Programming can make a difference in who feels invited to the table, and Provincetown International Film Festival has made it clear that diversity—especially supporting the work of female-identified filmmakers—is a top priority.
By Heather Kapplow
I love film festivals. They’re my favorite way to see films because they immerse me in one dark room after another — it’s like never really leaving a REM stage of sleep: my brain doesn’t really get a chance to snap all the way back to reality and judge and measure each film in the daylight for more than a few minutes before I’m in the next dark room, immersed in the next dream. A piece of my consciousness, which is usually chattering away, just sits there quietly, taking it all in — not worrying about what’s real and what isn’t.
But, in those brief moments of daylight, while holding tight to one film’s visuals and waiting for the next film’s images to join them, I’ve noticed something. Standing in lines at New England film festivals in between films, I couldn’t help but see how homogenized the audiences were.
So I’ve decided to use my film festival experiences to explore this curiosity rather than to just write about individual films. To explore programming and the whole festival landscape from this perspective, starting from where I was a few years ago when I had the realization: at the Provincetown International Film Festival, in a line that seemed to me to be close to 100% middle-aged and Caucasian. There’s no question that the LBGTQI axis of diversity was represented, but I was did not hear any languages other than English spoken, and saw little variation in how people looked when I glanced ahead and behind myself in line.
I assumed that the demographics of those attending the festival in Provincetown were mainly a result of the area’s demographics. And, the statistics bore this likelihood out: according to the most recent census data, Provincetown’s residents are 87% white. (For comparison, Boston’s population is 46.6% white.) The largest sector of the population is between 50 and 54 years of age, and 90.2% of the population was born in the US.
But programming can make a difference in who feels invited to the table, and Provincetown International Film Festival has made it clear that diversity — especially supporting the work of female-identified filmmakers — is a top priority. That makes it a good testing environment.
In this, it’s 20th Anniversary year, how strong is the presence of the programming that focuses on the axes of diversity beyond the two that the festival is most known for celebrating: queer culture and women filmmakers? Can a viewer shape a customized pathway that keeps the screens full of people of color; people with a range of physical and psychological abilities; and people of all economic backgrounds? I’m happy to say the answer is not only a resounding yes, but that several of the films I picked to watch in order to compose a diversity-focused track, turned out to be among the crowd favorites — according to audience vote tallies — in the entire festival. Here is proof that there is a hunger for (even within a homogenized population) for stories from perspectives that are outside of the majority’s. I don’t have space to write about all 15 of the films I watched (though I’ll note that each one adhered strongly to the theme of diversity), but I’ll describe my top five.
I began my film-watching with Dawnland, a heart-wrenching documentary about the Upstander Project, Maine’s state-supported truth and reconciliation commission, meant to take testimony from, and determine appropriate reparations to, the many Native Americans impacted by generations of forced separation of children from their families through the mid-1970s. It happened everywhere, but Maine is choosing to address it head on. While showing the wide spectrum of what being indigenous means in the present, the film collects some horrific stories about the past and chronicles just as horrific ongoing pain and suffering, which rings especially sharply in light of I.C.E.’s current activities. Dawnland also examines and debates some of the problematics involved in white folks doing restorative justice work on behalf of the victims of their predecessors. Tensions run high between a native-led group and the State-supported group, but an in-depth report and its very tender recommendations do emerge from the process. At the end of the 86 minutes, it’s kind of amazing to realize that you just watched a film about a bureaucratic process and were never bored. This documentary screened to a theater filled with people who really cared and wanted to learn. The audience was not 100% white. But the film-making team seemed to be. Dawnland will be on PBS later this year. It made me love Maine.
After Dawnland, I saw my favorite film of the festival, but it was maybe only my favorite because of a bias towards its subject matter — immersive theater. I don’t want to give away too much of Madeline’s Madeline’s secrets because it’s the kind of film that loses a lot of value with spoilers, but I will say this: it succeeds not just because it features a very talented, previously unknown, African-American lead actress, or because it portrays mental illness in a unique, and not wholly victim-blaming or saccharine way. The film triumphs because of its immensely innovative and compelling experimental format. And, Madeline’s Madeline talks about mental illness in a new way — in a way that is less obsessed with healing and recovery, and more interested in how and where a person can manage to be as present as possible, whomever they are, mentally ill or not. Also, though African-American, the lead character was a coddled, fairly entitled, “comfortable” New Yorker. You got the distinct sense that this person was cast for her talent as an actor, not because the part had a fixed racial identity The primary production team was majority white as far as I can tell, and all female. Hits theaters in August. Very highly recommended.
