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52 Films By Women: The Love Witch (2016)

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By Andrea Thompson

I don't normally write about films I've already reviewed, but there is so much to say and notice about “The Love Witch.” There are many hands that make a film, and I'm generally somewhat hesitant to hand all the credit to one person. In this case though, I'm willing to say that the brilliant way “The Love Witch” is able to provide all the lush aesthetics associated with the most romantic love and deconstruct them at the same time is probably due to Anna Biller. She not only wrote and directed, she's credited on IMDB for the music, film editing, production design, art direction, set decoration, and costume design. This also led me to a rather interesting fun fact: cinematographer M. David Mullen also worked on “Jennifer's Body,” “United States of Tara,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and the pilot of “The Good Wife.”

The movie follows modern day witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson), though you'd hardly know this was the modern world due to its aesthetic, which channels the sexploitation thrillers of the 60s and 70s through Biller's feminist gaze. Elaine has come to a small California town to start over after the death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). Though from the smirk on her face when she muses about “poor Jerry,” she may have had more to do with his demise than the police were able to prove.

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There's also an impossibly beautiful fragility to Elaine that doesn't make it hard for us to sympathize with her. When she muses about the nervous breakdown she suffered after Jerry left her, it's intercut with memories of very patriarchal-looking witchcraft rituals. And if Elaine wasn't enough to mesmerize, wait till you see her apartment in a Victorian home, which is a fantastically over-the-top tribute to witchcraft. There to greet her is Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat prim but warm British woman who befriends Elaine. Or at least thinks she does. Their conversation at the Victorian Tea Room, one of the most beautifully rendered spaces in a film full of them, reveals that Elaine is a woman who is obsessed with love. She isn't about to let anything get in the way of it, much less friendship. When Trish tells Elaine, “You sound like you've been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” she doesn't know the half of it.

As much as Elaine builds her life around men, she doesn't seem to think very highly of them. She routinely describes men as fragile and easily cowed, especially when women assert themselves. “Men are like children,” Elaine tells Trish laughingly. “They're very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.” According to Elaine, you have to give a man his fantasy, and she is determined to do. It's just that in return she expects men to give them hers and satisfy her endless, obsessive desire for love. It doesn't end well for the unfortunate men who happen to cross her path. Drawing them to her is easy, but when her charms (literal and otherwise) cause them to become vulnerable and needy themselves, it repulses her.

As director Anna Biller remarked, Elaine is a character who has been driven mad simply by being a woman. The expectations have crushed her, and she hasn't surmounted them so much as learned to thrive within them, thus reaping the rewards by faithfully recreating herself in the male image and become their ultimate fantasy object. There is a deep rage within her at the disconnect between men who are unable to respect neither the women they are attracted to, or seem to be attracted to those they regard as intelligent. Both Jerry and her father denigrated Elaine's abilities, her mind, and body, with Jerry only showing an interest in her and her pleasure once she lost weight and was considered worthy of love and attention.

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Small wonder, then, that Elaine loses her mind when the man she's put the most faith in, who has played the role of her knight in shining armor, is immune to her charms. Movies about witches are nearly always an examination of female power, and just because a movie examines this with a cast made up mostly of women does not mean it is feminist or even feminine. Biller herself put it pretty well in her blog when she wrote that in order to be feminist, “a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation or destruction of women).” It's also noteworthy that “The Love Witch” passes the Bechdel Test, even if it's not by much. This movie's existence and the acclaim it earned also signifies something else about the greater freedom women have to express themselves. Women seem to feel less of a need to emulate the values, and especially the gaze, of men in order to succeed. Femininity is something women can embrace without feeling degraded, and “The Love Witch” is a promising sign that such a gaze can be as progressive as a more “traditional” one.

Anna Biller will continuing this theme in her upcoming film, which is inspired by the dark fairy tale Bluebeard, wherein a woman finds she is married to a murderous monster. Of course it'll be from a female perspective and be inspired by retro woman in peril films of the 30s-60s. If that sounds tantalizing, check out more on her blog here.

