We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

Women in the Director’s Chair International Film and Video Festival

The 19th annual Women in the Director’s Chair International Film and Video Festival, featuring narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental works by women, runs Friday, March 17, through Sunday, March 26. Screenings are at the Preston Bradley Center and the Women in the Director’s Chair Theater, 941 W. Lawrence; UNITE, 333 S. Ashland; South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.; and the Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $8, $6 for students, seniors with a valid ID, and members of Women in the Director’s Chair. Festival passes are also available; for more information call 773-907-0610. Films marked with a 4 are highly recommended.


Homegirls: New Work by Chicago Women and Girls

The best pieces on this film and video program are Irene Gustafson and Julia Zay’s witty and lushly photographed Screen Test No. 1 and Screen Test No. 2, fake tests for 50s movie characters that humorously foreground the extreme artifice of fiction filmmaking. The boy in No. 1, auditioning for a part in Lassie, has lip and eyebrow piercings, and as he gestures and speaks to absent characters, the film’s fictive world is left troublingly and evocatively incomplete. Mary Patten’s Letter to a Missing Woman takes the form of a letter to a political fugitive, one the writer is afraid to meet; anonymous images of streets and CTA trains suggest a frightening loss of identity. Other pieces effectively make simpler points: in Hair-Tage Shawn Batey often fills the frame with dreadlocked hair, while people recount both the “wholeness” their hair gives them and the problems it has caused at work, and in What’s Ghetto, by Street Level Youth Media Girls’ Group, ghetto residents offer various definitions of the term–for example, ironing on a kitchen table instead of an ironing board. (FC) On the same program, works by Janice Inskeep, Melissa O’Shea, Dara Greenwald, Balvinder Dhenjan Mudan, Sarah Jane Lapp, Jenny Perlin, and Maia Carpenter. (Preston Bradley Center, 8:00)


Getting the Story Straight

A screening and panel discussion on narrative approaches to modern reality, featuring film and video makers Michelle Citron, Barbara DeGenevieve, Jennifer Bing-Canar, Mary Patten, and Rita Gonzalez. (Preston Bradley Center, 3:00)

The Gestures of Adults

In Undesirables, a 23-minute video on this shorts program, a voice-over tells us that of 15,000 kids sent to a reform school 400 miles from Moscow, 5,000 will end up in prison within a year of being released, another 3,000 will wind up on the street, and 1,000 will commit suicide. We’re shown clips of alarmingly cavalier police officers taking kids to similar institutions as part of a campaign to rid Moscow of street children. Marianna Yarovskaya, a former correspondent for Russian state television who made this expose as an MFA candidate at the University of Southern California, sometimes separates the dialogue from the speaker, making the documentary content less persuasive; she also shows a boy and his mother going through the motions of finding shelter as if they weren’t doing it for the camera. But though the filmmaking technique may seem somewhat disingenuous, the movie builds to a potent, reflexive sequence in which a girl who guides the filmmakers to a squalid building where a boy may have died of neglect elicits an interview from his stepfather–as if she’s spontaneously become the journalist-filmmaker. Kristen Nutile’s Offshore is a brief, challengingly anecdotal documentary composed mainly of still photographs, sound effects, and the voice-over of a woman who lived on Alcatraz Island when her father worked at the prison. Catherine Hollander’s Light as a Feather is a wonderfully metaphorical, deceptively simple narrative set in the midwest on and around the Fourth of July 1976, about a girl’s experience of being female in a predominantly male family. (LA) On the same program, films by Carol Morley, Annette Apitz, and Cynthia Choucair. (Preston Bradley Center, 5:00)


Cauleen Smith’s 1998 feature about two young women in Oakland serves as a gentle, feminist response to all those boys-in-the-hood movies. Both Pica (Toby Smith) and Tobi (April Barnett) distrust and pity the men around them, who are either dangerous or ineffectual; it’s up to the women to restore a sense of community to the neighborhood. The two leads give engaging but low-key performances, aided by Andrew Black’s nervy camera movement, and the script, by the director and Salim Akil, has a good ear for girl talk and a real affection for its bonding protagonists. But the storytelling is sophomoric, hobbled by dull patches and a mostly amateurish cast. Like the sound track, which alternates between hip-hop and New Age, the film forges an uneasy compromise between grit and platitude. (TS) (Preston Bradley Center, 7:00)

