Miss Black Germany

The Chicago Feminist Film Festival began with an enthusiastic Yes!-the exclamation Susan Kerns gave Michelle Yates, her fellow assistant professor at Columbia College, when the latter reached out with her idea.

“I came to Chicago and started working at Columbia, and I saw that there wasn’t a feminist or women’s film festival,” recalls Yates, whose research examines the relationship between the environment, media, and gender. She thought this work would align well with Kerns’s role in the Cinema and Television Arts department.

“There’s Reeling, a really popular LGBTQ film festival-which overlaps a little bit with our fest-but I wanted to do something to fill that gap. I saw that Susan did stuff with the Milwaukee Film Festival, and I thought, ‘Ah! That’s who I need to work with.'”

The two met for coffee, and the rest was herstory.

Now in its fourth year, the fest, which is free and open to the public, aims to expand and explore gender equity in filmmaking, pulling from a variety of styles and narratives to forge connections between underrepresented artists and audiences. Comprised mostly of shorts, its programming comes from all over the world and operates with the concept that anybody can be a feminist.

“We want to think about feminism in an intersectional way as well-gender is not discrete from other categories or structures of oppression, such as race, sexuality, class, nation, ability,” says Yates. “In doing that, we’re really able to highlight a diverse range of filmmaking and representation.”

TL;DR: Kerns and Yates want this thing to be intersectional as hell.

“Sometimes people think we’re just a women’s film festival, but it’s really important that we’re the Chicago Feminist Film Festival,” Yates continues. “While we absolutely want to highlight films by and about women, we also want to think about gender equity beyond the binary.”

Kerns believes the moving image offers a sense of collectivity critical to these conversations. The shared space of the movie theater fosters empathy.

“Storytelling has always been a way to create commonalities among people and to create shared experiences,” she says. “For us, it’s important to show audiences the different stories they can see in a theater. Maybe it’s a story they haven’t thought about before, or maybe it’s something that they’ve even experienced but have never seen on screen.”

The duo are invested in curating films under common themes so the stories stay in conversation with each other. For example, Thursday night includes a series called Beyond Barriers. The international shorts in this segment include Alice’s Garden, a documentary from the U.S. about Venice Williams and her community garden in Milwaukee, and Miss Black Germany, which follows four contestants in the first Miss Black Germany pageant as they challenge Eurocentric beauty ideals and their country’s oppressive racial histories.

A committee of 30 diverse prescreeners selected this year’s lineup. Some are film critics and theorists, others are devoted (if amateur) cinephiles and filmmakers.

“We’ve really been trying to build our prescreening group-some of them are older, some of them are younger; they represent a wide swath of ethnicities and sexual preferences,” Kerns describes. “Part of the reason why women are excluded from films and festivals is because prescreening committees are made up of white men over and over again. They get to set the rules about ‘quality cinema.’ We want to make sure we have a wide representation of people on our prescreening committee so we’re not accidentally doing that as well.”

The fest hits Chicago at a particularly strange place in the feminist time line: radical sensibilities have made their way to cute-as-hell but politically questionable graphic T-shirts, while conservative women take to Fox and Twitter to conflate the politics of gender liberation with their choice to be oppressive heels. Kerns and Yates, however, assert a more resistant take.

“Feminism is about gender equity. It’s about resisting the patriarchy and misogyny. I think there are these ways in which people reduce feminism down to capitalist notions of individualism,” Yates says. “But feminism is about resisting structures of oppression that promote certain ways of being at the expense of others.”

“I think we still need to talk about the backlash against feminism-the idea that this term is bad or limiting,” Kerns adds. “One of the things we’re trying to do is get away from that conversation. Certainly there have been moments when feminist activism has had severe blind spots-we’re not ignoring that. But we also want to make sure we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”  v