Sports movies that star women allow us to see the joys and tribulations female athletes face on a daily basis. Well-known movies, such as A League of Their Own (1992), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Girlfight (2000), may come to mind. But how about the stories of everyday women or professional female athletes that don’t necessarily make it to the big silver screen?
The Women Sports Film Festival is the world’s first film festival to focus on female athletes – and it’s now gearing up for its second year in California this September. Last year, film festival co-founders Susan Sullivan and Jennifer Matt wanted to promote independent films and conversations that explored how sport shapes the lives of women and girls around the globe – and succeeded with nearly 500 people seeing 19 different short and feature-length documentaries about women and girls from four continents, playing 11 different sports.
“We created this film festival because we wanted to go to it and it didn’t exist,” Sullivan said. “As we curated the first program of films we kept finding absolute gems that most people had never even heard of – athletes living extraordinary lives and filmmakers working tirelessly to get the story to the screen.”
Sullivan was inspired to hold this kind of film festival after seeing the documentary Strong (2012), which shows U.S. Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Haworth preparing for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games as she struggles with injury, confidence and her place in a world where larger women are not readily accepted.
“I was just really moved by how powerful it was to see a film about strong, athletic women and I found it just fascinating to watch; I love Olympians, they are my rock stars,” she told BUST. “To see Cheryl there and to hear the story of filmmaker Julie [at the post-film Q&A] and what it took for her to get the film to the screen, I felt like someone needed to pick up the ball and take these kinds of films the next mile by getting them in front of audiences that would love them as much as I did.”
Consequently, Strong was one of the documentaries to be featured last year. Filmmaker Julie Wyman felt honored to have been the catalyst for the festival and to have been part of the first one, which had an interesting collection of stories with various sports and competitions.
“The festival makes a really powerful feminist contribution, and in a way that’s really fun and enjoyable,” Wyman told BUST. “The way documentaries can tell stories and open up people’s minds is really important, and to get a sense of hope or possibility, even if it’s just in the world of that story right now.”
This year Sullivan and Matt decided to create a month-long Kickstarter campaign (June 20-July 20) as a means to finance their festival this year, after paying for last year’s festival out-of-pocket. According to the Kickstarter page, this is “all or nothing” for them, meaning the festival will only be funded if it reaches its goal by Thursday, July 20 at 8:30 a.m. (EDT). Though the crowdfunding campaign is scheduled to end next week, Sullivan and Matt are hoping to continue sprinting toward September.
“We are super excited to build on the success of last year’s festival especially as we approach the 45th anniversary of Title IX. From pay equity to religious freedom our films touch on many of the most urgent issues impacting women and girls today,” Matt said. “Our goal is to energize and inspire with this year’s program that showcases badass women smashing stereotypes and breaking barriers."
One documentary that highlights such badass-ness is Megan Shutzer’s New Generation Queens (2015), which is scheduled to be in the festival’s line-up again. It follows Zanzibar’s women’s soccer team (the film’s subjects with the same name) as the players participate in a mainland Tanzania tournament for the first time, with several hoping to be recruited to the Tanzanian national team.
“When I met them I was really blown away by their stories and the experiences they were having – persisting and continuing to play, in spite of the fact people around them believed it was immoral for women to play soccer,” said Shutzer, who was in East Africa for work in early 2011 when she met the New Generation Queens. “It was something that was so different from my experience where girls are pretty encouraged to play soccer in the U.S., or certainly it isn’t considered immoral – but I also felt like there was something very similar and shared about the experience of how sports can be empowering for girls and be a place where you can take pride in being strong.”
But this West Coast film festival is not the finish line goal for Sullivan and Matt. They believe that we need to continue to hear stories and see images of strong women, pursuing their dreams and persisting in the face of obstacles, during these times.
“Our dream is to take this nationally and bring the festival on tour, working with organizations literally around the world to make sure people are aware of these films and are able to have access to them,” Sullivan told BUST.
With 256 backers and five days left for the campaign, the Women Sports Film Festival is about $4,000 away from reaching its $25,000 goal. Should the campaign reach and/or exceed this amount, the festival will return to Oakland, California, at The New Parkway Theater on September 28-30, with a full slate of scheduled films and panel discussions.
Top photo courtesy of Susan Sullivan
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Erin DeGregorio is a student pursuing an M.A. Degree in Journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (New York, New York). She has a focus in arts and culture reporting and will be graduating in December 2017. Her portfolio of select clips can be viewed here.