Part Two: What happens at the Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival?
Let’s talk about the films and panels, shall we?
This is a follow up to last week’s article “Why you should think twice before attending the Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival”. As I said in a response to my first piece, the main point was that for years, after I had moved on and said nothing regarding our history and past dynamic, Sally Moreno used their position and place with GRFFF and Bandit Zine to make spaces with those groups or organizers unwelcoming or unsafe for me and other folks of color they felt threatened them, and manipulated the platform to continue abusive behavior towards me and many others, and GRFFF/Bandit Zine organizers knew and said nothing, avoided holding themselves or Sally accountable, and instead blocked/deleted/got distance from me. I can’t-nor need to, nor think it extensively serves the conversation-to go into extreme detail about that history and past with Sally in these pieces. That said, I definitely did so with GRFFF organizers when I asked about being supported in holding Sally accountable, so ignorance cannot be claimed on their part.
Ultimately, I should be trusted on my account based not only on the rapport I have built an activist, organizer and community member, but as a Black woman naming she both experienced and witnessed some pretty toxic behavior. Instead, I’ve received the same belittling, dismissive, victim-blaming, character assassination at the hands of white “feminist” women who are otherwise able to refer to as rape/abuse culture or victim blaming, so long as it happens to them at least, or a victim they deem likeable, who’s womanhood they validate. But I reject that. I know I am trustworthy, valid, and deserve to be honored and respected in my experiences.
Furthermore, like the last article, the following has been brought up to and demanded to be addressed by me and many others in many ways to those at GRFFF many times over the years. I myself offered to be a paid consultant. It hasn’t gotten better because they clearly don’t want it to.
With that said, let’s continue on to part two!
Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival 2016
So first off, it is important to name GRFFF and Bandit Zine is run, primarily, by white people. Sally was part of the internal team, but other than that, as far as I know, they have only had one or two people of color as volunteers. Also, as far as I know, none of these people have been Black.
It is a free event to attend, which I do think helps with making it accessible financially-speaking, and located at Wealthy Theatre, which is based in the Baxter community, which is largely Black. The choice was made this year, however, to move the festival to the UICA, which I think is a huge step back and makes the festival geographically, ability-wise and culturally speaking, inaccessible.
I have been to the festival every year since it started in 2014. I saw films the first year and last year in 2016, but in 2015 I was on a panel so I wasn’t able to go watch any of the films. Last year for GRFFF 2016, I took a lot of notes of the films being shown-who was being depicted and how, the messaging, the faces on the screen, and who the directors were. I did not watch the kids’ films, so I can’t judge those content-wise but I still looked at the directors and the film description to see how racially diverse they were.
Every year I am only ever able to go to a handful of the workshops and sessions, but I have known many of the people who have spoken or presented at them, and know this is the aspect of the festival many like the most and that presentations and discussions go fairly well. That said, last year’s sessions, excluding the Funny Girls session, only about 1/3rd of the panelists at the workshops were of color. I know them all so I think only two identify as WOC. If you include the Funny Girls session, less than one quarter of panelists/presenters/performers were of color. Only one of the panels was explicitly about WOC. None of the moderators of the panel were of color.
Again, this is the better part of the festival and it is clear it can still be handled much differently, with better, more hard-hitting topics being chosen to discuss with a more inclusive selection speakers and presenters that aren’t the same group of folks everyone taps and is friends with.
Out of 42 films shown last year, most of which had more than one and up to four filmmakers, only four filmmakers altogether were made by people of color, and only one of them was WOC.
Out of 42 films, only around 10 have any POC, and only four centered them. One, “Crack In The Wall,” was made by a white woman was about female Theravada Buddhist nuns in Thailand, was heavily through a white voyeuristic gaze. “Sterile”, which was about race and forced sterilization, was by a white filmmaker but it was honestly well done and I remember thinking itwas amazing. But still a white filmmaker. “A Meal With Dad” was also good, a story centering a young queer Latina woman, but by a white person. “Abortion Party” was all Black girls and it was funny and probably my favorite but again, by a white person. “Can you hear me?” a film about Muslim women made by a WOC, was good, but my notes say it “ended transphobic”. A film about a disabled artist in Kansas city was made by a Black man and it was one I enjoyed very much.
But that’s out of 42 films. I enjoyed some of the other ones too, don’t get me wrong, but I was mostly underwhelmed and wishing for more people and stories of color (that did not center or come from white gazes), more trans folks, more fat folks, more interesting stories and compelling narratives. If you’re billing yourself as a feminist film festival, maybe make your film line up a little more lively and diverse than a Kid Rock concert or a really bad second wave feminist 101 class.
They don’t pay their presenters
Oh, and they don’t pay their presenters and contributors. That’s all that even needs to be said about that.
Tables in the lobby and sponsors
All the people or groups they had tabling in the lobby between the micro-cinema and the big theater at Wealthy theater again, were mostly friends of the organizers, white folks. Some of who I know and who’s work I like and care about! But again, where’s everyone else? The same came be said about who was tapped to sponsor. It is clear the relationships and connections of the festival are largely white and exclusive, so it isn’t surprising that the festival is as well.
Volunteers involved with the GRFFF previous and now have, again, largely been white. Last year there was even an incident of a volunteer harassing and microaggressing one of the few Black presenters they had.
Tying it all together
This all is heavily focusing on whiteness and race and the festival. I also want to name how cis-centric and essentializing (content hyperfocusing on vaginas, female genitalia, and periods and equating that to womanhood), heteronormative and mired in a lot of other privileges the films featured last year were and generally are year after year. Other WOC, sex workers, QTPOC, mentally ill folks and others have talked to me about their issues regarding their inclusion, or lack thereof, in programming. Ironically, the one film that did center a disabled person last year was made by a Black man, and it was really interesting, but again, still white! One of my favorite films short films from a previous GRFFF, “Happy Birthday Cindy Wei,” while featuring Chinese actors and focusing on the life of a young Chinese girl and queerness, was directed by a white person. We are just starting to see ourselves more accurately presented in front of the screen, but we aren’t shown or represented to be the ones to write, cast, direct and film our stories. We still have to deal with white people, straight people, able-bodied people etc being the ones telling our stories for us.
Overall, each year there is always a very obvious focus and bias towards white, cisgender, middle class, able-bodied narratives that erases all others and essentialized those dominant narratives and bodies as innate and most important. The previous years of the GRFFF haven’t been done much better in regards to being intentional regarding representation of the many communities of GR, marginalized identities and voices from varied places of identity including but not restricted to race, and local talent. Organizations, activists and groups for issues that intersect and totally have to do with feminism have largely also been absent or relationships aren’t being built, thus creating an self-congratulatory echo-chamber of peak white feminism.
How this festival pretends to show solidarity with, empower, challenge, refocus or uplift anyone outside of those in power and a small group of tokens granted access, I will never know. The liberal-washed identity politics they give lip service to is just talk with no follow through.
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