United Skates, one of the films premiering at the Women Texas Film Festival, takes you inside the culture of skating rinks. (Courtesy: WTFF)

Arts & Entertainment

This Year’s Women Texas Film Festival Veers Away From The Expected

With new funding and a board of directors, this year's festival makes its grandest statement yet. It kicks off this Wednesday.

Justina Walford thinks “women have gotten ballsier.” The founder and artistic of Women Texas Film Festival is talking about a recent uptick in films made by women that have found space on the big screen in recent years—a trend especially evident in the festival circuit. For Walford, this rise may not be a sign that demand for these stories has suddenly expanded. Or that in the span of one year, women have increased their collective creative output by 20 or 30 percent.

She thinks it could be the result of something else entirely, that women are starting to submit work they might not have dared share before the cultural climate warmed.

“I don’t think women are making more movies,” she clarifies, “I think they’re showing us the movies they’ve made.”

Justina Walford, the founder of the Women Texas Film Festival. (Courtesy: WTFF)

She’s sipping a bourbon on the rocks while Betty, her pit bull, naps at her feet. Walford’s been working in film and theater since the ‘90s, and as much as she may want to, she doesn’t think this is the time for women filmmakers to celebrate. Instead, she advises them to dig in deeper.

“It isn’t wrong to ask if it’s really a tipping point or just a phase,” she says, thinking back to another moment that felt equally weighted. “On the Asian side, I remember when Joy Luck Club opened.” She swirls her drink and laughs, “I thought: ‘It’s all changed! Now it’s going to be all-Asian films, all the time!’”

Fast forward 25 years: Crazy Rich Asians, the first big budget film to feature an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club, reached theaters over the weekend. For Walford, it’s a cautionary tale. “From the Asian American perspective,” she notes, “we need to be exceptionally conscientious of the wave and take advantage of it, because in three years, women might go back down to 17 percent representation.”

Walford created the Women Texas Film Festival three years ago to help assist in these efforts, and to provide a space where women’s stories could be experienced in the theater — not just streamed at home on an overheating laptop. A horror filmmaker herself, Walford wanted to show that women’s work isn’t limited to rosé-fueled rom coms. So, she set out to find weird stuff. Brave work. Unexpected takes on traditional tropes as written, directed, edited or shot through the female perspective.

Now with several years of growth under its belt and a newly built board of directors nurturing its expanse, WTFF has found its groove — and its funding. In fact, her new board has helped triple the festival’s sponsorship, so they can fly in filmmakers and build on success from year to year. “With this help, now it’s not a snowman,” says Walford. “It’s a brick and mortar thing that you have to make real.”

This Wednesday, August 15, Women Texas Film Festival 2018 kicks off its most interesting lineup yet at the Studio Movie Grill off Central Expressway. It’s a mashup of genre, culture, and sexuality designed to provide a five-day reprieve from the expected. Whether you’re into very low-budget campy horror tales, tensely claustrophobic family thrillers, lesbian rom coms, or punk rock slasher flicks, there’s something for you.

Start with Wednesday night’s opener, the World Premiere of Amanda Kramer’s feature film Paris Window, a disorienting submersion into codependence, sibling bonds, and the magnetic pull of infomercials. “She makes freaky shit,” assures Walford. Kramer’s other feature, Ladyworld, hits Austin’s Fantastic Fest next month and features local actress Atheena Frizzell, daughter of Never Goin’ Back director Augustine Frizzell.

On Thursday, joyride through Cuba and memory with Pulitzer-nominated playwright Maria Irene Fornes and filmmaker Michelle Memran. Together, the pair set out to explore Fornes’ life and celebrate its many synapses, despite her dementia, in The Rest I Make Up. Then stick around to see Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) work passionately to save the fate of the bowling alley he manages in the sweetly sensitive feature When Jeff Tried to Save the World.

If you can only make one movie on Friday, rex on over to United Skates, a doc that looks at underground roller skating dance culture in the black community. The Hot Docs pic has a community partner in Southern Skates, the southern Dallas rink that was reopened by the city so it too could keep on rolling. If you can tackle a double feature stick around for Lez Bomb. It stars national treasure and Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman (along with Bruce Dern, Kevin Kane, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Pollack, Elaine Hendrix, Deirdre O’Connell and others), in Jenna Laurenzo’s unconventional home for the holidays rom com.

Saturday’s programming is packed full, with three shorts blocks and four feature films. Tennessee royal Dolly Parton has raved in recent interviews about the day’s opening doc Hillbilly, which takes you into heart of the Appalachian artists, poets and musicians who often go overlooked or underestimated. (And if Dolly approves, who are you to say no, really?)

Make it a point to get into the 4:30 p.m. screening of Rich Kids. Based on a true story that happened in filmmaker Laura Somers’ neighborhood and set in Houston, a group of poor Latinx teens get tired of having nothing, so they break into a rich person’s mansion and try another life on for a day. “There’s something about it that’s stressful and suspenseful,” says Walford. “Because these kids are in someone else’s house and it’s not going to end well.”

Alaska is a Drag has been described as “Hedwig meets Rocky,” and it stars Marin L. Washington Jr. as an aspiring drag queen who brings a glammed-up vibe to the amateur boxing ring. And horror fans get a special treat for the fest’s closing night pick, The Ranger. Jenn Wexler’s new take on the ‘80s slasher genre infatuated audiences at SXSW and lit up horror blogs. In it, a group of punk rock teens grab a few beers, load up the boom box and head out to Blackwood Point National Forest. But their trip takes a turn when they’re found by a sadistic park ranger.

The solid programming in this year’s WTFF says a lot, both about the festival’s momentum and the larger scope of great films by women available this year. And while Walford intends to savor this moment of success, it’s also reminding her how much work is still to be done for women in film.

“We can’t get lazy with it,” she warns. “We see this with politics. If we get lazy with it we lose it all. We may not go back to where it was two years ago, we may go back to where it was 20 years ago, and that’s where we have to be extra diligent.”

Join Walford for Women Texas Film Festival at presenting sponsor Studio Movie Grill’s Spring Valley location (13933 N. Central Expressway), on August 15 to 19. Individual tickets are $11, student badges are $65 and VIP badges cost $75. Visit womentxff.org.

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