Women X Film Festival 2021: The Roundup

An image taken by the author of the Rianne Pictures team at the Women X Awards ceremony. The 13 women are all huddled in a group posing for photos in an auditorium, a screen is behind them.
Photo by Chloe Leeson

Screen Queens were once again a partner of the fantastic Rianne Pictures’ Women X Film Festival, a short film festival that celebrates the work of women and non-binary filmmakers alongside panels, workshops and live podcasts.

The festival was enjoying its 2nd year of programming this year and we were so lucky to be able to attend the festival in venue this year at The Arc, Stockton-on-Tees (coincidentally where I live) from September 2nd to the 4th, as well as access the films and events digitally too.

The three days were an uplifting, positive and welcoming environment that prioritised accessibility and comfort with plenty of time for networking and relaxing in between screenings. Caris Rianne and her wonderful team have really created something special with this festival and nurtured the film scene in an area of the UK that is routinely deprived of cinema events, screenings and festivals. The article that follows is a roundup of the festival, some more review highlights and an interview will be written by Kelsie Dickinson shortly, so watch this space!

Thursday

A still from short experimental film 'Ordo X:I'. Two women are seated on a period cream plush sofa, in a dated living room setting. A young Asian woman sits on the right in a pink dress and headband, a young Black woman sits on the right in a full length pink gown.
Ordo X:I courtesy of Rianne Pictures

Thursday started out with the strand ‘Love is a Losing Game’, I sadly was only able to catch the first film Road Kill before I had to nip out to collect Kelsie from the train station. Love is a Losing Game centred on films around relationships, heartbreak and all the awkward parts in between. Road Kill was a particularly sweet LGBTQ+ drama, directed by Aliza Brugger, about a lonely woman who clears dead animals from the roadside. In an unexpected meet-cute, Tillie ends up meeting a woman who has broken down on the side of the road, and they spend a touching evening together. The film was tender without ever being over-dramatic, and it was nice to see an LGBTQ+ story that wasn’t centred on teenagers/20 somethings.

The Work Well, Feel Well discussion followed with Rianne Pictures founder Caris Rianne and mental health first aider and actress/singer Jessica Daley. Jessica was a part of last year’s Work Well, Feel Well panel and it was fantastic to see her back with Caris — as previous collaborators the pair have a great chemistry. Jessica is a wildly good public speaker and motivator and it is joyous to see she hasn’t lost her Teesside accent down in London. The panel covered mental health in the film industry, burnout and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on life as freelancers and creatives. It was an intimate panel held inside one of the Arc’s workshop rooms and the small size made it feel incredibly relaxed, personal and just like a chat with friends.

Up next was the experimental strand ‘Conversation Starters’ which was largely a mixture of dance films, documentary and animation. Hima, a documentary about a turtle conservationist in Lebanon, was a particular standout. It followed the activism of Mona, who lived through many conflicts in her country, but has always been able to retain her patch of beach as a conservation site for turtles to some to lay their eggs, it was incredibly touching and feels particularly poignant this year as the climate crisis worsens.

Ordo X:I tackled another particularly relevant topic of racial injustice and profiling. The arty documentary by Cilla Lafayette almost reads like a fashion campaign as an ethnically diverse group of young people monologue narration as the camera sweeps over them dancing, posing and lounging in editorial looks as they discuss their experiences of racism.

Quick Fix was another favourite within the in-venue screenings. The film is a candy pop Instagram dream directed by Annie Harmeston and focuses on a retro-styled blonde lady using a new app on her phone that will provide a ‘quick fix’ to all her problems. The solutions are presented to her on a conveyor belt in a quirky imagining of the ways we engage with social media. In a Q&A, Annie said that what was presented at Women X was actually only half the film, the film is made to be interactive with two parallel female consumers using the ‘quick fix’ app at the same time, you can view the interactive version of the film here.

Afterwards was the Rianne Pictures Writing Workshop which Kelsie and myself thoroughly enjoyed. Print out images were given to each table of attendees and Caris led the session going through each image as we had to come up with a story surrounding said image, each image was developed at deeper levels as the session went on and then people were asked to volunteer their stories. It was a fun ideas generation task and it is sessions like this that really set Women X apart from the rest, the festival definitely encourages a culture that nurtures aspiring filmmakers with pro-active workshops — Rianne Pictures’ RP:Evolve mentorship programme enjoyed its first year in 2021— and support. The festival is not only a place for film screening but an active participant in the development and encouragement of new talent.

The final strand of Thursday was ‘Selfhood Stories’, a mixed selection of narrative and documentary work that focused on vulnerable stories of identity. This was one of the strongest strands of the festival and showed such a diverse mix of stories from the powerful poetry of Not Your Erotic that dealt with navigating the dating world as a Filipino-American, oppressive traditionalism that tries o squash queer identities in Pure, Glutened shows one woman’s story of adjusting to life as a coeliac and Eyes Down is a touching, minimal dialogue scene of one transwoman’s experience on a bus. My particular favourites of the strand were Teddy and Smile for the Camera.