Mapping Desire: New Queer Work

Most of these films and videos focus on self-discovery and self-definition, and two of the best, by Asian women, examine sexual and cultural identity. In the gently assertive Sum Total, Sonali Gulati superimposes titles over static images of an Indian woman, subtracting traditional roles (“minus timid and speechless”) while adding others (“plus determined and opinionated”). Unmapping Desire by Asian-Canadian video maker Sheila James shows maplike lines on a woman’s body, which are then “breached” as it joins with another woman’s body. Other works deal with transgression. In Lisa Ganser’s Stalking Mike Hawke a lesbian becomes obsessed with a young man, trailing him and even filching his garbage, as her friends worry that she’s turning straight. Lesbianage IV by Kirsten Kuppenbender and Sarah Marcus is a James Bond parody in which two women meet in a bathroom, fall in love, and prepare to take on “the evil forces of the lesbian underworld.” And in her hilarious Contemporary Artist, Mexican video maker Ximena Cuevas spots “famous” New York curator John Hanhardt and rushes off to a rest room to rehearse how she’ll approach him; her voice and the nervous camera movements suggest authentic anxiety. (FC) On the same program, works by Buboo Kakati, Kadet Kuhne, Sophie Constantinou, Laurel Swenson, Dara Greenwald, Melanie Liwanag Aguila, Irene Gustafson, Justine Franko, and Allyson Mitchell. (Preston Bradley Center, 9:00)


Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women

The first part of this 1999 movie about Korean women used as sexual slaves by the Japanese army during World War II is at once horrifying and elegantly crafted. Writer-director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson intercuts sensitive interviews with several such women and explanations by some Japanese historians, who alternately blame cultural differences in morality or the Allies’ failure to intervene. A mixture of archival footage and black-and-white images staged to look archival suggests that not everything we need to know about the past is documented; the staged imagery is used sparingly, as are the lyrical images of nature that beautifully illustrate Kim-Gibson’s sense that what happened to the women was “not just the ugly atrocities but loss of lives by the waterfalls, in mountains where the spirits roam.” Later it becomes apparent that the staged imagery also functions to introduce female actors who portray the interviewees in the docudrama section that rounds out the movie–scenes that are so stagy and melodramatic they almost subvert the voice-over recollections that link them. Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger) was the editor and coproducer. (LA) (WIDC Theater, 1:00)


Off the Map: New Work From the Indian Diaspora

Short videos by Sheila James, Sonali Gulati, Balvinder Dhenjan Mudan, and Nishta Jain. (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

Sweat Equity: Women in the Workforce

Laura Dunn’s Subtext of a Yale Education is a lively and deeply felt documentary about a strike by clerical and service employees at Yale. Dunn weaves competing voices into a richly textured advocacy video that urges the university to widen its sense of responsibility; she also knows how to capture the dynamics of struggle through intercutting competing movements, often of marchers and speakers. Eve-Laure Moros and Linzy Emery’s Made in Thailand points out that workers in Thai export industries are denied health and safety protections and are often displaced by child labor. They could take a lesson from Dunn: their tape, mostly a tedious recitation of sobering facts, hectors rather than involves the viewer. Monika Khushf’s lighthearted Valley of the Boys makes the serious point that Silicon Valley’s adolescent male culture, with workplaces full of Nerf guns and unicycle riding, alienates women just as the software industry needs them most: because they’re supposedly good at relationships, they design excellent user-friendly software, something the boys obviously have trouble with. (FC) (UNITE, 7:00)

Skin Deep

Reena Mohan’s video about attitudes toward female beauty in urban middle-class India is about as cliched as its title. Interviews with six women of varying ages have been fictionalized to protect the original women’s identities, though a few actual men testify (sign painters explain how they use rough brush strokes for males to enhance their machismo and softer ones for women). A few of the cultural differences are intriguing–married women in India are more elaborately attired, for example–but otherwise this is all very familiar: darker skin tones are less attractive; women in advertising look “perfect”; fat women are treated poorly. Mohan does little more than aim her camera at the subjects and intercut advertisements, failing to convey cinematically the very real issues of identity and self-image at stake here. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 8:30)


