Ninth Annual Lighthouse International Film Festival Finds Women Making Inroads in Film

Jun 14, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Fawzia Afzal-Khan is writer and director of the documentary ‘Siren Song: Women Singers of Pakistan.’

About 7 percent of films produced in Hollywood have female directors, and the studio system continues to be a brick in the wall for many talented women. But that’s not so in the independent film world, where women fight alongside men to get their visions produced and marketed.

At the 2017 Lighthouse International Film Festival, held June 8-11 on Long Beach Island, the female voice was heard loud and clear. Three of the five juried winners were directed by women. The Documentary Short Film Grand Jury Award was given to “Refugee” by female directors Emily Moore and Joyce Chen, Narrative Short Film Grand Jury Award went to “Do No Harm” directed by Roseanne Liang, and Laura Moss captured a Special Jury Award Short Film for “Fry Day.” A female, Lara Stolman, won the documentary film category for “Swim Team.”

Unlike the entrenched film industry, the independent film circuit pits both women and men in the same struggles for funding and recognition.

Laura Terruso, writer/director of the feature film “Hello My Name Is Doris,” starring Sally Field, presented her newest comedy, “Fits and Starts,” on Friday at the LBI Foundation. During the audience chat, Terruso was asked if conditions in the film industry were changing for women. She answered that she hoped so because she moved to L.A. this year. “It’s always difficult for anyone and I think things are changing, but they still have a long way to go.”

Terruso wrote the first draft of her screenplay in January and shot the film over 14 days in July. She also edited her film. “The editing took a longer time to find the movie in there and I didn’t want to rush it. It took two months to edit and a year and a half overall.”

Fits and Starts” is about a couple, both writers, and the problems that ensue when the woman’s career takes off, leaving her boyfriend somewhat in the dust. Comedian Wyatt Cenac and actress Greta Lee star as the sniping couple on the verge of breaking up during a night in transit to a pretentious artist salon.

“The first thing I did was figure out the structure of the film. Then the jokes just came like flies,” said Terruso. “The inspiration for the film was going to a party in Greenwich, Conn., on Oscar night and trying to buy a bottle of wine and finding all the liquor shops close at 5 p.m. on Sunday.” This situation is the basis for the couple’s biggest fight.

Two buddy cops on duty in the wilds of Connecticut who see the couple attempting car sex in the daytime are the B story and also provide a locker-full of laughs.

Terruso paces the story, bringing it to a credenza that satisfies. “I love a happy ending. Classic comedies all end in marriage.”

The short film “Fry Day,” directed by Laura Moss, takes us to Starke, Fla., on the eve of serial killer Ted Bundy’s execution. “Starke is between Gainesville and Jacksonville, and in between there is a whole lot of nothing,” said co-writer Brendan O’Brien during the audience chat. To get the right feel of the 1980s, Moss went through Starke high school yearbooks.

The film follows a young girl’s experiences on the night of the execution as a carnival atmosphere, called “the Ted Bundy BBQ,” envelops the road outside the prison. “It’s a different world,” said Moss. “I vaguely remembered something about this event. We went through news footage. There was a countdown to the execution. It was the first of the serial-killer celebrity cases.”

The actress Jordyn DiNatale was chosen because she fit the profile of Bundy’s victims: petite girls with long brown hair, said Moss. In the film, the actress is making money by taking Polaroids and selling them to people, many who wear Bundy face masks. She meets a boy she may have attended a class with and unwisely gets into his truck with him and his two friends. After paying for their chicken dinner and unwittingly playing a trick on the waitress, played by Tony Award-winning actress Elizabeth Ashley, she is robbed and left alone to spend the night outside in a farm field. As the foggy dawn begins with bird sounds, the audience freezes in fear upon hearing the rumble of the pickup truck returning.

Writer/director Victoria Negri also acted in her feature film “Gold Star,” based on her personal experiences caring for her father, a stroke victim who was left without his voice. Although she cared for her father “100 percent,” her film depicts a young woman trying to run away from the overwhelming responsibility. “No one wants to see a film about a perfect daughter,” said Negri.

Primarily trained as an actress, this is her first film. The experience of losing her father made her realize that there is only so much time to do things in life. “I believed in myself. I saw the film in my head. I couldn’t sleep because of it,” she said.

She was “lucky” to have veteran actor Robert Vaughn play her father. When asked how she was able to get him, she said her casting director gave him the script. “This was my first film. I didn’t have a stacked resume, but he loved the script. It was a new challenge for him. My father was a huge fan of his and I watched ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ with him.”

Vaughn was in his 80s and was healthy during filming but later was found to have leukemia and passed away in November 2016.

“He became like a father figure to me,” said Negri. “We looked through my old family photos together. We maintained a friendly relationship afterwards.”

Vaughn was the consummate actor, she said. “Even though he has no lines, he gets the most audience reaction with just a look or a gesture. He was a magnificent human being and I’m so honored this was his last film.”

“That Way Madness Lies” is a chilling documentary by writer/director/producer Sandra Luckow about her real life brother Duane, who was diagnosed in his late 40s with late onset mental illness. Over the span of a few years, his condition deteriorates to the point he is involuntarily locked up in the Oregon State Hospital for three months and eventually becomes homeless. After discharge he gets a $117,000 hospital bill that leads to an intervention by his sister Sandra, who travels from NYC where she teaches film production at Yale School of Art. When they were children, Duane used to make home movies with his friends where he played a James Bond character. In adulthood, he was a fashion photographer and had his own machine shop for restoring classic cars that he ran with his father. It seemed his only failure was in not getting married.

Sandra tries to help her brother, who must move back with their parents, but soon his illness takes the form of paranoid schizophrenia and he destroys their piece of mind and threatens to destroy them financially. Sandra again intervenes but finds she is unable to successfully negotiate a “broken” mental health system where the patient's rights in court can keep him from getting the medication he needs to function. “I figured I’m smart. I’m going to be able to circumvent this,” said Luckow. “I was wrong.”

Her brother will not take his medication, but he will allow her to film him, as he believes he’ll be able to use the footage to prove he is sane, and he is wrong.

Luckow hopes the documentary will be a force in changing the mental health system. She seeks to take decisions of when mentally ill persons must be forcibly medicated or hospitalized out of the court system and into the medical establishments. “The goal for my film? I want it played on Capitol Hill.”

Both PBS and the BBC have expressed interest in the film but will not fund the post-production costs, she said. She is seeking that funding now.

The short documentary “Swim Team,” directed and produced by Lara Stolman, is about the Jersey Hammerheads, a team made up of diverse autistic teens and will be shown on PBS’ “Point of View” program on Oct. 2. Her film’s message is “expect the kids to do it and they will rise to the occasion.”

Time and space constraints limit further discussions of LIFF films by women, but out of six documentaries, four were by women. There were 55 short films, 16 by women, and of the 20 narrative films (fictional), four were by women.





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