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In 1914, Lois Weber was the highest paid film director in the world—she was even the first filmmaker to own her own studio. As a select few companies like Universal Pictures centralized the industry in southern California and gained control of who could make movies, however, the landscape for women in film changed. That trend continues to the present day: In 2021, out of the top 100 grossing films in the U.S., only 17 percent were directed by women.
“In the beginning, women were such an integral part of the whole movie-making industry,” says Barbara Bridges, the founder of Denver’s Women + Film festival. “Then, the Hollywood studio system came into power, and women were kicked out.”
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Bridges, a longtime businesswoman and philanthropist, hadn’t thought much about women in the film industry. That changed at a 2004 breakfast with Donna Dewey (an Oscar winning filmmaker and Colorado resident) to discuss Bridges becoming an executive producer for the film Looking for Sunday. The job kickstarted Bridges’ interest in movies, and soon after, she accepted a position on the Denver Film Society board. Her first suggestion to the organization: We need to support women filmmakers.
That support came in the form of Women + Film, which began as a panel during the Denver Film Festival in 2006. After securing some big names like producer Abby Disney and Doris “Granny D” Haddock, the star of the documentary Run Granny Run, tickets to some of the early talks sold out.
“Due to the panels’ success, we decided to start doing one-off monthly screenings,” Bridges says. At the first few showings, Bridges remembers anxiously counting the number of people in the audience. Eventually, though, those also began selling out. “It became clear that people love to see this kind of programming,” Bridges says.
In 2011, the former executive director of the Denver Film Society, Tom Botelho, took notice of Women + Film’s success and pitched the idea of a small, six-day festival. The event has only continued to grow since then: This year, the festival will include its first awards luncheon, as well as its “premiere circle” club for donors who support the program (benefits include discounted movie tickets). “We like to show women’s lives and the strength of women,” Bridges says. “And the ultimate goal is to keep the quality up and keep growing.”
And, of course, to continue giving women who occupy a variety of roles on film sets the space to show off their movies. “Even if the statistics of women in the film industry become 50/50, we would still hold this festival to show women telling their stories,” Bridges says. “That is what’s important.”
This year, Women + Film, which runs from Tuesday, April 5 through Sunday, April 10, features 22 exciting pictures written, directed, and produced by women. Here, we highlight three you won’t want to miss.
Fire of Love
The opening film of this year’s Women + Film festival is a visually spectacular documentary about two French volcanologists who fell in love and died together in 1991 while in the field. Throughout their life, the pair captured hundreds of hours of footage showcasing the phenomena of eruption. Sara Dosa’s film presents an archival collage of the lovers’ adventures into lava. Tuesday, April 5, 7 p.m.; featuring a film pre-recorded Q&A with Sara Dosa at Sie FilmCenter Lobby
The world’s global temperature continues to rise, making expeditions to the North Pole increasingly dangerous. In this film, Holly Morris follows an all-women expedition crew from the Middle East and the West as they combat frostbite, water shortages, helicopter crashes, rapidly moving Arctic sea ice, and more during a journey to the frozen tundra at the top of the world. The film is a tale of resilience, adventure, and environmental enlightenment. Thursday, April 7, 7 p.m.; featuring a live Q&A with director Holly Morris at Sie FilmCenter
This animated film by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin tells the heartbreaking story of Charlotte Salomon (voiced by Keira Knightley), a young Jewish painter coming of age in Germany at the start of World War II. Desperate to become an artist, Charlotte struggles to navigate the dangerous reality of living in Berlin. To escape the Nazi regime, Salomon fleas to southern France, where she paints her life story in the autobiographical painting series Life? or Theatre?, providing the backdrop for a tale about identity and the awe-inspiring spectacle of the human spirit. Sunday, April 10, 4:15 p.m.; reception after the screening at Sie FilmCenter Lobby