51fest’s first-ever run took place July 18-21 at the IFC Center. The festival aligned with a heatwave, but nonetheless, people lined up enthusiastically in anticipation. Partnering with Women in the World and IFC Center, 51fest is a festival centered on women filmmakers. According to their mission statement, “Women make up more than half of [the] population, and 51Fest puts women where they belong: at the center of the story.” The festival strives to give all kinds of women— activists, CEOs, artists, peacemakers, everyday women— a voice to share their “remarkable, and often untold” tales.
Read below for FF2 Media’s festival highlights, where every film screened was followed by a moderated Q&A:
Documentary For Sama follows investigative journalist Waad al-Kateab’s live footage of Aleppo. The documentary is narrated to her daughter Sama, attempting to explain why she and her husband Hazma chose to keep her in Aleppo instead of sending her away to safety. The movie is incredibly graphic, and does not shy away from difficult topics— child deaths and lost limbs are only a few of the atrocities that showcase the cost of war with a nation’s civilians. The grief in their faces is uncomfortably intimate; I was on the verge of tears through the entire film because of the subject, but it also took me back into my own experiences with grief. It’s definitely a triggering film, but that’s the point— still, you have been warned.
For Sama is a firsthand account of Assad’s regime, and breaks hearts to show how the world has been ignoring Syria’s pain. It must have been so conflicting for al-Kateab to keep her daughter with the cause, and something others may not understand. But children instill a reason to hope and to keep on fighting, especially in a place where people were being bombed everyday. Having Sama around saved not just Waad and Hazma, but their fellow revolutionaries’ lives, because of so much despair going on around them. The conflicting film stirs up complicated emotions— but it’s so necessary, so intimate, and unfortunately, so real. It shows how despite war, those fighting are still human— how they try to laugh in spite of death, how much they love their country. At the Q&A, the al-Kateabs and Waad’s co-director Edward Watts were present, and gave us insight to their experiences and the importance this film held to them. What went on in Aleppo is still happening today in Idlib; the al-Kateabs use their film to spread awareness and their voice. Everything about this showing was an important experience.
The next film was refreshing after being a witness to so much trauma. Otherhood is a story about the awkward stage in life when children don’t need you anymore. Popular veteran actresses Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette, and Felicity Huffman are upper-class mothers and best friends who decide to drive to New York City to reconnect with their sons. An entertaining, humorous comedy with sincere and heartfelt moments was a welcome shift. It was a really fun movie, if exaggerated and unrealistic, but there’s no harm in that. Among all, I’m glad to see the genre of older women having fun expand. After the film, we were again followed by a Q&A by director, Cindy Chupack, and two producers, Cathy Schulman and Jason Michael Berman, who said that it was incredibly difficult to get a studio to fund the film. Both FF2 Media and 51fest aim to subvert this preconception and bring attention to films by women filmmakers— because we do have a significant audience who want these films.
A Girl from Mogadishu then took us back into reality. The narrative was based on Ifrah Ahmed’s own life, from being a refugee seeking asylum to being the inspiring activist she is today. Ahmed, portrayed by Aja Naomi King, is transported to Ireland by a contact (Barkhad Abdi). After settling herself, Ahmed is re-traumatized when she remembers having gone through female genital mutilation (FGM), and strives to be an advocate to eradicate the practice.
I mostly enjoyed the film, though it was framed in a glorified white-savior way. Ireland offers refugees asylum and the climate right now is probably much better than America’s, but in the dramatization, they made Ifrah Ahmed’s campaign seem like a tool to enhance the Labor Party. Ahmed’s cause is real, but the film made it seem like they were using her for political gain. Which, could very well be true as a mutual agreement, but regardless the white-savior narrative was evident. Despite my qualms, the film was well-made and riveting, and Ifrah Ahmed herself as well as Barkhad Abdi and director Mary McGuckian were at the Q&A. McGuckian’s aim was to show how significant “the power of testimony” was, and Ahmed’s power as she started to speak out.
51fest’s inaugural run had a lot of promise. I felt so honored to see two accomplished revolutionaries in person, especially two women of color. Though female filmmakers have been getting more traction in the film industry (if only a little), it’s still such a predominantly white space. I am a woman, but I am also a person of color. I am thrilled that women continue to make their way into the film industry, but inclusivity should include all.
There was one underlying theme with the films at 51fest that the FF2 Media team saw on Sunday: that it all starts with a conversation. Even the film Otherhood, the comedy an entirely different genre, encourages us to speak up. That first step, those first words— they’re incredibly powerful, and something we shouldn’t take for granted. Again, this notion is one of 51fest’s central missions: to give women a voice for their stories.
I did enjoy all the films at 51fest, though I was both emotionally and physically exhausted by the end. I can only hope that next year, the LIRR won’t have construction that causes two and a half hour weekend commutes. Having a festival led by women filmmakers and about women filmmakers is still a phenomenal feat and I’m excited to see what’s in store for next year’s selection.
© Beatrice Viri (8/6/19) FF2 Media
Photos: For Sama; Hazma and Waad al-Kateab with their daughter Sama; Patricia Arquette, Angela Bassett, and Felicity Huffman in Otherhood
Photo Credits: ITN Production, Netflix, Seamus Murphy for Pembridge Film Productions