Akron has a new pro-women, pro-diversity film festival that is worth checking out.
The inaugural Bechdel Film Fest will run May 29 through June 2 at the Nightlight Cinema and other downtown locations.
Features and short films will mix with filmmaker talks, live performances and several happy hours. The theme: Celebrate women, people of color and the LGBTQ community, often overlooked in motion pictures.
It is the brainchild of Brit Charek.
“I’m really excited. It’s been a lot of fun working with all of these different filmmakers,” Charek said. “We have about 20 to 25 filmmakers coming into town and, when you include the shorts, we will be showing more than 50 films.”
Feature films will include “Woman at War,” “Mary Goes Round,” "Fattitude," and “Angie Haze: Embracing Each Part of You,” a documentary about the Akron singer-songwriter.
Before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements exploded, Charek received a Knight Arts Challenge grant of $48,000 for the festival in December 2017. She raised additional funds through a Kickstarter campaign and has since partnered with several sponsors. The festival team includes project manager Joanna Wilson and screening committee chair Jared McGrath.
In addition to the Nightlight, screenings and events will take place at the Akron Art Museum, Akron-Summit County Public Library, UA’s Myers School of Art, the Northside Courtyard hotel and Jilly’s Music Room. Rubber City Theatre and the Ohio Shakespeare Festival are also hosting related, female-centric events. For a complete schedule, go to www.bechdelfilmfest.com.
The festival is named in honor of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which asks if a film passes three basic requirements: 1.) It has at least two female characters. 2.) They are both named. 3.) They talk to each other about something besides a man. Thousands of films fail the test.
It was created in 1985 by artist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, in Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” It has since become a benchmark for rating gender inequality in films and fiction in general.
Other festivals in the U.S. and abroad have adopted the name — there’s a Bechdel Festival coming up in Houston in October — though Bechdel herself is not affiliated with the events.
“Since these inequality issues have been brought to the forefront, there has been some progress in terms of representation,” Charek said. “But it would still be really great to see more women behind the camera, and making more of the decisions.”
Charek, who teaches English at Cloverleaf High School and lives in Medina with her husband and two sons, is the former vice president of PechaKucha Akron and spent several years as executive director of Crafty Mart. She said she wanted to launch the festival in order to “start a conversation about gender equality. Having that conversation is important. I want my kids to value all people.”
The May 29 opening date was targeted long ago, as Charek wanted to pay tribute to the anniversary of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which was delivered in Akron on May 29, 1851.
“Sojourner Speaks, A One Woman Play,” will be presented as part of the festival for free at 6 p.m. May 29 at Akron's Main Library.
Charek said the lineup will include “quirky and weird films, but also some great family films” (free showings of “The Lego Movie 2” and “A League of Their Own” for example).
In addition to newer features and short films, the fest will also offer a few retro screenings.
“We are showing the 20th anniversary of ‘But I’m a Cheerleader,’ directed by Jamie Babbit, who is a Northeast Ohio native.” The comedy from 1999 is about a teenage girl who gets sent to “Rehab Camp” because her parents suspect her of being a lesbian.
“I’m curious to see how young people will look at this film,” Charek said. “This was one of the first mainstream films to look at these LGBT issues.”
“We are also showing the classic feminist film ‘Daughters of the Dust,’ with women of color sharing these really amazing stories,” Charek said.
When writer-director Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” hit theaters in 1991, it was the first feature film by an African-American woman to be released theatrically in the United States.
Director Maxine Trump (no relation to the other Trump) will be in town to speak about her movie, ‘‘To Kid or Not to Kid,’’ an intimate film that hopes to dispel myths about women who choose not to have children.
“You get right up close and personal with Maxine and her husband,” Charek said, “as they try to make the decision about having kids.”
As a separate, kickoff event for the festival, the Nightlight is hosting a two-hour social starting at 5 p.m. May 28, which will be followed by a screening of the documentary “This Changes Everything” at 7:30.
Directed by Tom Donahue, the film presents a fascinating, and infuriating, look at the hurdles faced by women for decades in the film industry.
An all-star array of women are interviewed, including Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Geena Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Taraji P. Henson, Natalie Portman, Lena Dunham, Marisa Tomei, Zoe Saldana and Cate Blanchett.
It’s not a film about sexual harassment; it’s a film about sexual exclusion.
Studies by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media revealed that in 2018, of the top 250 domestic movie releases, 92 percent were directed by men. Of the 101 top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to 2005, 72 percent of all speaking roles were male, and four out of five narrators were male.
“This documentary is everything the festival is going to be talking about,” said Brittany Dobish, the Nightlight’s artistic director.
“When I saw it in the [Cleveland International Film Festival], even though I knew a lot about the statistics, seeing women being so strong and moving this conversation to a broader spectrum was inspiring. I was relating to young women all over the place who are seeing themselves, or not seeing themselves, on screen.”
That night will mark the Akron premiere of “This Changes Everything,” which is slated for a wider release in August.
Dobish hopes attendance is strong enough to provoke future Bechdel Fests.
“We hope we can do it again and make it an annual event,” she said. “Not just for us, but for the city of Akron.”
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.