ON THE HEELS of Sunday night's Academy Awards—whose stuffiness was tempered only by Lady Gaga's surprise advocacy for sexual-assault survivors, and by a bedazzled leather jacket worn by Mad Max: Fury Road's costume designer—the timing of this year's Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival (POWFest) couldn't be better. The Academy's record on racial diversity has been deservedly called out in recent weeks, and its treatment of women isn't much better, especially when it comes to directing. Of the now 88 winners in that category, only one has been female—Kathryn Bigelow, for 2008's The Hurt Locker. This is symptomatic of the film industry as a whole: Women make up only seven percent of directors, despite the precedent set by pioneering women filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Maya Deren, and Chantal Akerman.
I've grown so accustomed to Hollywood's antipathy toward film industry professionals who don't resemble Michael Keaton that I'm skeptical of the Oscars' ability to improve. But POWFest has a better attitude. As creaky old relics like the Academy buoy the filmmaking establishment, POWFest is working directly against such unimaginative entropy. Each year—and it's now in its ninth—POWFest showcases films directed by women, claiming space for essential films that rocket past Hollywood's sexism.
With that in mind—and with this year's expansive POWFest offerings—it's hard to go wrong in any of the festival categories, but I'm partial to its comedic shorts, especially María Marta Linero and Eva Benitez's Yo, Yo la Cucaracha, a breezily animated five minutes in a long-distance friendship between lady cockroaches (uh-huh); Stéphanie Cabdevila's Bionic Girl, a French and benevolently existential musical that brings to mind Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as scored by Serge Gainsbourg and if the titular mad scientist were a yé-yé girl; and No Breath Play, which is nominally about a BDSM scene gone awry, but reveals itself to be about something totally unexpected. (All three screen as part of the "Shorts I" program, on March 4.) Also required viewing: Christian Henry's From Salem to the Salon ("Shorts III," March 5), a documentary about Portland salon owner Amber Starks, whose advocacy changed state law to allow a licensing process for natural hair stylists, and Elena LaCourt's Standard Life ("Shorts IV," March 5), a pared-down animated film that considers how untreated mental illness reverberates across generations.
That's not even including programming from this year's guest of honor, Catherine Hardwicke, whose acuity for believable, complex, respectful films centered on young women and female friendship makes her an unsurprising but no less welcome choice. The festival will feature three of her films: Thirteen (March 5), Miss You Already (March 5), and Twilight (March 6).
Yes, that Twilight. The teenage vampire movie based on a poorly worded screed against premarital sex also happens to have had the biggest opening weekend ever for a film directed by a woman. Whatever you think of Twilight, there's no denying what Hardwicke achieved with it: She not only transformed a deeply flawed series into a successful film franchise, but she also provided much-needed evidence that a film directed by a woman, and whose primary audience is women, can be a box office hit—proof that the Oscars' snubbing of filmmakers who aren't ancient white dudes isn't just creatively limiting, it's bad business.
Despite her far-reaching success with that first film, Hardwicke would not go on to direct Twilight's sequels. There were conflicting reports over what happened: Hardwicke claimed she walked off the project over disputes with Summit Entertainment; Summit Entertainment claimed to have fired her. Whatever the case, the outcome was this: The next four installments of the woman-centered franchise Hardwicke had launched were directed by three men: Chris Weitz, David Slade, and Bill Condon.