written by: Heathyr Clift
AFI: Empowering Women – One Director At A Time
1974: It was the year of Happy Days, Good Times, Blazing Saddles, and… The birth of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. In the 37 years since the program’s inception, the AFI has nurtured the budding creative aspirations of over 250 women and sparked the success of such notable program graduates as Maya Angelou (Down in the Delta), Jennifer Getzinger (Mad Men, Hung), Lesli Linka Glatter (House, Heros), Tricia Brock (Saving Grace, Grey’s Anatomy), and most recently, Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright).
In her address to the attendees of May 9th’s jam-packed 2011 Showcase, Ms. Cholodenko reminded us that we all have a voice, a journey, and a right to exclaim to the world in our own unique way, “I am necessary!” Her own voice is a charming mixture of wit, wisdom, and worldly experience, and as she relayed her journey from the stage, one could almost feel the beating of every hopeful heart in the overcrowded room all at once – the litany of a hundred secret dreams reaching out to this sage, this mentor, this powerful woman who did all that they yearn to do. When Lisa first came to AFI, it was as an assistant with no experience, no qualifications, and nothing to show for her young efforts in life, except for two years worth of travel stories. As a self-proclaimed “failing secretary,” she had naught but “big ideas,” which she assures us are “small, clear truths” begging to be “distilled to their essence.” Ultimately, Lisa chose film as her distillery, as have the eight bright-eyed candidates that have been admitted into this year’s Directing Workshop for Women.
These women – Trisha Gum, Bridgett Palardy, Jane Pickett, Denise Plumb, Anika Poitier, Kit Pongetti, Wenhwa Tsao, and Mako Kamitsuna –are now perched at the precipice that thousands have dreamed about, but few get even a glimpse of. They are about to summon their dreams to reality, thanks to AFI. With a gleam in their eyes, and visions in their heads, they each speak of a “powerful visual impulse that needs expression through film,” as Jane Pickett puts it. An accomplished playwright who cut her teeth at CalArts, Jane is especially excited about this opportunity to bring the subtext of her stories to life in a vibrant visual way, as she did in her first short film, “Cuttlefish” – a silent exploration of her new medium that she contrasts with the theater, in which “language provides the subtext.”
If you were to ask any one of these women for the key to making your dreams come true, they would each say – in their own unique way – Tenacity! Wenhwa Ts’ao elaborates, telling us to “Keep on trying. Despite many rejections, trust in yourself.” Born and raised in Taiwan, Ms. Ts’ao has a fresh perspective to bring to Hollywood, and has already accomplished a great deal, being a Professor and Director of Graduate Study at Columbia College Chicago as well as an award-winning filmmaker. So, what is their advice for aspiring filmmakers? Well, several times we asked, and several times we received this answer, so eloquently summed up by Anika Poitier, award-winning director of The Devil Cats: “Just do it!” Do the work, hone your craft, create new worlds, bring new characters to life. Whether it’s a 48-Hour Film Competition, or just shooting with friends in your back yard, they all agree that doing the work builds your confidence and your momentum to get you moving in the right direction (pun intended!). If ever you find yourself feeling discouraged, take Mako Kamisuna’s advice and remember, “The more challenging, the more rewarding it is.” As an accomplished feature film editor and NYU graduate, she is certainly no stranger to a challenge! Denise Plumb adds, “Surround yourself with supportive, creative friends.” A creative powerhouse in her own right, Denise owns her own production company and is the writer/director of festival-favorite, A Mile in My Shoes, as well as co-director of A Voice for Choice, a feature length documentary about the 2004 March for Women. Each of these women has taken a giant leap toward taking Denise’s advice by joining efforts with AFI, for that is exactly what the Directing Workshop for Women is all about – support – through their invaluable resources, connections, knowledge, and prestige. Trisha Gum explains that it was this “nurturing” atmosphere that drew her to AFI, an important “stepping stone” for realizing her highest aspirations. Having worked on such notable stop-motion projects as Titan Maximum and Robot Chicken, Trisha is especially excited to have the support of such a prestigious program as AFI to help her transition to this brand new phase of her already impressive career.
Thanks to AFI, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Kathryn Bigelow, who has blazed a long-overdue trail for women in film, women all over the world now have proof that their filmmaking dreams are within reach. If the eager crowd at this year’s Directing Workshop for Women Showcase is any indication, it would seem the floodgates have finally opened for women who will no doubt follow in the footsteps of Kathryn Bigelow, and take their place among the members of the most exclusive club in Hollywood – Oscar-winners. The days when “a woman’s voice is not… as powerful as a man’s” are soon over, and women are fast becoming a driving force – as Joe Petricca, AFI Conservatory Executive Vice Dean, proclaimed in his introductory statements, “open the door, and talent will find a way.”