As Austen might well have observed had she been writing today, it has been a truth universally acknowledged for really far too long now that the film industry is no friend to older women – be that in front of the camera, or behind it for that matter. But in recent years, the voices speaking out against this dismal state of affairs have been gathering momentum, forming an increasingly insistent cacophony of resistance to the industry’s exclusionary practices. A signal and most welcome innovator in this call to greater diversity and inclusivity has come in the form of the Women Over Fifty Film Festival (WOFFF), founded in 2015 by Nuala O’Sullivan.
Last month saw the third iteration of WOFFF, run at the Sallis Benney theatre at the University of Brighton. Taking place largely over the weekend of September 16-17, and featuring an energetic programme of workshops, activities and screenings, it was a true treat to escape to the seaside for a weekend and join the proceedings. Featuring 55 international shorts, festival films all had to meet at least one of two crucial criteria: ‘there must be a woman over 50 at the heart of the story on screen, or a woman over 50 in one of the core creative roles (writer, director or producer)’.
The festival opened on the Thursday evening in splendid style at The Duke of York’s cinema, with a screening of Mamma Mia! (2008). The story of this older-woman centred film’s phenomenal and unanticipated commercial success, which was rapturously welcomed by many older-women audiences in contrast to its frequently snarky critical reception, is now the stuff of Hollywood legend (and one the industry will be hoping to repeat in the upcoming Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Furthermore, as Nuala O’Sullivan reminded us in her introduction, it was also a film led by a triumvirate of older women creatives, including director Phyllida Lloyd. Given this, and the film’s unadulterated pleasure in scenes of women of a certain age stealing the show, it was an apt opener for a festival ‘celebrating the work of older women on both sides of the camera’.
A series of broadly themed short film programmes along with six workshops, on such varied topics as ‘How to Win at Pitching’ and ‘Making a Film on Your Smartphone’, followed over Saturday and Sunday, along with two free public events. In the first of these, Patricia McManus from the University of Brighton delivered a lecture examining ‘Women Over Fifty in Dystopian Fictions: The Handmaid’s Tale – Gender & Race’. Here she traced an engaging history of how older women in dystopian literature have been used by the genre to embody ‘the masses’; easily manipulated, timid and eager to please. A thoughtful discussion of the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed. Contributors grappled with issues raised by the programme-makers’ decision to cast black actors in the series, since Atwood had depicted Gilead as only white by dint of reference to the mass ‘resettlement’ of ‘the children of Ham’; had the series evaded examining how white supremacism and patriarchy intersect? (For more on these debates see here).
The second free event was a panel discussion featuring a variety of women actors and practitioners, though not all of them quite met the ‘over 50’ criteria, a point which usefully served to underscore the inescapable subjectivity of what ‘older woman’ is taken to mean. The discussion here took something of a troubling turn at times, as it trod the familiar territory of whether women bosses give their women workers a harder time (thereby taking the heat off men, again), and in the suggestion that all that filmmakers have to do to combat the marginalisation of certain groups is simply ‘reflect reality’ (as if there is consensus on what that is). Nevertheless, the panel finished on an animated and thought-provoking note, as Loy Philips argued that digital filmmaking has liberated women just as washing machines and birth control did before it. Being accessible, lightweight and cheap – though only for some, one must note (a point that seems all the more imperative to make given the latest manoeuvres by ’45’ and co. in the US to limit women’s access to birth control) – it was intriguing to reflect on how digital filmmaking might be placed in a kind of history of technological shifts that have released (some) women from certain social and biological constraints.
The 55 short films screened in the festival were shared among eight programmes, and I was struck by how those that I got to see were gratifyingly international in scope, with projects drawn from South Africa, Afghanistan, Ireland, The Netherlands and France, as well as North America and the UK (while other screenings included work from Korea, Australia and Iran). In the ‘Conflict’ programme, Will Barnard’s Get Riel (2017) profiled choreographer and dancer Elsa Perez who is still teaching in her 80s; fortunate WOFFF participants had the opportunity to learn from her first-hand when she attended the festival to run a Latin American Dance workshop. As a South Londoner, The Ladies’ Bridge (Karen Livesey, 2015) was especially fascinating for me, documenting and revising the historical erasure of the women construction workers who provided the labour that built Waterloo Bridge. Documentary was well served throughout the festival, most particularly and valuably giving screen time to the experiences and voices of older women – subjects rarely considered worthy of attention – so that it felt quite radical to hear so many speak in succession. Elsewhere there was also a range of fiction, animation and experimental work to be seen; A Lighthouse in Breaking Waves (Cheryl White, 2016) delivered a moving and innovative composite of live action and animation as a bereaved mother traces her son’s last trip overseas, while the darkly humorous Spores (Frances Poet and Richard Poet, 2015) ensured that the audience went home vowing to never again risk picking their own mushrooms. Each programme was followed by a welcome opportunity for the audience to ask questions of various filmmakers, actors and production personnel, all of whom were enthusiastically introduced by Festival Director Nuala O’Sullivan, whose spirited marshalling of the entire festival was unwavering.
As I finish writing this, I’m struck by the perfect symmetry of the fact that I am doing so to the sounds of my children (aged seven and eight) watching Mamma Mia! on the iPad. How perfectly this illustrates that given half a chance, more audiences drawn from many demographics would be content to see women over 50 populating their screens. On our Film Night at the weekend it was a tough call for my kids trying to decide between this or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m happy to report that for today at least in our house – and for the foreseeable future at WOFFF – Meryl and co rule.
Further details and reports on WOFFF 2017 can be found here.
Dr Deborah Jermyn is Reader in Film and Television at the University of Roehampton, where she is Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures. She is the editor of Female Celebrity and Ageing: Back in the Spotlight (2013) and (with Su Holmes) Women, Celebrity and Cultures of Ageing: Freeze Frame (2015). Her monograph (on over-50 woman filmmaker) Nancy Meyers has just been published by Bloomsbury.