbook afterschool special speech from the cool and caring guidance counselor or mentor of your choice and veering as far away as she can from hitting any nails on their heads. Instead, she sends the protagonist off to a pool party in search of the boy she harbors a crush on and possibly a much needed immediate distraction from her situation. What I find special in films that deal with subjects like this are the moments where nothing is being said, because (at least in my experience) the interior monologues and conversations with myself are far more maddening than anything said out loud. Gohring is a comedienne by trade and that time onstage has obviously taught her the economy of words.

There you have it – seven short films by seven women – creating an impressive program that delivers exactly what something like this should: accomplishment and promise. I can easily see each of these films hitting the festival circuit and more importantly, I can just as easily see each of the women taking the next step into feature territory as well.

Looking forward to tonight!

One Response

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  1. Gordon - RealTVfilms said, on May 14, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Interviews from the Red Carpet of – “AFI Directing Workshop for Women

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