Old Borders, New Crossings

Four videos that confront the question of cultural differences. Shot in Havana in 1998, Little by Little or We Are All Gossips is a work of great visual intelligence and complexity. Apparently video maker Alice Carin is familiar with more formalist avant-garde travel films by Peter Kubelka and others; like Kubelka she often separates sound and image so that voices on the sound track come from different people than those shown, yet her loose, open, ultimately antiformalist manner establishes a genuine intimacy with her subjects. She has a wonderful eye for specifics–the sensuality of bodies, the uniqueness of faces and locales–and the video seems to favor individual experience over theory, revolutionary or otherwise. In contrast, Ursula Biemann’s Performing the Border indulges in too much postmodern theory, showing anonymous Mexicans as a voice-over describes the U.S.-Mexico border as a “discursive representational space.” Still, she offers some chilling details about the post-NAFTA economy: when a woman is murdered, the media embrace images of her face and sometimes her corpse but rarely name the company that employed her. Jessica Hope Woodworth’s Urga Song offers interesting views of art and dance in postsocialist Mongolia but suffers from a tourist’s passive and disengaged perspective. The sublimely witty short At Your Service, by Mexican video maker Ximena Cuevas, pokes fun at another kind of tourist consciousness, as a woman lolling by a pool is fed tropical fruit by an offscreen servant. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 7:00)


Deborah Stratman’s 1999 video documents the gritty world of urban drag racing on Chicago’s west side. The dragsters work on their engines and give elaborate descriptions of their encounters with the police; these guys obviously love what they do, and judging from their actions and speech, they seem to have submerged their identities in their cars and races. Stratman’s somewhat fragmented style communicates their lack of autonomy outside their world, and her garish colors capture the inner-city nighttime in which the races occur. But her editing never really conveys the sense of speed the racers crave–the famous chicken run in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause does a much better job of that. (FC) On the same program, videos by Joyce Ventimiglia, Hye Jung Park, and J.T. Takagi. (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


All in the Family

Many of these films and videos about family life focus on motherhood. In Cliff and Hazel, Ann Fessler returns home for her mother’s 80th birthday, documenting her sometimes absurd views (she thinks men are smarter than women because there are more men on Jeopardy). Yet the camera work is nonjudgmental, and the video becomes a delicate dance in which the daughter presents her mother’s foibles without severing their connection. In the lighthearted That 5-Star Feeling the mother of video maker Jan Baross lives only in five-star hotels and admits to being “superior” to others–and “modest, too.” LeAnn Erickson recalls her late mother in Hours, Minutes, Seconds, Frames, using fragmentary images such as a shadow on a wall to evoke the fragility of memory, though her video ultimately succumbs to sentimentality. Elizabeth Downer’s Home avoids this trap, portraying the forced adoptions of Native American children in close, abstracted, often poetic images–a ball bounced against the side of a car, a tepee skeleton against the sky–that give the film a grave beauty. (FC) On the same program, works by Katrina Schuman, Justine Gerenstein, Ivan E. Coyote, Eve Sandler, and Terra Poirer. (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

This Dreaming Place

In Presence of Water, Rian Brown documents her pregnancy and motherhood in Italy. Her sense of dislocation is evident in the unusual angles, but most compelling are her images, shot with a handheld camera, of the baby in her arms: filmmakers often use the handheld camera to express personal eyesight, but Brown’s framing seems to respond as much to the infant. Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Ekleipsis is an often powerful account of hysterical blindness among Cambodian women who’ve survived the horrors of the Pol Pot time, their blindness one possible response to witnessing people being beaten to death. Flickering images are repeated, an effective device to suggest a crisis in seeing that unfortunately becomes too mechanical by the end. Laura Kissel’s Leaving Bristol describes her family history in letters, land-sale records, and family portraits, but repeated head-on images of her grandmother, whose memory is failing, seem insensitive, almost a violation. (FC) On the same program, Tsipori Bar-Yossef’s Positions. (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


Nobody Knows My Name

Rachel Raimist’s lively video about women in hip-hop–rappers, break-dancers, DJs, and one rapper’s wife–gives a good sense of the obstacles they face in this sexist field. A shot of a male performer role-playing with a woman onstage illustrates how females are viewed, and a woman complains that they’re more likely to be judged for their looks than their talent, but one guesses they’ve had uglier experiences that aren’t being told. Raimist builds a decent sense of rhythm through camera movement and editing, and the tape suggests that these strong and independent women can make a place for themselves, though the sobering end titles suggest that none of their careers has taken off either. With Medusa, T-Love, Leschea, Asia One, and DJ Symphony. (FC) (South Shore Cultural Center, 3:00)