Teddy, a Doc Martens funded short film from Milda Baginskaite, was honestly made for me. The short follows a young immigrant woman who struggles to fit into her new school and during a class project she discovers the subcultural stylings of Teddy girls, deciding to adopt their aesthetic to one-up her male dominated classroom. Its a gorgeous piece of work full of heart and tenderness.

Smile for the Camera is a documentary from Lucy Graham that focuses on her mum, Emma, and a condition she’s had since birth that prevents her from moving any muscles in her face. The emotional balancing act of Emma’s story, and the arc of Lucy and Emma’s relationship contrasted with Emma’s deadpan humour is absolutely pitch perfect.

Friday

A still from short film 'Yellowbird'. A young woman and her father are sat at opposite ends of the dinner table. It is a grim scene, cloaked in shadows and misery, the father looks stern and the daughter uncomfortable.
Yellowbird: courtesy of Rianne Pictures

Friday morning was kicked off with the strand ‘A Mother’s Love’, and a live podcast on motherhood on screen, which was especially important for Caris Rianne as she is currently expecting! The strand covered ancestry, heritage, disability, death, miscarriage and infertility with 5 fiction films and 3 documentaries.

Particular highlights for me were If Only You Knew, a pastel coloured mental journey of one woman’s experience of miscarriage, and Motherhood, a short documentary about one woman’s increasing worry for her severely disabled son’s future. Directed by Crystal Leaity, Motherhood presented a really honest view on being a parent to a severely disabled child, the single mum in question wasn’t martyring herself, she wasn’t in denial about the complications, and she respected her son’s need for privacy, independence and time away from his mother. She was an absolutely inspiring character and I only wish the documentary had been longer.

Scrum was both mine and Kelsie’s favourite film from this strand (reduced Kelsie to tears and had her texting her mum in the toilets afterwards). It was a true representation of Northern, working class mams and how this particular mother — a dolled up lady looking like a Coronation Street cast member — struggled with her young daughter’s love of rugby. Kate Graham’s direction was just gorgeous, it was a scene I recognise so well (coming from a rugby-loving, working class, northern family) and Graham perfectly captured the dreariness of a Northern town and the juxtaposition of the glamourous ladies within them.

The ‘Motherhood on Screen’ live podcast was a whistle-stop tour through some of the most iconic movie mums and discussed whether or not their representations were accurate to real life as well as the challenges that mothers face when working in the film industry. The latter was the most interesting part of the podcast and definitely shed a light on a little-discussed topic of working mums in the film industry. At times the discussions of filmic representations of mothers remained mainly white and middle class and it really would have been fantastic to see some LGBTQ+ representation in the films chosen for this particular topic.

‘Turn the Big Light on’ was the horror strand at this years festival and obviously particularly exciting for this horror critic. Handjob was an obscure black comedy about a hand model who injures her moneymaker, Ju-Bin was an unsettling school-set film about one jealous teenager, Deep Meaningful Conversation sees two friends spend a mysterious evening by a local pond and I Should Have Run uses poetry and black and white cinematography to recount one woman’s walk home and a shadow she sees on the way.

My favourite film of the entire festival, however, was Yellowbird, Lucy Chappell’s atmospheric British horror takes place on a remote and chilly highland farm where a young woman (played by Chappell) and her father are struggling to make ends meet on their farmstead, resorting to desperate measures. Their relationship is fraught and tense, the mood is deeply unsettling and its undisclosed ending made for a great conversation starter. I was on the judging panel for this strand so I had seen the film once before the in-person screening and it was only richer on a second watch. Chappell is absolutely what British horror is screaming out for, an astoundingly good debut short film that I would pay insane money to see made into a feature. We were able to have a wonderful talk with Lucy after the festival awards party (also great to see she attended the festival in-person as a patron too!) and she was so passionate and humble and I truly cannot wait to see what she does next. Kelsie will be publishing an interview with Lucy on Screen Queens in the coming days so watch this space!

Charlotte Little’s ‘Accessibility in Cinema’ talk was just another marker for what an absolute icon she is. As an Accessibility consultant, Charlotte has previously assisted Screen Queens in putting in place a set of accessibility guidelines and we are so grateful to her and have been supporting her vital work and Twitter rants ever since. Her talk was pre-recorded with Caris and screened in the venue so that subtitles could be provided. Charlotte used many personal anecdotes — largely her love for A Quiet Place — to illustrate her activism and how it has created very real policy change and guidance, especially as it relates to cinema and festival accessibility. The talk was racked with sweet moments of Charlotte’s pride at what she’s achieved, her love of the cinema as well as direct calls to action to the audience to consider what they can do to be accessible to all audiences as filmmakers, critics and viewers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the final strand of Friday, ‘Working 9 to 5’ because I was going to see Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, sorry RP!

