Earlier this month, I had the chance to virtually attend the 2021 Women X Film Festival. Women X was launched by Rianne Pictures last year and showcases short films created by women and non-binary filmmakers across the globe. Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s festival adopted a hybrid model of presentation: in-person screenings and activities—held at the ARC – Stockton Arts Centre from September 2nd to 4th—while also made available for digital viewing.
Each of the nine strands of shorts presented during this edition of Women X focused on a particular topic, approaching it from many unique perspectives. These cinematic works span a wide variety of themes, from dramatic narratives of love and loss to experimental pieces about self-empowerment and queer identity—and everything in between. Without further ado, here is an overview of these strands, as well as a brief review of several standout films from each.
LOVE IS A LOSING GAME
The films featured in this strand all center on romantic narratives with an unexpected twist. Sasha Rangel Garcia’s Meant for You finds a blissfully happy couple at odds over whether or not an electronic device should tell them if they are truly meant to be together; Natalia Andreadis’s charming How Can I Forget (Best Sci-Fi) involves superpowers as well as a little song and dance; Anna Boronea’s The Time Between Us plays with the idea of time travel and reflects on the importance of letting women be heard; and there’s a different kind of timely message found in Chloe May Law’s Heartthrob, a creatively envisioned drama about a teenager who experiences a personal reckoning after her idol is accused of sexual harassment.
While the films in this strand are radically different from one another, one thing they all share is the ability to spark thought-provoking conversation through various artistic mediums. Giulia Franchi’s Hima (which means “a place protected and defended” in Arabic) is a documentary about a Lebanese woman and her quest for ecological conservation, using voiceover and archival footage; Bea Cartwright’s joyous dance film Mad Smooth puts funky music, neon lighting, and impressive choreography performed on roller skates at center stage; and Annie Harmeston’s Quick Fix (Best Production Design/Best Costume) is a playful, pastel-toned satire of the seemingly effortless perfection that characterizes the world of social media influencers.
The films contained within this strand are dedicated to self-discovery, self-expression, and embracing identity, exploring this topic through different lenses. Hayley Repton’s Glutened shows a struggle rarely portrayed on film through its artistic depiction of a day in the life of a woman recently diagnosed with coeliac disease; Gelli Pascual’s Not Your Erotic hits back at the fetishization of ethnicity through an intense, spoken-word performance laced with fury; and Natalie Jasmine Harris’s beautiful film Pure (Best LGBTQ+ Film) sees a young Black woman at crossroads with her sexuality and religion ahead of her cotillion ball.
A MOTHER’S LOVE
All things maternal can be found at the heart of this collection, which focuses on motherhood as experienced within various genres and perspectives. Katherine Chou’s A Cure for All Things presents a sci-fi narrative that blends past, present, and future with the use of a magical elixir, a combination that proves to be surprisingly poignant; Guy Hassell and Dorothy Krakowska’s documentary Let’s Talk About Joe is an emotionally affecting look at how the loss of a child continues to impact a family years later, with the truth coming to the surface as the camera rolls; and Einat Gaulan’s If You Only Knew sees a young woman trying to bury a devastating truth through imaginative pretenses.
TURN THE BIG LIGHT ON
This thrilling selection might be best watched with the lights on, as the title of this strand suggests—unless one happens to be feeling particularly brave. Gabriela Staniszewska’s I Should Have Run is an eerie black-and-white film narrated in prose as it follows a woman who is suddenly questioned by an unsettling entity while out for a walk; Kathryn MacCorgarry Gray’s Deep Meaningful Conversation sees two friends attempting to have just that, but one of them finds herself too absorbed in her phone to properly pay attention; and one of the most notable films to come from this year’s festival, Lucy Chappell’s dark thriller Yellowbird (Best Horror/Thriller, Best Director, and Best British Film) may make people want to reconsider travelling alone.
