Women of Cinefamily

Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Ye Rin Mok

April 10 2016

There is a poetic dichotomy in the experience of cinema. The lone audience member of a Tuesday morning matinee and the many ravenous fans awaiting the premiere of an intergalactic space opera are equally resigned to the experience of film. A dim room and a bright screen work in tandem to draw the focus toward one of humanity’s oldest impulses, storytelling.

Within the space of the theater, an audience makes an unspoken pact to the filmmaker to dedicate a certain number of hours of their time and attention to this uniquely direct art form. An experience at once global and deeply personal, and it is the directness of the messaging that places a burden onto the shoulders of the film maker. A book can be read on the train home from work, a painting can be viewed at a glance, but a film requires dedicated focus and time to be experienced.

This directness has sowed film deeply in our cultural landscape. In the United States alone there are over 40,000 theaters – and in these dark rooms cinephiles and the artistically phobic meld together in crowds large and small. Together in theaters, the familiar plot lines and archetypes of cinema become part of our shared cultural shorthand. It always rains when we are sad, there is a baguette in every grocery bag, and the hero always gets the girl. These cliches also tend to reinforce and perpetuate some of the more unseemly impulses of the culture which they hope to reflect – violence, racism, xenophobia, sexism. These unseemly subjects have been a concern of the creators and consumers of film for as long as image has been married with celluloid, but their efforts are almost always trumped by deeply ingrained societal pressures that brand efforts to reflect a more full human experience as ‘other’.
There are, as ever, efforts against the tide. Inside the recently restored Silent Movie Theater off the storied Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, meets a group by the name Women of Cinefamily. The group was founded under the umbrella of Cinefamily, a nonprofit founded in 2007 by brothers Dan and Sammy Harkham along with their friend Hadrian Belove, as a gathering place for lovers of film. By bringing together women involved in all aspects of film making, and screening some of the most accomplished films made by and about women, Women of Cinefamily strives to broaden the definition of Women’s Film.

We dropped in on Women of Cinefamily’s most recent meeting, and chatted with the five women running one of Los Angeles’ best programed film groups about their mission for movies.

Shall we begin with introductions?

KJ: I was recently hired on as the Director of Programming here at the Cinefamily, a non-profit cinematheque based in Los Angeles. Before joining the theater, I ran digital content strategy and production for the International Documentary Association and was a part of the digital content team at the Tribeca Film Festival. Outside of my work here at the theater, I produce video and film for independent musicians, filmmakers and artists. Back in 2010 I locked down a Master of Arts in Media Studies and Film from The New School, where my focus was on representations of gender and sexuality in popular culture.

Katharine: I’m a writer/director originally from Santa Barbara, CA. My first feature film I co-wrote, The Automatic Hate, premiered at SXSW last year and is currently out in theaters. I went to Columbia University’s graduate film program in New York. My stepfather was an art dealer in New York, and I now manage his charitable foundation, The Stephen and Carla Hahn Foundation, dedicated to promoting the arts.

Kate: I am an assistant programmer at Cinefamily, a job I ended up with through a slightly indirect path. I was always casually interested in film, but in college I studied literature and photography, convinced that those mediums were more alluring to me. That is, until I found films that capitalized on and married my interests in image and language – specifically experimental and essay films.

Alia: I was born and raised in Topanga Canyon, California and I work as an artist in Los Angeles. My work is very colorful and dreamy, a technicolor trip into wonderland. I love working in a lot of different mediums – painting, collage, film, sculpture, animation. Some of my past projects include an animated short for Diane Von Furstenberg X Andy Warhol’s collection, custom painted Steinway piano for Katy Perry, set design for Father John Misty & Anna Sui. I’m also the art director at Cinespia’s Hollywood Forever movie screenings.

Michelle: Born and raised in LA, I am the social media manager at Cinefamily, and also help develop the Band & A Movie shows. 

Can you describe what Women of Cinefamily is?

Katharine: The Women of Cinefamily is a collection of women involved with the theater in various aspects, whose focus is to screen and promote the work of female filmmakers, and to provide a gathering point for female filmmakers in Los Angeles.

KJ: I would second Katharine’s comments, and add only that we aim to broaden the playing field in the exhibition world as well. Women need to have just as much of a hand in the programming of the films that go before an audience to ensure representation across the board. Basically, we’re demanding a seat at the table.

