Another film in which the director adapted her own lifestyle in order to examine a small society of people from the inside is Sarah Price's documentary feature Caesar's Park (screening Wednesday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m.). Price, who produced Chris Smith's indie favorite American Movie, continues her obsession with small-town lives in this feature about the residents of the titular Milwaukee neighborhood. Price moved to Caesar's Park in 1995 and proceeded to film the friends she made there. Whether she's watching habitual photographer Richard Bridenbaugh flipping through his collection of gravestone snapshots, or listening to tone-deaf musician Charles Seales plucking out a cacophonous melody on a broken guitar, Price always displays a simultaneous empathy and admiration for these bizarre characters.
In this small town where neighbors learn about one another by spying through their windows, Price was probably the first person in years to actually engage these eccentrics in active conversation about their lives. Like American Movie, Caesar's Park initially projects a lonely desperation, but avoids condescending to its subjects by observing how this desperation doubles as a motive to make the most mundane aspects of their lives into moments of curious beauty.
The dreamlike quality of Caesar's Park grows stranger and more surreal in Vivian Chang's feverish drama Hidden Whisper (Saturday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m.), a trilogy of short films that tangle together into a feature examining the roles of Taiwanese mothers and daughters. The film begins with a young girl who imagines her brutal life as if it were a carnival act, where blood flows in floral patterns and beggars move in a clown's parade. The second section follows a teenage girl's imaginary world where stealing older women's ID cards magically transforms her into them. And the third section finds a grown woman contemplating her life through a series of postcards she sends to her ailing mother.
Throughout Hidden Whisper, butterflies and caterpillars dot the screen, providing an all-too-obvious motif to bridge the gap between older and younger women. But while the metaphors may seem forced, the mystical way that Chang dots her visual landscapes with archetypal symbols makes her film into a form of storytelling as time-honored as the changing of the mother-daughter guard.
Like seeing Chang's fantastic images, watching a film in which mothers willingly bring their daughters to a school for bloodthirsty fighters might appear surreal. Yet Gaea Girls (Friday, March 23 at 7:00 p.m.), Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams's documentary about Japanese women who want to become professional wrestlers, is an unflinchingly real portrayal of young girls struggling to be survivors of the fittest. While many American and Japanese movies portray Japanese women as submissive, anyone who agrees with this stereotype has never seen pro wrestler Nagayo Chigusa verbally abuse her recruits until they become a mass of head-butting, face-kicking warriors.
Chigusa serves as both schoolmarm and boot-camp general to a school of professional wrestling that looks like a WWF for the Eastern world. Yet with all of the wrestlers' vinyl suits and campy performances, the unrelenting training that precedes that first step into the ring is regarded with the utmost seriousness. Watching this spectacle, the viewer will likely explore her own boundaries between being violent and being tough. By the final scene, even the most sensitive viewer should end up shouting, "Kill her!" to the women in the ring--or should count herself among the truly heartless.
Many other films in the festival match Gaea Girls in their grueling depictions of growing up. Deann Borshay Liem's documentary First Person Plural (Saturday, March 17 at 2:00 p.m.) describes the filmmaker's difficulty in cultivating a family history that includes both her adoptive American parents and her biological family in Korea. Similarly, Family Secret (Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 p.m.) centers on New York filmmaker Pola Rapaport's efforts to piece together her father's and her own histories by building a relationship with her French half-brother. Both films document emotional accounts of the filmmakers' personal histories, often exposing the pressures they have faced to assimilate to another culture's ideals. First Person Plural and Family Secret are testaments to the kind of identity-in-process that "Women with Vision" documents so well.
"The idea of the festival is not to talk about all of the problems with women and film, or that there aren't enough women filmmakers out there," says Mousley. "The point is that women are making films; I mean, there are over 30 films here! Now let's see what they can do."
"Women with Vision: Crossing Boundaries" starts Friday at 8:00 p.m. with a screening of Iranian director Marziyeh Meshkini'sThe Day I Became a Woman, and continues through March 31; (612) 375-7622.