For the second year running, Nevertheless Film Festival is highlighting women behind the camera
By Katherine Martinelli
Featured photo by Emma Geiger
UPDATE, 6.10.20: Nevertheless Film Festival will take place online from July 9-12, 2020. Visit neverthelessfilmfestival.com for details.
In 2018, Meredith Finch was riding the bus to her job at the San Francisco Film Festival when she had a revelation. “I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts that were focused on finding your purpose,” recalls the 29-year-old, a veteran of the film-fest circuit (she’d also worked at the Sundance Film Festival). “I was very much in the headspace of, ‘What am I supposed to do next?’” That question led to another: “I keep working for other people’s film festivals — why don’t I try starting one of my own?”
In that moment, she knew three things: that she would try to spearhead her own film festival, that it would be held in Ann Arbor, where Finch went to college — she was a film-studies major at the University of Michigan — and that the films featured would have at least 50% womxn in leadership positions, including director, producer, editor, screenwriter and cinematographer. (The term womxn encompasses anyone who’s experienced misogyny, whether they’re a cis-woman or transgender.)
“I [was] inspired by the rising conversation about the lack of representation in the industry,” says Finch, who lives in New York and helps produce various film festivals during the year. “But I also felt like it was starting and stopping with directors,” she says. Indeed, the statistics on gender equality in filmmaking are bleak. According to The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of the 1,200 top-grossing films from 2007-2018 only about 21% of producers, 14% of writers, 4% of directors and 1% of composers identified as female.
Nevertheless Film Festival debuted at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater last summer; as of press time, it’s slated to return in July with three days of genre-spanning movies that include features, documentaries and shorts. The works don’t need to be about womxn — they just need to be made by them.
While there are other women-focused film fests out there, many emphasize either female directors or topics related to women. With Nevertheless, Finch tries to expand this by highlighting all the roles behind the camera and recognizing that just because a movie is made by womxn doesn’t mean it needs to be about “women’s issues.” Says Finch, “I think there is some danger to calling yourself a women’s film festival because that is emphasizing the ‘otherness’ of women. I don’t think it does much for talking about the fact that it’s normal for women to make movies.”
The festival’s title comes from the expression “Nevertheless She Persisted,” which became a feminist rallying cry after the U.S. Senate voted to silence Elizabeth Warren’s 2017 objections to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general. “I say it to myself when things get overwhelming or discouraging, and remember that the only way forward is to persist,” explains Finch. “And when thinking about the lack of representation and opportunities for women in the film industry, and how women have to deal with it and try not to give up, I think there’s no better phrase.’” (Finch adds that the name also speaks to how women are never “less than.”)
Finch’s festival is run by 12 film and media professionals who all volunteer. (As of press time, local organizations like Bank of Ann Arbor and Zingerman’s are supporting the fest.) “Every one of us behind the festival self-identifies as womxn, not a middle-aged white dude,” says Finch, who assembled her crew from womxn she’d met while working at film festivals around the country. “So we have a fresh perspective on the film industry.”
The staff combs through hundreds of submissions, which they rate on criteria like production value, creativity and performances. “Programming a festival requires objectivity,” says Finch. “Even if you didn›t like the film, the more important question is, ‘Would our audience find value in this?’” Finch tries to have a somewhat-even number of narrative films and documentaries, and last year screened 9 feature length films and 17 shorts; it will likely be about the same this year. (The 2020 lineup is TBD.) “We also look for diversity amongst filmmakers, film subjects, stories and genres,” says Finch.
For Montreal-based filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum, having her documentary Pipe Dreams selected for the festival’s 2019 lineup was a big deal. “Nevertheless is about empowering female filmmakers rather than ghettoizing them,” she says. “Women, like men, should be able to make films about any topic, and with any character, they choose.” Plus, she adds, “they are a group of programmers from the top festivals so to have them recognize my work was a real honor.”
Finch couldn’t have been happier about the initial response to the film festival. “I was not surprised that people were excited about it,” she says, “but I was really surprised and relieved by how enthusiastic the community was.” Finch was also thrilled by the mix of local and out-of-town attendees: 38% came from Ann Arbor but 20% came from out of state to attend the festival.
Although it’s not highlighted in the festival’s title, another one of the primary missions of Nevertheless is to increase representation in film beyond gender. Last year, 50% of directors with movies featured at Nevertheless were women of color, and 20% identified as LGBT. “You can’t really talk about women’s rights and women’s empowerment without putting an emphasis on intersectionality,” says Finch. “Conversations about gender that start and end with only white or cisgender women are not what I’m about. It’s not inclusive. It’s not the progress I’m trying to make.”
Most importantly, the festival aims to showcase excellent films that anyone, regardless of how they self-identify, will enjoy. “The whole point of our festival is to say women are making incredible movies all the time,” says Finch, “but aren’t getting the equal platform.”