Story by Jack Howland –
Paula Elias and Kerri Yost started Columbia’s Citizen Jane Film Festival seven years ago. Today, they’re happy to say it’s a prominent voice in women’s film.
In the Helis Communication Center at Stephens College in Columbia, Paula Elias can’t help but check her red and white iPhone for the time.
In 30 minutes at 6:00 p.m., she’s going to lead the first meeting for the 2014 Citizen Jane Film Festival (CJFF). Entering its seventh year, the weekend of feminist film at the historic women’s college has become a staple in the Columbia arts scene. She and co-creator Kerri Yost feel like it’s gotten bigger every year, growing from its modest beginning nearly a decade ago.
It was in 2008 when Yost, a filmmaker and chair of the Film and Media Department at Stephens College, asked Elias for some marketing assistance on a female-director-only film festival she was organizing. The two held the event in October at Stephens Lake Park, screening the crop of submissions they spent months finalizing.
“We were still learning,” said Elias, who is also president and owner of the marketing firm Axion. “I think we’re kind of like toddlers now — we’ve learned to walk.”
Over the years, their mid-Missouri festival has turned into something else entirely: the Citizen Jane Film Institute (CJFI). Today, the organization offers a host of programs — film series, workshops, a summit with esteemed filmmakers. It also holds its Camp Citizen Jane every June, teaching women between the ages of 12 and 17 the tools of filmmaking. Some of the attendees make “turn off your cellphone” videos for the festival.
“One young woman even made a short about eating disorders that we accepted into the festival,” she said. “And that’s great — our whole mission is how to celebrate and support women filmmakers.”
Elias finally opens the door to the communication center. There, a dozen or so female volunteers wait.
They vary in age and dress, although many proudly sport Citizen Jane T-shirts. The reasons the women became involved with the program differ, as well as their plans for the future with it, but they all express their commitment to their mission of empowerment.
“There aren’t many other film festivals that focus on just female filmmakers,” said LeAnne Lowry, 21, a volunteer and a budding director studying digital film at Stephens College. “I am a filmmaker myself, so to be part of a festival that gives us the spotlight for a moment is very nice.”
THE LACK OF WOMEN IN FILM
Named for Alison Bechdel — a cartoonist who voiced the idea in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For — the Bechdel test addresses the presence of women in a given film. Ultimately, it asks one simple question: Are there two females in the movie who talk to each other about something other than men?
Many hits, from The Dark Knight to The Princess Bride don’t pass this criterion. It’s a trend that has puzzled countless film critics, leading some to pull out the test every year for the Academy Awards. In 2009, half of the best picture nominees would have failed.
“It’s amazing the films that don’t pass the Bechdel test,” Elias said. “But it’s not a perfect system. The problem is: Gravity wouldn’t pass because Sandra Bullock doesn’t talk to any other female. But it’s definitely a powerful female-led film.”
Still, she says the Bechdel test serves as a reminder of the underrepresentation of women in film. At CJFI, she and her colleagues feel a female in film shouldn’t be considered such a rarity.
One benchmark they often look to, Elias explained, is the Celluloid Ceiling, an annual study done by San Diego State University that analyzes the employment of women in the top-grossing films of the year. In its 2013 edition, the Celluloid Ceiling found only 6 percent of the top 250 grossing films were made by women.
Through the programs they have helped facilitate over the past seven years, Elias and Yost are doing what they can to restore the balance.
“Film is an industry that is really considered a boys club, more so than politics, more so than any other industry,” Yost said. “Women’s films are considered a niche, which is kind of sad because we’re over half the population.”
The feminist message behind the festival was as clear to the co-creators seven years ago as it is today. It was just a bit more difficult than they expected to get the project moving.
“It was very, very stressful the first year,” Elias said. “I think had we known what we were in for we may not have done it.”
A FILM FESTIVAL IN MID-MISSOURI
Inside the Helis Communication Center, where two nights ago the first “Janie” was held, Elias and Yost breathlessly talk back and forth about all the film submissions they still need to decide on, discussing each piece’s strengths and weaknesses. The two work so closely together they often refer to the other as their “work wife.”
