Justina Walford considers herself a writer, first and foremost. She’s successfully produced her own screenplays and theater scripts, but AWFJ shines our September SPOTLIGHT on Justina Walford for her feminist film activism as founder and Artistic Director of the annual Women Texas Film Festival (WTxFF), a sterling celebration of cinema that showcases films made by and about women.
WTxFF isn’t unique in its mission; there are older, larger and better known women’s film festivals. But, in four years since WTxFF’s 2014 inception, Walford and her core team have garnered national recognition and a reputation for excellence for the festival.
Not only that, Walford has invigorated the Dallas film community by providing a purely creative outlet for local professionals whose ‘day jobs’ are primarily in production companies under contract to the large number of large corporations headquartered in Dallas. WTxFF is on an expansion course, and Walford’s ‘can do’ spirit is unstoppable.
IT STARTED WITH JOHN CARPENTER
Walford, who was raised in Southern California, recalls that her love of cinema started with Elvira Mistress of the Dark, but she quickly moved on to John Carpenter films. She says she watched Escape From New York a dozen times as a child, obsessively checking TV Guide for listings and begging her mother to allow her to eat dinner in the den so she could watch.
As a grown up professional, she now lists Ava DuVernay, Mary Harron, Karyn Kusama and Anna Biller among her favorite filmmakers and credits Ida Lupino with proving beyond doubt that women can direct ‘men’s stories’ exceptionally well. With the abundance of female storytelling talent around, she finds it truly baffling — and frustrating — that Hollywood’s hiring of women has remained so low.
Actually feminist frustrations began early in Walford’s cinema-centered career. After earning a degree in English Literature at San Francisco State University, Walford headed to Hollywood, hoping to write for TV and film. She landed various jobs in production offices, but none of them entailed writing.
Dismayed by the lack of opportunity for film writers, and frustrated her own mounting pile of unproduced manuscripts, Walford turned to the theater to exercise her creativity and and gain control of her career. During the early 2000s she ran a theater company in Hollywood where she produced hew own and other plays and storytelling events.
After winning the 2004 Women in Theatre Red Carpet award and receiving positive reviews with her dramatic play Evolution of Sunday, she moved to New York with her husband, John Wildman, to work in indie film. As a team, Walford and Wildman co-wrote and produced The Ladies of the Night (2014), now available on VOD at Amazon Prime.
Walford and Wildman relocated to Dallas in late 2015. She immediately joined Women in Film Dallas and wanted to volunteer for a women’s film festival. But. alas, Dallas, which already had several well-established film festivals, lacked a film festival dedicated to the female perspective. In fact, there wasn’t a women’s film festival in all of Texas at the time.
So, following a friend’s suggestion, the famously ‘can do’ Walford decided to start one. The first WTxFF took place in 2016, in less than a year from inception to presentation.
GROWING A FILM FESTIVAL
Walford says the biggest challenges in birthing the new film festival were garnering submissions and attracting audiences. Walford called upon her contacts in Dallas’ film community, as well as everyone she knew in the indie film world in LA and across the country to help her jump organizational and programming hurdles. She sought advice from collegial directors of other successful regional festivals, including Oxford Film Festival’s Melanie Lynn Addington, Tallgrass Film Festival’s (Wichita) Nick Pope, and Sidewalk Film Festival’s (Brimingham) Chloe Cook, among others, for leads to excellent female filmmakers. Walford surrounded herself with women who were exceptionally knowledgeable about very specific aspects of event planning and film festival planning. By year two, she had a strong and supportive staff and Board on board. The festival establishment was on solid ground.
By year three, Walford, along with WTxFF co-founder and Board Member Lisa Normand, had raised sufficient funds and in-kind support from the Dallas film community and other local sponsors for the festival to expand its program of femme-helmed films, and enable them to fly feature filmmakers to Dallas for their screenings and to organize a housing network for the filmmakers of programmed shorts. As for attendance, the numbers each year through the magic combination of marketing, PR and branding.
WTxFF’s fourth iteration (August 15-18, 2019) was attended by 50 filmmakers. The four-day event showcased 17 feature films, and 29 shorts, nearly doubling last year’s program. As in previous years, the films were screened at the historic Texas Theatre on W. Jefferson Blvd., but Walford added two new venues at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Cedars and at Methodist Dallas’ David H. Hitt Auditorium, as well.
