Chicago Feminist Film Festival – An Interview

Chicago Feminist Film Festival – An Interview with Susan Kerns and Michelle Yates

By Kian Bergstrom


I spoke by email with Susan Kerns and Michelle Yates, both professors at Columbia College Chicago and the co-directors of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival, which runs this week, March 1 to March 3, in the Film Row Cinema at 1104 S. Wabash.


KB: This is the second year of the Feminist Film Festival. When it started in 2016, Donald Trump was a scary candidate for the Republican party with a lot of momentum but by no means had clinched the nomination.  Less than a week after the 2016 festival, he swept five states and had effectively won the nominating contest.  This year, the festival is running a week after Trump’s administration has announced new attacks on transgender rights.  How have the changes in the political climate changed your plans for the festival, the selection of movies to include within it, and how you see the festival’s place in Chicago’s alternative cinema community?

SK: One way in which the political climate changed the festival is that we were supposed to have a visiting filmmaker from Iran, but they had to cancel their travel plans.

I also became very committed to screening DYAB, a documentary about kids in a refugee camp. The main character wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up, and the only stories he knows to tell are those of Isis kidnappings. I found it chilling to watch children divvy up which girls would be abducted, because that’s what he has been exposed to, and I don’t understand how a person can watch a short like this and not want to do everything possible to help these children and their families.

That said, we’re actually showing a film, FLORA, about a transgender woman’s experience using a women’s bathroom. We’re also screening THE ORANGE STORY, made by Chicago filmmaker Erika Street Hopman, which is about Japanese internment camps and seems increasingly relevant. Suddenly awareness of the past became an urgent “head’s up” about where our country seems to be heading.

The Orange Story

KB: Like last year, this year’s festival strongly favors short-form works.  Is this a reflection of how difficult it is for women to get the funding necessary to complete features.  A way for you to include a wider variety of voices and talents?

SK: It is a way for us to include a wider variety of stories, genres, and filmmakers from all over the world and also to help people see shorts they wouldn’t normally hear about. For as easy as it is to access short films on the internet, it’s also incredibly difficult to know where to start because there is such a glut of content. We’re hoping festivalgoers will start to trust our curatorial choices for films that expose them to new stories and/or expand what kinds of films they enjoy.

I personally would love to include more features in the future, but pragmatically, that’s a different challenge since it takes much longer to pre-screen hundreds of features than it does hundreds of shorts.

KB: What kind of selection process did you use to build this year’s program?

SK: All of the short films were screened by at least two people from our pre-screening committee, and from there we narrowed choices based primarily on film content and, frankly, the amount of time we have to screen. We had to turn away a number of terrific 20- and 30-minute films, simply because of how much screen time we have available to the festival. We are also mindful of how we balance programs to reflect the perspectives of international and regional filmmakers, as we want this festival to be a place where those perspectives inform each other.

KB: Some people would say that feminist films tell different kinds of stories than the ones that dominate the mainstream, stories centered around women’s lives and struggles and relationships, the kinds of stories that Hollywood narratives so often either neglect or omit entirely.  Others might insist that feminist cinema needs to offer an alternative not just to the stories films tell but HOW they are put together, that traditional ways of building cinematic narratives are inherently objectifying to women.  Still others might stress that a feminism that seeks only to address how women and women’s narratives are made and that neglects other oppressed groups — people of color, queer people, trans folk, and so on, does little good.  There are, of course, many other ideas of what a feminist cinema might be.  In your opinions, what does it mean for a movie to be feminist?

SK: I’ll say upfront that I’m not all that interested in rigidly defining “feminist” film, because all of these definitions have their merits, and I also don’t want feminist film limited to one thing or construct. In our submissions process, filmmakers kind of self-select whether or not they deem their film feminist, which allows for a broad range of stories and storytelling styles. We don’t always agree that every film we see is feminist (e.g. not all rape-revenge films are inherent feminist – trust me on this, because we see a lot of them), but that submission process certainly broadens our own spectrum.

The other thing that makes the films in our festival “feminist” is context. For example, a rape-revenge film can read very differently depending on the kinds of shorts that screen with it. If all of the other shorts in a horror program are about mutilating women, that rape-revenge film may feel more like a fetishistic male fantasy than female empowerment. However, within a program of short films made primarily by and about women characters in horrific situations, it’s hard to mistake those films as anything but a source of inspiration for fighting back.

MY: I agree with Susan that I’m less interested in rigid definitions of feminist film. In part, for me, that might be because I’m less interested in thinking about ‘a feminist movie,’ but rather think a lot about about what it means to participate in the creation and support of a feminist cinema, or feminist filmmaking as a collective practice. Film as a creative, artistic medium is powerful, because it has the ability to so powerfully influence and shape popular perception about the social world in which we live. And, that’s not just any individual film, but the way different individual films together produce and reproduce particular tropes, motifs, narratives – ways of seeing and talking about any given aspect of our social life – that we recognize as ’ normal,’ as a kind of cultural commonsense. This is what I teach in my cultural studies and media studies classes as ideology. Film is ideological in the ways that it teaches us normal ways of thinking and behaving. And, the mainstream film industry is so centered around white masculinity as what constitutes ’normal’. According to a recent study by the University of Southern California – Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 96% of the top 100 highest grossing films between 2007 and 2016 were directed by men, and the overwhelming majority of those male directors were white. As a result of that, most of the representations that we see on screen also focus on white masculinity. And, even when we see representations of women and people of color, so often those characters are represented through the perspective of white masculinity. Because the mainstream film industry is so centered around white masculinity, there is an implicit ideological bias that normalizes and privileges white masculinity at the expense of anyone else. Narratives by and about women and people of color as well as queer and transgender folks are egregiously excluded. So the creation of a feminist cinema, for me, is about giving space to films made by and about people who are underrepresented in mainstream film – that includes women, but also fundamentally people of color, queer, and transgender folks. Feminists have to recognize that the category ‘woman’ fundamentally includes women of color, queer women, transwomen – folks who are most egregiously under-represented in film from production to representation – but also that feminism means supporting gender equality inclusive of women as well as transgender and gender non-conforming folks. And, that collectively feminist cinema can de-stabilize what constitutes ‘normal’ ways of seeing the world and re-create ways of seeing the world that aren’t so limited, or rote, or exclusive. So, yeah, feminist cinema tells different stories from mainstream cinema, breaks from traditional cinematic narratives, and is representative of a lot of diversity in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. But, most importantly, doing this – participating in the creation of a feminist cinema is meaningful, and providing space for feminist cinema via feminist film festivals is valuable, because it has an ideological impact, the ability to change and re-shape conversations in more equitable ways that hopefully then hold the possibility of transforming the social world we live in in more equitable ways.

The Chicago Feminist Film Festival runs March 1-3 at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema. Full schedule and additional information at


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