AWFJ Women On Film- Sarasota Film Festival – Susan Wloszczyna reports

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USA TODAY’s Susan Wloszczyna, a founding member of AWFJ, found the topic of women in film alive and well and much discussed at the 13th Sarasota Film Festival this year. Her exclusive report:

I went to a film festival and saw nary a film.

Did I feel a tad guilty in Sarasota, where 185 entries unspooled this year? Heck yeah. Just for starters, I would have loved to have seen Page One, the New York Times doc; Beginners, with the illustrious Christopher Plummer as a gay man who comes out late in life; and Errol Morris’ doc Tabloid, about the strange times of onetime beauty queen Joyce McKinney.

Complicating matters was the fact that a glorious expanse of beach beckoned each morning, an offer I found hard futile to resist (bonus: lots of shells to take home for souvenir gifts). Plus, I was only going to be there from two non-traveling days.

But instead of checking off titles on a must-see list with OCD-like precision, I returned home from the 13th annual edition of the festival that wrapped Sunday with a refocused vision of how movies affect people — especially women involved in film — and bond us together in uncommon ways.

Like karaoke. Who knew there was such a rabid cult of practitioners among such paragons of film journalism as Time Out New York‘s David Fear, the Village Voice‘s Aaron Hillis and my AWFJ colleague Kim Voynar, the wonder woman of Movie City News?

At the funky but chic Flying Dog bar somewhere near the airport, these seasoned and highly competitive performers took this nervous fledgling under their collective wing and gave me the encouragement (and the beer) that enabled me to stand up in public and belt out (actually, shout out) Total Eclipse of the Heart. Thankfully I was accompanied by super-publicist Lina Plath of Frank PR and Sarasota’s unflappable director of programming Holly Herrick (she outdid Bonnie Tyler herself on the “turn around, bright eyes” refrain).

We were a hit. It was exhilarating. I got back to my room at 3 a.m.

I should now quit while I am ahead.

But, on a more serious note, I also was afforded a chance to escape from the cramped cubicle of my brain labeled “reporter” and allowed the rare opportunity to experience cinema in a whole new way. I wasn’t covering a festival, like I usually do when I race around Toronto each September in a multi-tasking frenzy, blogging, doing interviews for countless future stories and soaking up as many titles as I can.

Instead, I was invited as a contributor to the festival itself, engaging in the present rather than filing away information for the future. Besides karaoke, I pushed myself to explore various fresh challenges in soul-renewing ways.

Last year was my debut as a Sarasota jury member. I hung out with my fellow jurists Bruce Handy and Dan Fierman, two audaciously sharp guys from Vanity Fair and GQ who made our shared duties a pleasure. We watched films. Went to parties. We swiftly made our picks. I briefly schmoozed with such attendees as Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as well as gazed in fan-girl awe at Patti Smith as she performed in a bar space the size of a large living room.

Not bad.

But this year, I found myself taking on three completely different tasks that directly involved women in film — all graced by the presence of ‘Thelma’ herself, the tall, not so tan yet incredibly lovely Geena Davis, who was there to spread her message about the negative signals sent out by media’s portraits of young girls on TV and in film. My goal was to rise to each occasion and try to have some positive effect on the proceedings.

Mentoring Workshop

A mentoring workshop with female filmmakers whose work was being shown in Sarasota. This was daunting for me, especially since writing for a large mainstream outlet like USA TODAY limits my coverage of small independent movies much beyond Oscar season.

But being alongside such stalwarts as two female producers — Sarah Green, whose credits include Girlfight, Frida and most of Terrence Malick’s oeuvre including the upcoming Tree of Life, as well as Amy Hobby, a force behind Secretary and Hamlet with Ethan Hawke — kept me grounded. As did the presence of a very game Davis. She put everyone at ease by relating an amusing and very apt mentoring anecdote involving her Thelma & Louise co-star, Susan Sarandon.

During filming, it seems that director Ridley Scott off-handedly suggested to her right before a lunch break that in the next scene. where a suddenly liberated Thelma rides atop the seat in that infamous T-bird convertible, that she should rip off her shirt and go topless.

A chagrined Davis was none too pleased to hear this and, too timid to object, ran to Sarandon and told her, “Susan, Ridley wants me to take my top off in the next scene.” Sarandon simply put down her sandwich, strode up to Scott and declared, “Ridley, Geena will NOT take her top off in the next scene.” And went back to her sandwich. And that was that.

Meanwhile, I shared such info as how it came to be that the original Tenacious D publicist supreme Donna Daniels, got me to write about Courtney Hunt and Frozen River. Basically, even though directors are averse to having their work shown on DVD instead of on the big screen, it made matters much easier for me to watch the title early on a readily available disc. And, sure enough, I was able to include Hunt in a roundup of female filmmakers and later spoke to star Melissa Leo after she began to get awards attention.