Punitive Damage

The Indonesian military’s brutal 1991 crackdown on a student demonstration in East Timor claimed the lives of over 200 protesters. But instead of leveling a vague indictment against dictatorship, this 1999 documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Annie Goldson reconstructs an unusual lawsuit brought by the mother of one victim against an Indonesian general in a Boston court. Journalists and other eyewitnesses paint a horrific picture of ethnic persecution in a remote territory that was annexed from the Portuguese in 1975, yet the mother’s case was actually based on an obscure U.S. antipiracy statute that’s since been used in other human rights suits. Goldson mines the courtroom drama for its utmost suspense, but it’s the stoic mother’s grief for her son that personifies this account of political intolerance. (TS) (Film Center, 6:00)

L’Chayim!: Jewish Women on Love, Loss and Life

The most impressive entry in this program is Shari Rothfarb’s Ocean Avenue, in which middle-aged Luna (Karen Lynn Gorney of Saturday Night Fever) finally reconciles herself to the death of a daughter many years earlier. Framing this graceful if loopy story is the mikvah, the purification ritual for females between puberty and menopause, which connects Luna with the girl who still lives in her imagination. Keiko Ibi’s Oscar-winning video documentary The Personals offers an endearing look at elderly Manhattan singles who find friendship and therapy through a drama workshop. Perhaps only a young outsider like Ibi, a film student from Japan, could have elicited such candid and amusing remarks about sex, desire, and loneliness based on the seniors’ latest play, drawn from personals ads in a Jewish weekly. Some of the scenes are cloying or run too long, but the film is animated by the seniors’ zest for life. In Lisa Kaufman’s Packing for Two a widow who still sees and talks to her dead husband prepares for a vacation; it’s conventional in tone and full of Jewish cliches, though the glossy cinematography makes it watchable. (TS) On the same program, Jenny Perlin’s Lost Treasures. (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

Earth Kazoo: New Animation

A broad range of topics and styles distinguish this generally excellent package of animated shorts. Sheila Sofian’s Survivors thoughtfully compiles intimate accounts from abused women; morphing from one stylized image to the next, the film shields the women’s identities without the masking techniques that sometimes disrupt live-action documentaries of its kind. The paper-cutout principals of Lesley McCubbin and Hans Samuelson’s Men With Ties are space aliens who wear loud ties and gobble up all the products that Starbucks culture can provide. Paulina y el condor, a fable about a peasant girl carried aloft by a condor, is retold by Bolivian animator Marisol Barragan with cutout figures and watercolor landscapes. Anna Minkkinen’s hand-drawn In Between riffs on bar codes, DNA, and global consumerism. The Neighborhood Cat by Chicago animator Sarah Jane Lapp borders on the abstract with a squiggly cool cat that disdains its owner. And Amy Kravitz’s Roost flashes abstract shapes while a hen’s jubilant cries burst through a primordial soup of noises on the sound track. (TS) On the same program, animations by Emily Breer, Meredith Holch, Maja Nagel, Allyson Mitchell, Janice Inskeep, Wendy Tilby, and Amanda Forbis. (Film Center, 8:00)

Obscure Objects of Desire

A program of shorts on female sexuality. Lisa Clark’s half-hour video documentary Breast Implants, Fantasy and Fact rails against the warped notions of perfection that have prompted many women to get implants. Her honorable intentions are dulled by the video’s didactic format, which juxtaposes bitter testimonies from victims with clinical footage and the calm assurances of a plastic surgeon. In Roz Mortimer’s droll, surreal, anticonformist Wormcharmer a prim suburban housewife reveals her erotic attraction to worms while a voice-over provides scientific commentary on what makes them tick. In Blow Them Up Laura Purdy and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan present an inflatable doll being filled in slow motion, apparently some sort of a statement about filmmaking and the pornographic imagination. Dina Ciraulo and Jay Rosenblatt’s one-minute Drop records the complicated steps taken by the filmmakers to shoot a drop of water falling from a faucet. Lisa Platt and Kelly Dolak open up a Pandora’s box of pop cultural and Freudian references in their thought-provoking Purse, with two butch women going through a variety of handbags only to shove them into a closet in exasperation. In Sarah Shapiro’s pointlessly campy Jelly two heavily made-up lesbians express their lust with jelly doughnuts, and in Miranda July’s self-indulgent The Amateurist a woman babbles about spectatorship while watching her scantily clad self on television. (TS) (WIDC Theater, 9:00)