My second favorite film was also a narrative piece, and also very intense. Blindspotting is a full-on Hollywood production, set in Oakland, about a young black man almost through with parole for a crime he committed together with his white best friend, who walked away from the scene legally unscathed. The lead character sees a cop shoot another young black man, but doesn’t take any action because he’s afraid of his parole time being extended. He’s still close to his white best friend, who is violent, impulsive and obsessed with a stylized version of black ghetto culture based on rap music. He’s very bad for the lead character’s determination to stay out of trouble, and seemingly unaware that his almost ridiculously good luck in avoiding criminal charges is a matter of white privilege. But the men have known each other since childhood, so they stick together, despite how unhealthy their relationship is for the lead character.
For much of the time Blindspotting is a dark comedy, but it is also a bleak portrayal of the non-stop PTSD that’s part of the reality of being a young black man in America. The way rap works in the film reminded me a factoid I read recently: that rhyming things in your head can keep you from crying. As for the climax of the film — it is not the kind of moment I’ve ever seen on camera before. This is a bit of risk for Lion’s Gate Entertainment Corp; I’d be very curious to know more about the makeup of the film’s production team, which was not present at the festival.
Another favorite of mine was Time For Ilhan, an upbeat documentary about the first Muslim-American woman to successfully run for state senate. She’s a force of nature and it’s a lovely portrait of grassroots political action, and faith in the traditional political system. Also a great picture of what the intersection of feminism and Islamicism looks like, and the depth of what being a “new American” can mean, even in a country hostile to you. This was voted an audience favorite and again, the audience was slightly more diverse (and vocal throughout the screenings!) than the Provincetown census would predict. I saw the line for another documentary, about voter suppression in North Carolina, which also seemed to have a higher-than-predicted-by-the-statistics percentage of non-white attendees, so I wonder if programming political documentaries focused on diverse main characters helps to draw out more diverse audiences.
A final film worth mentioning, though it was not a particular favorite of mine, was Gus Van Sant’s new feature, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, based on the autobiography of quadriplegic, alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan. Van Sant’s version of the story felt pretty canned after some of the more experimental and risk taking narrative projects included in the festival, but it earns points for celebrating the life of a paraplegic alcoholic lead — and insuring that he came across as only moderately likable, rather tham simply “inspiring” or helpless. The film is at its most charming when it portrays Callahan’s excitement over his early success as a cartoonist. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is at its least charming when it features rock stars in small speaking roles for no significant reason. (Though, speaking of rock music, I did enjoy the 18 seconds or so that a song by the Wipers was featured as background music.)
Outside of the films themselves, the festival hosted several special events and panels, none of which had diversity as a specific focus, but a few of which had ethnically diverse panelists or hosts. The most noteable was an over-the-top 20th anniversary “Filmmaker’s Brunch” clambake that cost $250 to attend but which I managed to slip into. The guest of honor was Kim Masters, the journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein story unleashing the full froth of the “me too” movement that had been more slowly gathering momentum.
Masters was in conversation with Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, one of the developers of The Hollywood Inclusion Rider, a legal instrument that reverses intersectional discrimination, insuring that more women of color have an opportunity to be given lead roles in major and minor studio productions. By choosing to feature these two women at its most lavish event, filled with (most white and wealthy) donors, the festival could not have embraced the values I was seeking better. Both speakers pressed home two points that I see as critical to diversifying the landscape of film and all contemporary media. Says Masters, while teasing us with some minor details about the story she’s about to break next (stay tuned for a major celebrity sexual harassment scandal involving a multitude of non-white players!) “You are either an enabler, or actively changing the system.” DiGiovanni pushes slightly harder, demanding “a culture that requires a response to violations” — whether they be instances of harassment or making people invisible on screen.
The Provincetown International Film Festival cannot change the demographics of Provincetown, but it could do just a few things better: invite more filmmakers of color as well as those who are differently-abled to present and talk about their work; find a way to make programming accessible to the most diverse folks in town who are not actually counted in the census — the seasonal guest workers; and bring diversity in through its human resources. I attended the staff party this year and noted that a significant number of staff come from quite far outside of Provincetown to work on the festival each year. Right now, most of them are white (see Errata). That said, the bulk of what The Provincetown International Film Festival is doing puts it miles ahead of the pack.
[Errata: The makeup of the Provincetown Film Festival staff was characterized incorrectly in the article. For a correction, and more detail, please go to the comments below, which include a clarification from Christine Kunewa Walker, CEO/Executive Director Provincetown Film Society.]
Heather Kapplow is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing, audio, and video. See heatherkapplow.com for more detail.