We then broke for separate mentoring sessions, sort of like flash dating. I was happy though surprised to see that anyone would seek my advice, frankly. But the impressive women I met with each had their own interesting reason for speaking with me.

The very striking and intelligent Mimi Chakarova, a professor at UC Berkeley whose documentary Price of Sex is investigation of sex trafficking in various countries is making a splash, simply wanted to speak to a fellow journalist and compare notes.

The very focused Kim Snyder, whose doc Welcome to Shelbyville — a rare upbeat look at immigration –will be airing on PBS at the end of May, simply wanted to know how to get coverage in our paper. I told her to contact our TV critic and see if he would mention it in that day’s viewing highlights.

And the delightful director-writer Madeleine Olnek and producer Laura Terruso, whose comedy Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, played at Sundance as well as Sarasota, wanted advice on how to capture the attention of the press. My suggestion with a title like that? Get a clip online pronto, because it begs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Geena Davis Q&A

Then there was my Q & A with Davis. I have spent more than 20 years speaking to the showbiz famous and making them sound interesting and entertaining as possible, so this was just an extension of what I normally do for a living. But this time it was with a paying audience.

Since this was my stage debut as a celebrity interviewer, I came as prepared as possible. I re-watched several of her movies, read up on her life and career and put many hours into forming a sort of script for myself that would encapsulate what I thought people would want to hear her speak about for 50 or so minutes. And then I moderated the questions that came from the audience.

Our talk in front of several hundred people exceeded my expectations, much aided by the fact that the actress is a Mensa member with at least an 150 IQ. If I faltered, I knew she would not miss a beat. We covered the highs (such as her Oscar for The Accidental Tourist) and the lows (the notorious pirate flop Cutthroat Island) and everything in between.

I also left time for Davis to discuss her main reason for attending the festival and why the organizers felt she was the perfect candidate to receive their inaugural impact award — namely, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which she founded in 2004 after watching TV with her then-two-year-old daughter and noticing how male characters far outnumbered female.

The audience was very keen on hearing what her institute’s research has revealed (males outnumbered females in entertainment for kids 11 and under at a ratio of 3 to 1) and how she has reached out to studios and various guilds to remedy that situation.

Not that Davis’ female-driven roles haven’t had impact in themselves. Even her short-lived but much-admired 2005 TV series Commander in Chief, in which she played the first female president, made a big impression “There was just one season,” she said, “and 72 percent of people said in a poll that they were more likely to vote for a woman for president” after watching the show.

Backstage after our chat, Davis looked pleased and was appreciative of the amount of research I had done. But she rightfully paid the most attention to the drama students at the Sarasota High School where the conversation took place, posing for a group photo and giving them an autograph. She had a very large bodyguard at her side, but to my eyes, she seemed more at ease than many celebrities when faced with public interaction.

She is also leaving a bit of herself behind in Sarasota. After Davis, a mother of a daughter, now nine, and twin sons, six, met with students from a local middle school, a joint effort between the institute, the festival and Sarasota Country schools was announced,

The institute’s programming arm, See Jane, will work with the festival’s outreach and education program to do workshops on gender inequity in the media and allow middle and high-schoolers a chance to participate in a filmmaking challenge. The first student films will be shown at next year’s festival.

As she told the kids at Booker Middle School, “Male or female, you have an opportunity to become agents for change.”

Somehow, the gracious Davis managed to top all this by performing an opera solo a cappella and in Italian at a tribute dinner held on the Sarasota Opera House stage. Seems her husband, plastic surgeon Reza Jarrahy, spilled the beans to the festival’s congenial Board President Mark Famiglio that his wife had been taking singing lessons. Trouper that she is, Davis indulged her host and exceeded expectations.

Beginners star Christopher Plummer, who also participated in a conversation led by New York magazine’s David Edelstein, was at the dinner as well. But even though he warbled in The Sound of Music, he did not have to sing for his supper. Instead, one of the opera’s own members honored the Canadian-born actor with a rendition of the anthem Oh, Canada.

Producers Award

Lastly, I was asked to deliver the intro for Green, the recipient of the festival’s Producers Award, at a ceremony before the dinner. Again, a first for me. I calmed myself before stepping onstage and tried to slowly and clearly read the words off a teleprompter, trying desperately not to mangle any titles like Oleanna. I think I was a little better than James Franco at the Oscars but no Anne Hathaway.

All in all, the festival offered me a chance at self discovery as well as an opportunity to meet and mingle with some truly amazing journalists, festival staff and film talents. Thank you, Sarasota. I would love to be invited again, if only to check out what those kid filmmakers cook up and maybe do a karaoke encore.

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Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.