In 2014 Karla Healion set up Dublin’s first dedicated, independent feminist film festival as a fundraiser for victims of sex trafficking in Nepal. We met her to talk about the festival’s return this Halloween weekend, and the importance of women being both behind and in front of the camera.
How did the Feminist Film Festival come about?
When I was travelling a couple of years ago, I was in Kathmandu in Nepal and I visited an amazing charity called Sasane. Sasane was set up by a group of women, themselves victims of sex trafficking, to help other women who have been trafficked. They showed us some traditional Nepalese recipes, and we made some food and ate with them. I was blown away by them and I thought to myself, I’m going to do a fundraiser for these guys when I get home. Later that summer I had this realisation that I didn’t remember there being a feminist film festival in Dublin. I thought I’d love to start one up, and if I was going to put on a fundraiser for Sasane, why not roll them into one? So I came home and did the first Feminist Film Festival last year. Every single bit of money that we make goes to Sasane.
What was last year’s festival like?
It was really successful. The New Theatre in Temple Bar is a great venue. It’s only small – this is all quite low key and intimate, we don’t get state sponsorship or help from the DCC or anything – but we sold out quite a few of the screenings and we had some really good reviews. The atmosphere was really positive. We’re hoping to be even better this year. We’ve taken on an extra day, so it’ll be the full weekend, Friday to Sunday. There was only one Q and A last year whereas this time we have talks on women in horror, the achievements of women in film and the different forms of feminist film.
Could you tell us a bit about your interest in feminism?
I used to help out with the Feminist Walking Tours of Dublin, and the Abortion Rights Campaign – they’re co-running the March for Choice so I’ll be volunteering with them a bit next week. So I was active at the grassroots level, and then I did a masters in Film Studies, and came across Sasane. Those three things together made the festival – the feminist angle, the film studies and the charity. When it comes to feminism I think it’s vital to make changes at policy level, in terms of repealing the 8th, and working towards women’s socio-economic rights, such as equal political representation and pay. But I also think the portrayal of women in media is important to work on, to make sure that the political stuff that we’re aiming for is represented in media.
Do you have a particular bugbear when it comes to the status of women in film?
Traditionally women have been put into the role of either consuming media or being objectified by media, and it’s really important that we support women to write, direct, and have high-level positions within all forms of cultural production. Obviously the annoying thing is when you see stereotypical female characters. But I feel like if we support women behind the camera, the representation will get better. Hollywood still produces most of the films that we watch, and Hollywood has a really bad track record in terms of supporting female filmmakers and depicting female characters. Once you go into indie or documentary film, you tend to get more women behind the scenes, and better representation. That’s great, but it would be nice to see big budget, mainstream films being more balanced around gender.
Does the festival have a focus on a particular genre or theme?
We want to show things that represent different facets of female experience, and have something for everyone’s taste. The important thing for us was trying to make sure that the filmmakers were female. At every film festival around the world, most of the filmmakers are men. Surely a feminist film festival is one event where we should be striving to show films made by women. That makes it harder, because women don’t have access to the means of making as many films. It’s this constant battle between whether it’s about what’s in front of the camera, or what’s behind the camera. You don’t want to just have a group of films that show great female characters, made by a group of guys. The other thing that’s hard is to find things that are accessible enough that you get bums on seats. If we only showed abstract quirky stuff, we would not survive. That’s tricky because female filmmakers traditionally work more within documentary and avant-garde and experimental films, and we don’t want to disregard that. It’s a hard balance trying to meet all of those things.
Do you think feminist events have a responsibility to be intersectional, and does that influence the festival’s ethos?
Personally, feminism is very much about intersectionality. It’s one word: equality. My equality, your equality and everybody’s equality. I think it’s really important to be always looking at my own privilege, because I am a woman, but I’m a really privileged woman: I’m white, European, straight. As a feminist you need to be aware of other oppressed or underprivileged communities so it annoys me that you don’t see people of colour enough, you don’t see enough representation of the LGBT community, and when you do, they’re often represented stereotypically. At the Feminist Film Festival, we feel like we should have a film that represents non-Western women, and a film that isn’t heteronormative. We showed Orlando last year which is a great film by Sally Potter that famously deals with blurring the lines of the gender binary. But if someone says, well my feminism is about x, y or z, that’s OK too. It’s complicated when you start talking about what feminism means, because I think part of what feminism is, is respect for people being different and having different opinions, even though it’s a collective kind of term.
Are there any positive developments you’ve noticed recently, in terms of women in the film industry?
One of the interesting things that has happened over the last few years is a backlash against the idea of the ‘strong female character’. A few years ago we said we needed more of them, and then we realised, the ‘strong female character’ is kind of like dropping a female actress into a male role. The ideal of the strong female character sets up this expectation of female characters who can’t be flawed, who have to be these perfect warriors; like the strong single mother or the girl who makes it in a typically male pursuit. Now we recognise the importance of not holding female characters to ridiculously high standards, and allowing them their flaws and weaknesses.
It’s easy to get bogged down in all the miserable statistics, but we have to try not to. In Ireland we have so many incredible women working in film: look at the success of One Million Dubliners, directed by Aoife Kelleher and edited by Emer Reynolds, BAFTA-winning TV director Neasa Hardiman, Nicky Gogan of Still Films, or Maeve Connolly, an academic writing amazing stuff around film. The Little Museum of Dublin recently had an exhibition, ‘Ireland at the Movies’, that showcased the work of Irish women in film, especially costume-making. There’s a sense of excitement, there’s a lot going on. There’s an appetite for conversation about feminism and women’s equality. It’s almost trendy now, which it wasn’t before. We need to keep talking about it!
Do you have a favourite ‘feminist film’?
I love some filmmakers in particular. I love Lynne Ramsay. It’s really amazing to look at her work because she’s so feminist in so many ways, but then you get a film like Ratcatcher, which is about a little boy. Can we talk about that as a feminist film? We always look at the representation of female characters and how they’re written, but what if a woman is behind the camera, and in front of the camera is a man? Whether the character is a boy, a girl or even an animal, if they have been written or directed by a woman, then it comes from a place of female agency and female experience. So I’d argue that a film like Ratcatcher is quite a feminist film even though it’s not about women at all. Whether the subject matter has to do with women or not, I think it’s very interesting to see women’s perspectives. We’re very used to seeing male perspectives, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to redress the balance.
What are you looking forward to at this year’s festival?
We’ll be having the Irish premiere of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which is really exciting. It’s a new documentary about the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s, and the opposition it faced. In terms of the fundraising, our donation will be matched by Planeterra, so hopefully we can raise a good few quid for the women in Nepal, who have had a really tough year dealing with the aftermath of April’s earthquake.
The Feminist Film Festival will take place in The New Theatre, 43 Essex Street East, Temple Bar from Friday 30th October to Sunday 1st November 2015. Each feature film is preceded by a short, and tickets for all screenings cost €10. All profits go to Sasane. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.feministfilmfestivaldublin.com or follow them on Twitter at @FemmoFilmFest
Words: Rachel Graham