Q&A with Carolyn Combs, Executive Director of the Vancouver International Women In Film Festival

by Hogan Short

Related image
Lakota activist and community organizers Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter Marcy Gilbert are at the centre of Warrior Women a documentary about activism the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Courtesy of Warrior Women

In really great film there are two common necessities and one must exist within the story. The narrative must either provide a unique perspective in which to see the world and evolve from; or the narrative must connect with our minds and hearts so strongly that we discover a part of ourselves we knew was there but could never explain, helping us feel less alone. The 14th Annual Vancouver International Women In Film Festival is an accessible festival that aims to do both things for all people. Showing 49 films from 19 countries at the Vancity Theatre, there will be something for everyone.

Carolyn Combs is the Executive Director of this intimate festival. She spoke with us about what to expect and be excited for this year.

How long have you been working with the festival?

2011 was my first one.

How have you seen the festival change and evolve over that time?

It’s definitely grown. It’s become I think a filmmakers’ festival. They really enjoy it. It’s a centre of discourse around issues of gender parity. It’s now six days so we have more films and the participation of the community has grown. Artist talks have become really, really popular. Many people come but it is still very intimate. The filmmaking community comes out in our panel discussion. We have filmmakers moderating each other’s Q&As.

A lot of new programming has integrated into the festival too. There is the From Our Dark Side series for genre filmmakers, as well as our screenwriting program and we will be doing script reading.

A live script reading, with actors? 

Yes, a workshop with five actors. We are reading excerpts from 5 scripts. We have never done that before, that is really cool.

What sort of panels and Q+A’s should people expect and be excited for?

Elizabeth Castle, Director of our opening night film Warrior Women, will be here along with the film’s subject, Marcella Gilbert for a post-film Q&A on March 5th, and in a further discussion on March 6th.

Saturday morning is our big forum on gender inclusion. There are three-panel discussions around that as well as a special guest presentation from Dr. Amanda Coles (Arts and Cultural Management and Employment Relations, Deakin University).

Then, on Saturday afternoon, Tayybeh is a short film screening before The Day I Lost My Shadow. The subject of Tayybeh is a Syrian refugee women catering company here in Vancouver. The women for Tayybeh will be there.

All the films have a post-screening Q&A so there will be lots of filmmakers around, including The Feminists producer from Sweden, filmmakers from the States, the director of Turning Tables from Toronto, as well as local filmmakers and actors.

Tayybeh is an intimate portrait of the struggles and triumphs of the women of the Vancouver catering company Tayybeh, as they learn to navigate life in Canada while grappling with the grief and loss of leaving their homeland. Photo: Tayybeh

Can you speak a little bit on the wide array of films that are screening?

We like to screen a variety of films. Women make all kinds of films. Warrior Women is opening the festival and the festival closes with a film about a warrior woman – Swords And Sceptres: The Rani of Jhansi. There is that kind of theme, strong characters facing obstacles. Within that theme there are so many; documentaries, gory animation, beautiful animation. There is a variety. I was in the sound check and saw pieces of the shorts and I was like wow, there are lots of good shorts this year.

As an international festival, what is the importance of balancing both international films and also local?

We have about 47 films and 20 of them are local. But we want it to be an international festival for cross-pollination between international and local filmmakers. They talk with each other, not just the audience. We group them together so they talk to each other about their process and it is important for local filmmakers to talk to these independent artists. There is opportunity for them to possibly collaborate in the future. It’s exciting! They can talk about the struggles in their own environment, their different environment. The beauty is in its intimacy.

Many festivals are including Virtual Reality in their programming and you are as well. Can you talk about that decision and what to expect from it this year?

Right now it’s a collaboration with the NFB (National Film Board), which is great. They are setting up a more immersive experience. Last year it was a headset. This year, I mean…these are big! You can walk around. In one you actually have a ten by ten foot space and you’re on top of what is now City Hall in Toronto, you can look over the edge. You have to go see it! Or I guess more than see…you have to immerse yourself in it! 

Rooted in the realm of Indigenous futurism, Biidaaban: First Light is an interactive VR time-jump into a highly realistic—and radically different—Toronto of tomorrow.

Many women were overlooked this year at the Oscars. Where do you see hope in the industry for women? Why is it important to have a women film festival?

Well, it’s so much fun! Really, it’s part of our mandate to address the barriers in discrimination in film and tv. But on a larger scale, to create a change to become more reflective as a people. Not just women, but more people of colour, Indigenous people. We want the media to reflect our values.

What are you most excited about for this festival?

I am most excited about the discourse and conversation. Seeing the films on the screen like…wow, there are some beautiful films. Really what’s exciting is the people. The people who come, the filmmakers and the audience. The atrium really becomes a hub of activity.

Come and be a part of that hub for activity at the Vancouver International Women In Film Festival running at Vancity Theatre, March 5 – 10.

More information and tickets here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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