By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
IN the era of "Basic Instinct," the movie scene often deserves its bad reputation as a peddler of sensation, exploitation, and other dubious commodities. So when a really worthwhile film event comes along, it serves a doubly positive purpose - casting light on some part of human experience that needs illumination, and helping to counteract the sleazier aspects of today's commercial movie world.
Two such events are now in progress, and since both are touring in the United States, they promise to reach a lot of spectators who might otherwise be ready to give up on moviegoing. One is a 20th-anniversary celebration of Women Make Movies - a not-for-profit organization that produces, promotes, exhibits, and distributes media productions by and about women. The other is this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, presenting 62 politically concerned movies, including the first retrospective devoted to the remarkable career of Marcel Ophuls.
Women Make Movies (WMM) bills itself as the largest American distributor of women's film and video, with more than 250 fiction, documentary, and experimental works in its catalog. You won't see most of these in your local theater, since they are often too offbeat or challenging for regular commercial release. But museums, libraries, universities, arts centers, and community groups have benefited greatly from the existence of WMM in the US and elsewhere.
The organization's main commitment is to institutions that value informational and educational works over standard entertainment fare, with emphasis on the needs of women belonging to racial and ethnic minorities. Works by women of color constitute more than 60 percent of the current WMM collection. Other assets and activities include a production-assistance program that helps women obtain funding for their projects; regular workshops in the technical skills of film and video production; and a resource library.
The lineup for WMM's anniversary program reads like a "Who's Who" of enterprising women who have established firm reputations in a branch of the visual arts long dominated by men. Perhaps the most prominent is Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese-born filmmaker now based in northern California, where she not only makes movies, but also teaches cinema and women's studies, and writes extensively on feminist and postcolonial issues. "Shoot for the Contents," her recent film on cultural and political issues in China, is a centerpiece of the WMM program.
Also on view are German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger's ambitious "Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia," about Western women on the Trans-Siberian railway; Pratibha Parmar's celebratory "A Place of Rage," about African-American women; "Hidden Faces," a documentary on Egyptian women by Claire Hunt and Kim Longinotto; "Canto a la Vida," a portrait of expatriate Chilean women by Lucia Salinas Briones; Zeinabu Davis's multimedia film "A Powerful Thang," about a Midwestern couple at a turning point in their relationship; and "First Comes Love," a minor work on American weddings by the extremely gifted Su Friedrich.
Other films include "The Body Beautiful," a study of a mother and daughter by Ngozi Onwurah, and Tracey Moffatt's enigmatic "Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy," about an Australian Aboriginal woman and her white mother. …