Breaking Down Walls: Cinema Femme Short Film Festival Seeks Gender Equality through Mentorship

The following featured interview was written by Katie Small.

Last month’s Academy Awards marked the third time in the institution’s 94-year history in which a woman won Best Director, serving as a bittersweet reminder that the pace of gender parity in Hollywood has been frustratingly slow. While women are still largely underrepresented in the film industry, grassroots organizations such as Chicago-based film festival Cinema Femme seek to increase access for women and non-binary filmmakers. 

Taking place Thursday, April 28th, through Sunday, May 1st, the virtual Cinema Femme Short Film Festival will showcase “the voice of the female film experience.” Cinema Femme formed in 2018 as a print  magazine, and evolved out of founder Rebecca Martin’s previous experience organizing the Chicago Film Lovers’ Exchange.  

Each edition of Cinema Femme Magazine was centered around a woman-made film, featuring interviews with filmmakers and film critiques penned by women from all over the world. “After the first few issues, I started hearing from tons of women on social media, thanking me for putting the interviews out there, grateful for the opportunity to learn from women filmmakers,” Martin says.  

The positive response reflected a need for community and educational resources, inspiring Martin to launch Cinema Femme’s short film festival to further support emerging women and non-binary filmmakers. Now in its third year, the festival offers the Breaking Down Walls Mentorship Program as the grand prize awarded to participating filmmakers.  

At the culmination of the four-day festival, a group of established filmmakers select their personal mentees from the festival’s showcase. “Allowing the mentors to individually choose their mentee based on shared thematic interests makes for a richer experience on both sides,” Martin says. 

The mentorship is a six-month commitment that mentors and mentees navigate on their own terms, with the requirement that they meet for one hour every month to establish a working relationship. “All of the selected mentors have a passion for supporting emerging artists,” Martin says. “Mentors are chosen based on their demonstrated passion for elevating women, non-binary, or underrepresented voices in the industry, either by their work onscreen or how they work their sets,” she explains. 

Mentors help their mentee develop a current project, build skills, and expand their network; in 2020, filmmaker Laura Moss mentored writer-director Gabriela Ortega while she worked on her short “Huella,” which screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is now being developed into a feature film. 

This year’s Cinema Femme Short Film Festival will showcase 23 short films covering a variety of topics, including a story of two stoner witches seeking revenge, a rogue AI virtual assistant, and a father who must give up his daughter to foster care, to name just a few. Each block of shorts will be followed by a live Q&A with a celebrity woman or non-binary filmmaker.

The 2022 festival has expanded to include a tribute screening honoring the late cinematographer Halyna Hutchins; live workshops covering imposter syndrome and personal branding for filmmakers; and an opening night party featuring virtual karaoke and games. 

Martin says Cinema Femme is growing and gaining momentum, propelled by community support and sponsorships with RogerEbert.com and Noisefloor (RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert moderated the inaugural festival’s 2020 Black Female Filmmaker Renaissance Panel embedded above). The festival is a Filmocracy fellowship recipient, which has provided a platform for the virtual fest and has opened doors to further resources and connections. 

The support has motivated Martin to transform Cinema Femme into a nonprofit, safeguarding the effort to empower women and non-binary filmmakers and ensure access to resources for future generations.  

“The talent is there — but what is missing are the opportunities that the industry can offer, and the people that can help women filmmakers get to these opportunities,” Martin says.

For more information or to purchase passes, visit the official site of Cinema Femme. You can follow Cinema Femme on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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