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Women filmmakers make history at Salem Film Festival

Posted by Susannah Blair  February 27, 2012 10:00 AM

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Freelance director and producer from Chicago, Xan Aranda, will show an original film at this year's festival.

This year’s fifth annual Salem Film Festival will launch with the screening of All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert produced by Vivian Ducat. Ducat is one of 18 women producers and/or directors whose films are featured in this year’s festival. And of the 32 films selected for the 2012 Festival, women filmmakers comprise the highest percentage in its history.

Beginning Thursday, March 1 through Thursday, March 8, the Salem Film Festival’s week long event includes documentary films from around the world. Screenings are open to the public and will take place at Cinema Salem, 2 E. India Square Mall, or at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex Street, Salem. A complete listing of films and show times can be found at the Festival’s web site: http://salemfilmfest.com/

A graduate of Harvard, Ducat, 56, now lives in New York City, but began her career at National Public Radio (NPR) in Boston before turning to visual media. Her documentary depicts the struggles of Winfred Rembert, an African American man who grew up in the segregated South and learned to transform painful memories into paintings. Ducat will be in Salem for a question and answer session after the film kicks-off the Festival.

Ducat’s experience as a woman filmmaker hasn’t always been easy. “When I first began in TV, it was a hierarchy of entirely men, and I never had a mentor,” said Ducat. “But I’ve learned that it [filmmaking] is very much an interpersonal game. It’s all about how you interact with people and gain trust.”

Paul Van Ness, 60, of Beverly and co-owner of Cinema Salem, has been involved with the Festival since he helped organize it in November 2007. He said that the purpose has always been to bring “the world to Salem, 90 minutes of the world,” and that this year’s number of women filmmakers was a happy accident.

“We didn’t set out to bring women filmmakers, but it’s a reflection of the evolution in the film community that leads to a more balanced view of the world,” Van Ness said.

The Salem Film Festival is distinctly invitational and requires no submission fee for the filmmakers. A committee—led by award-winning filmmaker and Festival co-founder Joe Cultrera—chooses films that have done well at other festivals and represent a variety of cultures.

“The selection committee has a high criteria for quality films,” said Van Ness. “True stories told beautifully; some (films) are gripping and you have to wrestle with them, but they all challenge you to grow.”

Freelance director and producer from Chicago, Xan Aranda, 36, will also be showing her film Andrew Bird: Fever Year at this year’s Festival. Indie singer-songwriter Andrew Bird commissioned Aranda to make a concert documentary and she followed him during what became one of his most challenging years of touring. Fever Year premiered October 2011 at the Lincoln Center as part of the New York Film Festival and is confirmed for twenty-five additional screenings at other festivals.

“In film school there could have been a ratio of fifteen guys to one girl and I was the girl,” said Aranda. “An increased number [of woman filmmakers] is exciting, and if the quality of work has improved that’s even better.”

The Festival traditionally presents two awards: an audience award and a juried award voted on by six members of the North Shore film community. But this year, three additional prizes will be presented which are new to the festival: a cinematography award, sponsored by American Cinematographer Magazine; an editing award, and an award given by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ).

Erin Trahan, 37, of Marblehead, serves on the AWFJ jury, and is the editor of The Independent, an online magazine that features independent American films. Trahan said that the AWFJ jury presents its rendition of an Oscar at the end of every year, a prize called the Eda Award, named for the mother of AWFJ founder, Jennifer Merin. (Eda Reiss Merin was a stage, television and film actress for over 60 years.)  This is the first time the Eda Award will be presented at a festival in recognition of one of the women filmmakers.

“Part of what we try to do as a group is to have people pay closer attention to women’s roles in front of the camera,” said Trahan. “One important aspect about the Salem Film Festival is they treat filmmakers with respect, and the North Shore is lucky to have a festival that sees them as artists.”

Aranda agrees. “Choosing to engage in the issue of gender as a woman filmmaker would be a preoccupation for me,” she said. “I would rather command success by the strength of what I do rather than demand it on the basis of my gender. It’s really about the creative process igniting others to creativity.”

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