I imagine that Women of Cinefamily is the result of more than one long conversation around the dinner table, what was it that pushed you to action?

Katharine: [Cinefamily’s executive director] Hadrian Belove has been really great about wanting a voice within the organization representing women. He gathered together a great group of ladies and gave us a lot of encouragement and time slots for our own programming.

Alia: Women of Cinefamily started as a Sunday get together of amazing ladies on the beautiful spanish patio at Cinefamily. Just having women at the reception changed the entire environment. We had some really special sneak peeks with Jenny Slate for Obvious Child and Brie Larson for Room. There have been so many incredible, talented women that have helped make Cinefamily the place it is today.

KJ: At the start of 2016, one of the biggest topics permeating the conversation around filmmaking was that of diversity. It seemed like every day, a new article was being circulated online about the importance of representation across gender, sexuality and race. I think that really lit a fire under all of us to make the goals of Women of Cinefamily — to showcase more films by women, about women, and for women — a new priority in the new year.   

Kate: The ratio of male to female memberships at Cinefamily is not a balanced one. And beyond the data, to put it simply, this imbalance is felt. As the number of women on staff at Cinefamily has grown recently, it has felt like an opportune moment to create space for female curators and filmmakers.    

Is there a particular message you are hoping to project through the selection of films that you screen?

Kate: Rather than articulate a particular message, our goal is to broaden any notion of “Women’s film,” striving to showcase the complex and multifaceted contributions women have made. Political precarity has shaped the history of women’s contributions to cinema, but nonetheless, these contributions have been expressive, compelling, and ultimately, present. 

Katharine: Women make good movies. Quality movies. Masterful movies. Not just female issue films. And they have been for sometime. I want to see those words so often thrown around describing men’s work, a genius, or a master, and see it applied to women as well, and deservingly so. Cinefamily’s brand is its excellent taste in programming. You know everything that comes through here will be quality. Cinefamily is also a meeting point, a bridge between filmmakers, audiences, and those in the corporate studio system. I want to bring more women into the theater so that it can have real effect on the industry. I want Cinefamily to be an alternate place where female executives can find female talent, even if it isn’t being allowed up through the pipeline.

So far, what would you point to as being the most rewarding event the group has put on?

KJ: The first event I was attached to was the sneak peek of Mustang back in January of this year. I ran into Hadrian at AFI Fest after seeing the film and was so excited about the film, I was practically screaming at him about it. We brought it into the theater and attached it to the Women of Cinefamily banner, complete with a screening and an afterparty with Turkish delights and Turkish coffee out on our beautiful back patio. I invited twenty of my closest friends, ranging from my photographer sister to a female playwright to a lady radio producer and a male standup comedian. Each of them singled me out after the screening to share how supremely affected they were by the film, and the overwhelming sense of inclusiveness they felt in that theater. It was a magical night.

Katharine: I was particularly psyched about the our Mustang screening. We identified it early before it was nominated for an Oscar. The message of the film is so current, and so strong. It really moved me, and everyone else watching it. I personally have a lot of friends who were connected to that film. It really felt like a community coming together. I love when that happens naturally. The web around Cinefamily which reaches out into the real world of filmmaking is growing stronger and stronger. The same happened with White Girl. Alia found that film at Sundance, and the director was a fellow Columbia grad. A lot of my old classmates came out to support her when we screened it.

Alia: One of my favorite events was a dress up for Picnic at Hanging Rock. Everyone came in beautiful white victorian dresses and the tables were covered in daisies and we had a perfect St. Valentine’s cake. We watched the film and then all got together out back and took a “school photo”. I like when you can create an environment where the movie comes to life.

Do you remember the first film that spoke to you, that felt like it was yours?

Katharine: This answer for me is always Chinatown. The noir aspect in Southern California. I love those genre pieces, with great story, set in this world that I grew up in and identify with. I fantasize about living in LA in the 1940’s. Film paradise with no traffic. Cutter’s Way is another, set in Santa Barbara.

Kate: I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with a film so quickly and completely as I did when I first saw Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But the truly honest answer to this question is probably The Fox and the Hound.

Alia: Disney’s Fantasia, my younger sister and I would create elaborate costumes and dance on top of all the furniture in our house while we watched it over and over.