WTxFF’s success is founded in Walford’s strategic programming. WTxFF’s mission is to show a full range of filmmaker voices, so Walford endeavors to program every genre as well as a diversity of filmmaker backgrounds and cultures. Before she closes festival submissions, she reaches out to communities that are missing in the portfolio of submitted films. If submissions don’t represent sufficient diversity, Walford asks her favorite distributors and artistic directors to suggest films to round out the program.
Walford looks for great storytelling, then narrows her selection to stories that people don’t expect from women. “I want the world to know women make every kind of movie” she says. “They have every kind of sense of humor. Hollywood still hires women in a vacuum and I pick films that empower the independent female filmmaker to make more of what she wants to create with no apologies and that show the world we want to and do make any and every kind of film.”
Walford’s decisions as Artistic Director not only determine the festival’s annual film program, but have also defined and built WTxFF’s unique personality — one that nurtures and celebrates female filmmakers and women’s stories in a most gratifying and satisfying way, and has positive impact on audiences.
“It’s not easy to describe, but let’s say I take pride in seeing audience members say things like “I’ve never seen myself in a movie, and now I have.” That may be why I gravitate toward films about identity and self-discovery as well as films that show truly complex characters.”
So, WTxFF has films like The In-Between, this year’s Best Feature Film winner, about two women who are traveling through their own narratives with complexities of personality and complexities of health, and I feel great when the audience is mainly women who are in similar situations and can identify,” Walford comments. “The first year, I programmed a documentary about women in prison, and most of our audience were women transitioning out of the prison system. Last year, we screened The Rest I Make Up, a film about Alzheimer’s, and a recently diagnosed woman who was in the audience told the filmmaker she felt a little less fear after watching the movie. There’s a bond that develops in those 90 minutes that is unforgettable for the audience and filmmaker.”
“And at the other end of that spectrum,” Walford continues, “when we have films like Holy Trinity where the complete acceptance of sex, gender, and beliefs is fused with a unique and fully-owned cinematic style, I call party planners to watch the movie and make a party around it. Style needs to be celebrated! So, we have themed parties. We dress up. We have fun. That sort of celebration of filmmakers and filmmaking style is a unique aspect of our festival’s personality”
There are distinct benefits for filmmakers at WTxFF.
“There is something powerful about being surrounded by women,” she avows. “We women spend such a large part of our year being a minority in the room. We are still spending too much time being the only woman in a decision-making room. And that depletes our energy. No matter how well we navigate the boys’ clubs, how many “boys only” tree houses we climb, we women need to recharge the batteries that get us to final edit. One of our festival filmmakers said it best in her award acceptance speech, ‘Even though it’s a women’s film festival, this is the first time I felt comfortable dropping the “woman” and simply being a filmmaker.’ That’s powerful.”
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Walford believes that WTxFF has an obligation to introduce filmmakers to Dallas and what the city has to offer. She’s developing the business side of WTxFF by creating local filmmaking opportunities that facilitate filmmakers’ abilities to create while enriching the city’s culture and contributing to the coffers of local film and tourism industries.
She is also working on a business plan to get more education for young women in Dallas to become filmmakers and visual storytellers. That, and year-round programming are the exceptional growth spaces she’s targeted.
Walford is also working on a personal film project. It’s a documentary about dog rescue, and it’s not about the fluffy adoption side. “I spend much of my time following street dog rescuers in 100 degree heat, standing over a decomposing animal, crawling through poison ivy, or experience the tragedy of being with a hospice dog or losing one to shelter euthanasia. It’s my first documentary and it’s a recent passion, so it’s hard to learn while emotionally getting punched in the gut. I have a renewed admiration for documentarians as I work on it.” she says.
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Justina Walford, starting from scratch but endowed with an unstoppable ‘can do’ spirit, founded WTxFF and, in just four short years, has secured its place on the annual regional film festivals circuit. In doing so, she has not only celebrated the excellent work of female filmmakers, she’s created new opportunities for them and for women and men employed in film production in Dallas, and she has brought brought awareness about the wealth of femme-helmed films to Dallas audiences. Win. Win. Win. And, all of this while she’s also been writing her own scripts and developing her own production projects. Walford is a complex character in her own right. Brava, Justina. — Jennifer Merin
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Merin served as a juror at the 2019 Women Texas Film Festival, where she interviewed Artistic Director Justina Walford for this SPOTLIGHT feature.