THROUGH JULIA TONG
22 OCTOBER 2021
As the lights go down in the expansive Altschul 202 auditorium, a group of impatient students settle into padded, red-rimmed seats and turn their gaze to the screen. There, as part of the Barnard Sloate Media Center feminist film series, they watch captivating women’s stories unfold on screen: a group of women advocates for the rights of working women who have suffered radiation poisoning from their homes. factory work; a hollywood star invents a radio signal which has become the foundation of bluetooth innovation.
These free screenings allow students to access acclaimed films and spark discussion around feminism in cinema. This year’s series focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math as part of Barnard’s Year of the Science. The five films presented – “Radium Girls”, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”, “The House of Sand” and “Hidden Figures” – cover documentaries and feature films, time periods and countries. Each film demonstrates the crucial involvement of women in STEM fields, traditionally dominated by men.
âI thought it would be interesting to explore movies that touch on STEM and STEAM themes, but still match those stimulating movie ideas that are available for an audience to enjoy and [examine] how can these two worlds of science and technology intersect with the world of cinema, âsaid Rachel James, Associate Director of Sloate Media Center.
James founded the feminist film series in 2018 to encourage students to engage in films screened through discussion and criticism. The series highlights the diversity of feminist cinema through biannual themes that include âResistance and Resilienceâ, âMusic in Cinemaâ, âDocumentaryâ and âAnimationâ. Past highlights include a panel with the director and editor of Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp”; a question-and-answer session with Channing Godfrey Peoples, director of the critically acclaimed film “Miss Juneteenth”; and a conversation with director Sandi Tan after the screening of her documentary “Shirkers”.
When programming the films in the series, James took two major factors into account in fulfilling the feminist film series‘ mandate to show diverse and female-focused films. One was to choose a variety of films to screen, ensuring that the selections were not limited to American and English language films and were not dominated by male directors. The other main consideration was to feature films with female protagonists, which was especially important to James when looking for STEM-themed films to screen this year.
âThere are a lot of movies that are biopics of white male scientists, and I was like, ‘This just doesn’t fit the bill. People can get it anywhere, âJames said. âSo I was really interested in showing movies thatâ¦ tell the story of people who aren’t often highlighted. “
James was particularly excited about the screening of two films featuring historic women involved in important STEM innovations: “Bombshell”, a documentary about inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr, and “Hidden Figures”, the true story of three black women who broke barriers as NASA mathematicians and helped launch astronaut John Glenn into space.
âBoth of these films feature characters who are truly at the forefront of creating these scientific and technological breakthroughs,â James said. “I like the idea of ââhighlighting stories that center women in those spaces where they are not traditionally part of the space.”
In addition to looking for inspiring and empowering films, James stressed the importance of choosing empowering films that inspire critical questioning about what a feminist film is: what defines feminist cinema? Can a film directed by a man be feminist? Conversely, does a director automatically make a feminist film?
Screenings of the feminist film series that spoke to people, both positively and negatively, sparked some exciting conversations around these crucial questions. A screening of the animated comedy “Sita Sings the Blues”, for example, sparked heated discussion among attendees. Viewers feared the film would fail the Bechdel test, which requires two female characters to talk to each other about something other than a man, despite the film’s female protagonist.
The lively conversation that followed “Sita Sings the Blues” spoke of the success of James’ original motivations: to bring together students interested in feminism and filmmaking. When she was younger, the concept of feminism was particularly controversial. It was a taboo that others refused to understand or accept.
“When I was younger people would call [feminism] the F-word, “James recalls.” And so I loved the idea of ââtalking about feminism with students younger than me, but also sharing movies and talking about movies, just for fun. “
James’ main goal for the future of the feminist film series is simple: to continue to provide a space for students to engage in watching and engaging in feminist films. She’s already excited about the next semester’s theme, sci-fi movies, which promises to be a more âfreeâ and creative approach to the Year of Science. Above all, James hopes the feminist film series will continue to feature works that introduce viewers to lesser-known aspects of history and issues, while inspiring them to challenge social norms.
“I like cinema that exposes you to characters that you might not know or feel comfortable with, and that tells stories that often aren’t told or that present issues that you didn’t know and that really make an audience member leave the theater and go get something, âJames said. “Or at the very least, subconsciously having a new sense of empathy for someone who is unlike each other.”
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