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What I've Learnt By Setting Up The Bechdel Test Fest

07/02/2016 22:18 | Updated 07 February 2016

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Pic: The team, Natalie Petrou, Corrina Antrobus, Nia
Childs and Simran Hans at Suffragette screening at Picturehouse Central.

This February, The Bechdel Test Fest celebrates its 1st birthday. It's been a tremendous journey and has somehow reached a level of interest that has surpassed the most arrogant of dreams. It has force-fed me lessons not only in the business of cinema but of my own life.

I've done numerous interviews explaining how and why I set up a film festival to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Bechdel Test and I've been humbled by these opportunities to reflect on its progress. I'm often asked questions I didn't realise needed answering; things like 'why does representation matter?' And 'why do we need more women making movies?' I'm also asked questions that back me into a hole where no diplomatic answer is available. How does one politely say; 'this army of old white guys is everything that's wrong with Hollywood?'

As we celebrate our first anniversary I'm feeling reflective, and by combining my love of lists, writing, and because I'm often asked 'how do you do this alongside your full time job?', I'm sharing the things I learnt in the year gone by.

People Are Amazingly Helpful

The idea of slinging on a DVD and riffing on how good Thelma and Louise is in Pub On The Park was hardly going to be a huge chore but I knew I'd need a hand. I'd hoped a few people might like the idea (once they learned how to pronounce 'Bechdel') and through Twitter and chatting people up at networking parties found a wealth of enthusiasm.

My presumption of putting on yet another film festival in an already bustling calendar, and with feminism as a theme, struck me as a hard sell. However I was bowled over by seeing how many people; young, old, men, women, professional and aspiring people, were willing to muck in.

At the first volunteers meeting I arranged, I sat wondering if anyone would turn up and anxiously envisioned having to eat the entire bag of donuts I'd bought everyone. It was needlessly nerve-wracking.

Now, with three lead programmers, 30 volunteers, a PR executive and sponsorship manager, I feel privileged to have such talented, passionate and professional people who want to see Bechdel Test Fest be a thing for the love not the money (but maybe the donuts).

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Pic: Rocks In My Pockets at the ICA London in partnership with Little White Lies.

Look For The Half Up Hands

I love film Q&As and relish the opportunity to discuss what individuals got from communal cinematic experiences. I've noticed in post-screening question time, the space tends to be dominated by male voices but it's not that men are hogs, it's more that women don't always feel forthcoming.

BTF is all about creating discussion and in the 13 events we've hosted we've always held a panel, intro or chat. Now, with the wisdom of knowing that some women need a little coaxing, I look for the hands of women that are politely half up who often have the most valid things to say.


The Future's Bright. The Future's Female

There are a LOT of men making movies, but women are doing up the buttons and laying on the spreads when it comes to programming those films in cinemas and it's not just in the UK.

I was lucky to land a spot on a Venice film programming course along with 40 international budding programmers. There were about 35 women and five men who thought they'd got off on a fantasy island inhabited only by tanned female cinephiles.

OK, so we were pitching our final project of a theoretical new cinema to two guys (Dragon Den style), but if the seeds of the industry are female and we continue to have brilliant women such as Clare Binns of Picturehouse, Carina Volkes of Film London, Jemma Desai at the ICO, Holly Tarquini of Bath Film Festival and Amanda Nevill heading up the BFI, I have faith that feminism will organically bloom within our cinemas and trickle into the films they want us to see.


Not Everyone Gets Diversity

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Pic: Speakers Bridget Minamore and Isaura Barbé-Brown at The Feminist's Guide To Love: 'The Whitewash Of Romance' Talk at The BFI.

Women may be big in the cinema programming game, but people of colour are the scarce chocolate chip on this giant cookie.

Conferences serve as the butterfly net of the cinema business and parade its demographic profile which is very, very white and when I see a fellow black person in the conference coffee queue I wonder if they too are on the diversity panel.

I'm always honoured to be invited to speak on panels, but feel an enormous responsibility being asked to comment on how to reach diverse and feminist audiences as if there's a secret pied piper tune I know the notes to. One answer, as journalist and programmer Ashley Clark shrugged in his Bamboozed intro last year at the Ritzy; 'just hire more people'.

Diverse programming comes naturally to people who are classed as 'diverse' but we don't want to only be wheeled out for panels or the odd commission to lament on being in the skin we're in; we want to wade in on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death or be asked if Orson Welles really is all that. We want full time jobs, in big time positions and a chance at calling the shots.

Fear of Feminism is a Thing

My feminist conscious was being tuned from an early age. I knew who Germaine Greer was way before I bought The Spice Girls album and 'feminism' was never a scary or ambiguous word. Naively, I thought this was standard, but now I see how many shy away from feminism contexts, and I'm not talking about men or people who are outright sexist. I'm talking liberal minded, intelligent people who aren't yet comfortable calling themselves a feminist despite honouring the values.

I realised this when a friend declined to come to a BTF event despite screening one of her favorite films. She thought it would be 'too intelligent'. Perhaps she thought the feminist undertones of our otherwise very giddy sold out screening of Magic Mike would wrench the fun out of what would otherwise be a gratuitous Channing Tatum carnival.

Feminism is a political subject and politics isn't everyone's idea of fun times, but it's sad to think we're losing bums on seats because they feel it will be too intellectual or a guise to lure them into a bra burning cult.

The same goes for men. We love men, particularly ones that come to BTF events, but it startling to be asked if men are 'allowed' or can volunteer. Yes. Always. From day one some of our biggest cheerleaders have been men and I can genuinely say that's not just because they're on the pull.

I keep this in mind every time I program an event and aim to strike a balance between empowered, entertaining and welcoming to all.

New Emotions

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Pic: Beyond The Lights London Premiere speakers: Cecile Emeke, Simran Hans, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jasmine Dotiwala

Like doing a new exercise and discovering new muscles, I've unlocked emotions I didn't know I could produce. After our most high-profile events, and the neuroses that comes with publicly flaunting yourself in the media, I've had the overwhelming feeling of wanting to crawl under a rock. I guess it's what happens when you're not a natural extrovert and are bewildered by all the attention.

The work that's gone into BTF events, from giving Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond The Lights the cinematic outing it deserved, to proving Latvian animated films about mental health have an audience, has been well worth the weeks of insanity.

Personal satisfaction aside, nothing prepared me for the overwhelming gratitude received from audience members and filmmakers who might not have otherwise had their work discovered. Reading feedback forms and receiving such gracious thanks from my own personal heroes, has brought a new depth of thrill which feels like being hit with a truck of artisan marshmallows.

I've also had to learn how to pat myself on the back. It's perplexing how uncomfortable this is, but in the exciting year ahead (because there's still so much work to be done), I intend to try use some of the best advice I was given last year from Times Chief Film Critic Kate Muir and Women In Hollywood's Melissa Silverstien...'fuck humbling'.

To everyone who's come to a BTF event or helped out in any way - thank you. Here's to another exciting year of The Bechdel Test Fest.

The Bechdel Test Fest is volunteer-run, ongoing celebration of films that pass the Bechdel Test. We screen events at various venues around London. Check site and social for updates of forthcoming events at bechdeltestfest.com, @bechdeltestfest, Facebook/BechdelTestFest

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