Today, the topic of conversation turns toward that first festival seven years ago. Elias falls silent and looks over to Yost, the woman who brought the idea to her.
“It came from a lecture series called Citizen Jane,” Yost said. “Our dean 10 years ago, Ken LaZebnik, who is a screenwriter out in Los Angeles, knew right away that in order to be a contemporary film program we really needed to have a connection to the film industry.”
“He brought in working professional women to screen a film and also connect with our students.”
LaZebnik urged Yost to turn the series into a weekend of films. The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which had been experiencing success with its acclaimed True/False Film Festival, had the same request.
Although she acknowledges she had no idea what the end-result might be, Yost agreed to direct the festival in 2008. She didn’t know much about women’s film festivals other than that they were notoriously political and heavy-handed, most focusing on female issues.
Her first thought was that Citizen Jane could be different.
“We’re actually a film festival about women filmmakers, not necessarily women’s issues,” she said.“Some of the movies have nothing to do with women, and that’s part of the myth we have to get past. Our biggest challenge is telling the population that, ‘So what if women make movies? They should be seen by everyone.’”
The Warrensburg native expected to hold her first and last CJFF that year, but she quickly found out her home state had different plans for the event.
“It was immediately more popular than we imagined it to be,” Yost said. “We imagined it to be this festival that would be interesting to our students and a few other people, but it was actually embraced well beyond that.”
Through its growth, she has seen established filmmakers fawn over the festival’s non-competitive, female-first environment.
When she and Elias went to Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2011, three female directors zealously told them they were big fans. When they were trying to land a 2011 independent film by Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls, the Emmy winner told them she believed in the festival’s core mission.
Lots of women have simply expressed thanks for the opportunity. Kat Candler, a screenwriter and director, told the co-creators she was grateful for their inclusion of her short film at last year’s festival. The popularity of the project at film festivals around the country led to a feature-length adaptation titled Hellion starring Aaron Paul.
The co-creators of Citizen Jane are starting to think their little festival may be an integral part of a national movement.
“What’s been really interesting to Paula and myself is how much the women’s film industry expects from us,” Yost said. “They really want more.”
FEMINISM IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
Lowery isn’t quick to call herself a feminist. She knows how that kind of thing is often perceived and depicted in the mainstream media. It’s the reason many people come out saying they’re not feminists, she explains, distancing themselves from the movement altogether.
To Lowery, a feminist is simply someone who believes everyone should be treated equally. She says she just wants the same chance of seeing her name in the end credits on the big screen as her male peers.
“It’s about women being empowered to be everything they can be,” Lowery said. “And to not be told they can’t be a certain thing just because they’re a woman.”
And slowly, with time, she says she’s going to openly refer to herself by that dicey F-word.
“Paula and I talk about this a lot,” Yost said. “There are people who are very extreme who are feminists that I don’t want to be grouped with, but really you can do the same thing with Christians or with any group.”
Elias said the festival has promoted feminism by celebrating it. Instead of trying to force some sort of political message on crowds of moviegoers, the executive director tries to throw one great party in Columbia every year. She wants people to leave the theater in a better mood than when they came in — a feeling she’s come to love.
As a girl, she remembers making made repeated trips to the local multiplex to see the films that put her in a better place. She saw Saturday Night Fever with a good friend 17 times, gawking over the elaborate dance routines and booming vocals.
That’s the way she and Yost want theatergoers to feel at the closing of the CJFF. The two believe entertaining a crowd with a female-directed film may be the best way to encourage feminism in the movie industry.
“I’m fine if somebody comes and didn’t even know those films were made by women. I’m fine if they enjoyed it and connected with it,” Elias said. “It’s really about well-made films made by women.”
The Citizen Jane Film Festival is providing two Plain Jane passes to HER readers. To enter for the drawing, go to newstribune.com/HERContests.
The Citizen Jane Film Festival will be held November 7-9 in Columbia at various venues. The Plain Jane passes are good for all films (with film reservations before individual tickets go on sale). See also www.citizenjanefilmfestival.org.