Michelle: Paper Moon. Still my favorite film of all time. When I was younger i imagined that it was about me and my dad.

KJ: To bounce off of Michelle’s selection, I’ve never felt that a film so completely understood my sense of humor as when I first watched What’s Up, Doc? with my family. But it I go back to pre-adolescence, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite film as a toddler. My mom tells me I would reenact scenes alone in my bedroom. As a teenager, I found an immediate fashion icon in Little Edie when I first saw Grey Gardens

Who do you point to when introducing the topic to someone largely ignorant to the significant contributions women have made to the development of the medium?

KJ: Speaking of The Wizard of Oz, most people are completely oblivious to the fact many early film editors were women. “Cutters” like Margaret Booth worked by hand, were employed largely by studios as far back as the 1910’s, and for the most part went uncredited. Jump forward to the 1960’s, when filmmakers like Storm de Hirsch were pushing the medium in new directions through unique processes that would create psychedelic experimental works at times rivaling those of their male counterparts.

Kate: I would point to the significant and pioneering contributions to experimental film by Maya Deren, Peggy Ahwesh, Su Freidrich, and Carolee Schneemann, among others. I would also mention the monumental careers of auteurs like Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman.

Katharine: I like to point out how smart Kathryn Bigelow was to make action movies to break into the studio system. Not be relegated to making a certain type of film just because she was a woman. I like to point out what truly artistic films Lucrecia Martel and Lynne Ramsay make. They’re filmmakers who invent their very own film language.

Which contemporary films and filmmakers can you not stop raving about?

Katharine: Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s The Tribe, Julio Hernández Cordón’s Te Prometo Anarchia, the Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What, Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul.

KJ: Last year I was totally blown away by Mustang and Disorder, two films written (and in the case of the latter, directed) by Alice Winocour. The two films could not be more disparate in tone, characters or story. Winocour really proves the capacity of a great writer, no matter her gender, to churn out riveting, multifaceted material. I also have my eye out for Kirsten Johnson, whose documentary Cameraperson functions as a memoir of the unseen woman behind the lens. It’s a fresh take on an essay film that’s delicate, unobtrusive, and deeply personal. I’m also a total sucker for Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, whose Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm both gave me goosebumps for very different reasons.      

Kate: In the last few months, I’ve enjoyed recent films by the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What), Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl – which we screened at a Women of Cinefamily event last month, and Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun.

Michelle: Damián Szifron, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and Elizabeth Wood.

Alia: I really fell in love with Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl last year. I had never seen anyone get it so right before. Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang was so heartbreaking and important. I also adore Crystal Moselle who made Wolfpack.

One last thing – let’s say it’s Sunday evening, and you’re settling in to enjoy the last hours of your weekend snuggled up on the sofa watching a movie. What do you put on?

Katharine: Ha, those hours have gone to reading books these days. I’m a narrative person. It’s my great joy. I think I prioritize narrative in my films because I come from a literature background. There’s so much more complexity to narrative in novels. And people aren’t reading them as much anymore. I think that’s part of the reason why narrative in film is suffering. Right now I’m reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Don DeLillo Underworld, and a fun little book A Night of Serious Drinking by the French surrealist author René Daumal.

Michelle: Sleeper and Bananas are my go-tos.

Alia: We just showed Desperately Seeking Susan with director Susan Seidelman and Rosanna Arquette in person. I thought it would be fun to create jackets inspired by the movie and auction them.

Kate: Whatever non-work related viewing I’m trying to squeeze into my schedule – lately it’s been the films of Pedro Almodóvar, Chantal Akerman, and Ross McElwee.

KJ: I’ll usually look backward to try and fill in any blind spots I might have in an auteur’s filmography. This Sunday will be spent trying to finish Fellini’s last decade of filmmaking with City of Women, And the Ship Sails On, and Fred and Ginger. I’m also actively working on a pre-Code series, and have been really indulging in the best of Barbara Stanwyck from the early ‘30s. (Spoiler alert for Cinefamily’s summer programming!) 

You can find more information, including upcoming programing and events, by following Women of Cinefamily on Twitter or Instagram.

Ye Rin Mok is a photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Apartemento, T Magazine, Monocle and more. You can find her work online.