On International Women's Day, A Few Thoughts On How Far I've Come, And How Far I Still Have To Go

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It's International Women's Day, so it's a good time to reflect on how the Film Girl Film Festival has grown over the years. Granted, this is only my third year, but still.

First off? Let's just say ignorance is bliss. Generally, I'm not a huge fan of not knowing what's coming, but I'm kind of glad I didn't know just how much I was going to go through that first time. I had almost no guidance. I started the film festival myself, with no organizational backing. To comprehend just what I'd gotten myself into (and the times I wondered that was more than I could count), consider I had no experience in putting on such a massive event like this, and I also had no staff. Sure, I had plenty of people who were willing to help, especially once they saw I was serious. But mostly, it was just me writing press releases and keeping the media informed, watching and choosing the films, determining the schedule, getting sponsors, raising money, building and updating the website, finding the location, arranging the opening night party festivities, coordinating volunteers, running the festival equipment during the fest itself, and finally, setting up and taking everything down.

Needless to say, by the time it was all over, I needed a day off to lie around on the couch, which I happily took. Actually, more than one. It wasn't too hard, since the day job I had, or rather, stayed stuck in for years let me go about a month or two before the fest. Why? Because I'd gotten a 94.91 instead of a 95 on an assessment after being there for...well, years. I truly wish I could say I'd left rather than getting fired, like so many others had. But when I walked out, I felt freed rather than bitter. It may not have been the best timing, but it felt like I was finally making the necessary changes.

I hope all this makes it easier to understand just why I wasn't sure I wanted to put on the festival again. Just the thought of going through everything again exhausted me. But then the 2016 election happened. And that decided things. Sure, the fest was a relatively small thing, but I felt like I needed to do it again. This would be my own way of saying that not only would I not shut up, I'd do my part to make sure other women were heard too. Once I committed to it, things happened quickly. I found that new problems quickly sprang up to replace the old, but for once I was happy to have them. When your issues are due to growth, that's a lot easier to handle.

The big thing was I met the two women who would work with me. One was Crystal Schreiner, who would help me build the Film Girl Film Festival into not just an event, but a brand, with a new site and logo. The other was Kenlei, who would help me fundraise and find new sponsors. Interestingly enough, I met them both at the coffee shop I would go to, the Pleasant Kafe. It's since changed owners, but thankfully it's still there. Local coffee shops really are the best for all purposes, including networking.

But the biggest change came from being awarded a grant from the Women's Fund of Greater Milwaukee. Hell, I didn't even apply for it. Money changes things, and having spare cash that I could use to spend on the fest changed everything. Suddenly, my profile was bigger, people were taking me more seriously, and I learned even more about how to make best use of funds. (Like paying Crystal and Kenlei, although that was more of a given.) And it had results. For my second year, I learned about how to build a brand, give the festival a higher profile, and get even more people to attend.

So for 2018, there was never even a question of whether I would do it again. For the third year, I changed the name to the Film Girl Film Festival, and decided to try and make it an official nonprofit. I set up a GoFundMe, opened the fest for submissions, and made the move to Chicago (don't worry, fest is still staying in Milwaukee!) for more professional opportunities. To get a sense of just how much things have progressed in just a few years, here's the essay I wrote after my first year, with my old logo: https://www.theyoungfolks.com/review/85918/six-things-i-learned-from-starting-a-film-festival/. But if you wanna skip the read, here's the logo from my first year:

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For the second year, here's my new logo:

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And the current one:

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So what comes next? I'm still in uncharted territory, but I'm happy to say at the very least, a really great event celebrating women in film.

The Film Girl Film Festival will occur from Oct. 12-14 at the Underground Collaborative in Milwaukee, WI. To donate to the fest, click here. To submit, click here.