Saturday

A still from short film 'Public Enemy'. A schoolgirl is seen in an off-license wearing a pink bunny-eared balaclava, holding a hockey stick as if it were a gun,
Public Enemy: courtesy of Rianne Pictures

The final day of Women X Festival 2021 kicked off with the ‘Thicker than Water’ strand, a collection of 7 films (4 fiction, 2 documentary and 1 animation) on the themes of family. We were lucky enough to have director of One Piece of the Puzzle, René Lorraine, in attendance in-venue for a Q&A after the strand, talking about her brother Malaika and how he has been dealing with his autism and how his family is watching his grown. René was so lovely and we got to chat with her later on in the day and learned she had travelled up from London on the nightbus, landing in the early hours of Saturday morning and didn’t leave until the midnight bus that evening, pure dedication!

My favourite short from ‘Thicker than Water’ was Bambirak, a story about a young Afghan immigrant who comes to the UK with her father and struggles to get used to the new culture, as well as her dad struggling with his new job. I’ve always been very taken by stories about immigration and adoption of new cultures ever since I saw Dheephan in 2015 and this was no exception, director Zamarin Wahdat really perfectly captures the child’s perspective of this story and how confusing it must be as a child, who doesn’t yet know the world entirely, to have to relearn societal expectations of a new country.

Another live podcast, ‘Are Women Actually Funny?’ was up next and the Not Having it All podcasters were joined by two comediennes from Scotland, Sarah Grant and Katrina Allen (whose film Coming of Age screened later in the ‘Desperate Measures’ strand), who also attended Women X in the virtual 2020 programme. Now, these two ladies are hilarious (the accents obviously making everything better too), just completely no-nonsense, straight-up telling it how it is. This podcast felt particularly relaxed and chatty and the variety of women on the panel really fetched some diverse points of reference and some good giggles.

As previously mentioned ‘Desperate Measures’ was next in the afternoon and this comedy strand was definitely one of the absolute highlights of the festival as a whole. I cannot express to you enough just how much laughter was in the room for the strands first film The Gospel According to Gail, which starred Rocks breakout star Bukky Bakray as an unsuspecting learner driver dealing with her driving instructor Gail. Gail is a loudmouth, brash and very, very British lady who doesn’t exactly follow the rules of the road and this comedy is absolutely pitch perfect, not a single beat was missed. As the first film of the strand it was hard for some of the other films to reach Gail’s heights but top efforts were put in from Coming of Age‘s millennia-spanning sex advice, Sour‘s darkly funny pandemic short about a man-eating Sourdough starter and ultra-funny animated film, Mothboy, about a young moth going through puberty and dealing with his attraction to lights (it was film’s like this that make you realise some filmmakers truly are unhinged).

‘You and I’ was Women X’s final strand for 2021 and was all about relationships, spanning romantic, platonic and familial. There was 2 documentaries, 2 animation and 5 fiction short films in this strand. Personally, this strand didn’t have as many films that strongly resonated with me as the previous strands, but my favourites were Blue Corridor 15, about a teenage girl who starts doing her classmates hair for some extra cash, and Pelicans, a dark comedy about a group of teenagers who are mourning the loss of their friend, and the different things each teen needs to do to work through that grief.

The Women X Festival 2021 Awards Ceremony finished up the festival, in-venue we were all seated at lovely pink tables and each award was read out by a member of the RP team (honestly I was mega impressed by this fully just thought we would be sat in the cinema for the awards!) and livestreamed to all the viewers at home. We were so thrilled to see Lucy Chappell take home Best Director, Best Horror/Thriller and Best British Film for Yellowbird, and other favourites Mothboy for Best Animation, Scrum for Best North East Film, and Bambirak for Best Drama.

It was honestly quite an emotional night, seeing myself and Screen Queens getting a shout out rom Caris was one of my proudest moments so far and the room was genuinely full of love. All of the filmmakers that did manage to attend in person were so supportive of one another, which is very representative of the culture that Rianne Pictures/Women X have encouraged, and we finished the night off with myself, Kelsie, Lucy Chappell (Yellowbird), René Lorraine (One Piece of the Puzzle), Sarah Grant & Katrina Allen (Coming of Age), Sasha Alexis & Alexandra Agoshkova (Whore #4) all in the Arc’s bar having an absolutely sensational time talking about women and cinema. An utterly fantastic festival.

by Chloe Leeson

Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Twitter @sqchloe and on Letterboxd here.

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