WORKING 9 TO 5
Since the films in this strand all center around women in the workforce, it makes sense that several of them feel very topical in content when it comes to current circumstances around the world. Victoria Alessandrini’s Essential latinas effectively uses animation and voiceover to convey the shocking reality of undocumented Latin American workers in the U.K. during the pandemic; Charlie Harris’s Nurse is a tense narrative about a young nurse who finds herself in an extremely high-pressure situation; but for something more lighthearted, there’s Florence Winter Hill’s Whore #4 (Best Comedy) with an entertaining premise that hilariously comes full circle as it follows a young Russian actress’s struggle to escape being typecast.
THICKER THAN WATER
This collection takes its title from a familiar adage as it examines family ties, with several films doing so by placing grief under the microscope. Marissa Dingman’s Her Resolve uses colourful animation to tell the director’s story of losing her father and living without him years later; Aastha Verma’s The Last Rights powerfully calls patriarchal tradition into question when an Indian girl insists she must perform her deceased grandmother’s last rites; and Janet Marrett’s Asunder (which actress Kemi Awoderu won Best Performance for) depicts a young woman at an emotional breaking point, dealing with phone calls from her new job while trying to prevent her mother’s deportation.
This is arguably one of the festival’s most entertaining strands, featuring a wonderfully bizarre group of films that are populated by eccentric characters and celebratory of female sexuality. Xuemeng Li and Katrin Larissa Kasper’s Appetite is a definite standout, telling the story of a woman who adopts various disguises and accents as part of an elaborate dine-and-dash scheme; Lexy Anderson’s Three Triple A’s sympathetically chronicles a woman’s struggle to make her new vibrator work before a virtual date; and Sarah Grant, Katrina Allen, and Roger Best’s hilarious Coming of Age depicts a woman who finds sexual empowerment after ignoring some dated advice during a hookup.
YOU AND I
The festival’s final strand finds itself interested in the relationships that develop—or in some cases, unexpectedly emerge—between people in everyday life. Radhika Prasidhha’s Begum Parvathi depicts a phone conversation between two young women as they wonder if they will experience the same sense of giddy anticipation toward each other once they meet in person; Emily Horsley’s documentary FISHBOWL shows queer members of the drag community who are regular performers at a Leeds venue open up about what performative art means to them, touching on the importance of everything from found family to being able to politicize their existence. Beautifully shot and mixed, Emmalie El Fadli’s From A to Q (Best Cinematography) tells the story of a teenage girl who struggles with an all-too-familiar feeling many queer people have experienced—falling in love with a best friend of the same sex—but captures this shifting dynamic in a way that feels authentic, ending on a hopeful note.
On top of viewing the films at Women X, I got the opportunity to enjoy watching a few of the events. The first of these was the Accessibility in Cinema Talk, presented as a pre-recorded conversation between Women X founder Caris Rianne and accessibility consultant (and Flip Screen alum) Charlotte Little. I found this to be quite an insightful discussion, with Little affirming the importance of making cinema accessible and sharing her own experiences on the topic as a disabled person. A major takeaway from this panel was the significance of speaking out to affect change, and how even a seemingly small decision—such as studios choosing to include subtitles in film trailers—can make a big difference when it comes to ensuring an accessible experience.
The Are Women Actually Funny? event was the first live taping of Rianne Pictures’ podcast Not Having It All, offering commentary on the portrayal of women in British and American comedic media. Rianne was joined by co-hosts Neha Vyas and Laverne Caprice, filmmakers Sarah Grant and Katrina Allen, and podcast assistant Melissa Fielding (aka Intel Mel). They reflected on everything from Chewing Gum to Saturday Night Live, engaging in lively discussion about tropes often seen in female-centric comedy films and TV shows and how female-focused content can often be received with mixed reception. The episode’s title is intentionally ironic, because of course women have the potential to be funny; the issue lies in how to write women without making jokes at their expense.
All in all, the 2021 Women X Film Festival’s exciting and diverse variety of programming made it an interesting event to cover. It exposed me to short films that I would likely not have encountered otherwise, and I am grateful to have had the chance to screen each strand from the comfort of my own home. After having experienced Women X for the first time this year, I would certainly want to attend again in the future—potentially in person, if circumstances allow!