Interview with Melanie Wise, Founder of the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival
Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
You founded the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, which took place for the first time last year. What kind of work does the festival feature and what inspired you to found this yearly event?
We are the very first festival to focus solely on women in physically active, powerful roles, both in narrative and documentary endeavors. We showcase superheroes, sci-fi bad asses, fight action women, athletes, combat sports ladies, pilots, rescuers, and a whole host of other very interesting, unusual life paths of women.
Action films with female leads hit a very personal note for me and my team. We were a bit ahead of the curve in terms of producing female-led action films and finding studios, producers, and distributors to support such work, past the token films here and there, was extremely difficult. Our inspiration for the festival was to create a space where female-led action films could play. We decided if we wanted to see more of this type of content in the world, we’d have to create the space for it to exist.
What was the experience of getting a film festival off the ground like?
Like pulling your brain out through your nose! All seriousness aside, from concept to execution, we brought the festival to life in six months last year. Many people thought we were totally crazy for aiming for such a short timeline, but we just felt the festival had to be out in the world quickly. And we were able to pull it off. However, it was no simple task. We worked our butts off, and thank God we have a very hard working, dedicated team. Sean Newcombe and Zac Baldwin are co-founders of the festival as well.
When we opened submissions last year, we thought we were going to get laughed out of the park. And then we got literally beat over the head with submissions. In two months, we received over 200 submissions from 25 countries. At our festival, our first year honorees were Hollywood luminaries Linda Hamilton, Kristanna Loken, and Gina Torres, A-list stuntwomen Angela Meryl and Maja Aro, and WMMA fight promoter Shannon Knapp. We screened 43 films and had 17 screenings over 3 days. Our first festival was a pretty amazing success.
Why do you think we need a film festival dedicated specifically to women who are active and fierce?
I could rattle on about this question for days. I have a very long history in fitness and strength conditioning and one thing I know for certain is that women who press physical limits stretch hugely what they believe is possible for them in every day life. I believe that until women are seen as physically equal, we will always be seen as less. There is plenty of historical data that stacks up on this point too. In cultures where women worked alongside the menfolk to hunt and go to war, they enjoyed much more social equality. From the moment we enter this world and the doctor declares, “it’s a girl,” women are disadvantaged in society and culture because of perceived limitations resulting from the chance of being born female. These perceived limitations are thoughtlessly perpetuated by society, culture, and women. We need to move past these very limiting beliefs. Everyone suffers when more than half of the population is deemed weaker, less capable, less worthy, etc. Our festival is our stab at changing these age-old, archaic, restricting perceptions that literally bleed culture dry.
As a Venezuelan girl in the 80s, I dressed up like Wonder Woman two years in a row for Carnival. There were dozens of us in every parade. Why do you think Hollywood continues to deny women superheroes their own films when there is clearly an audience for them?
First of all, I would have loved to seen those parades. I’ve percolated for a very long time on this point. And I think the answer is incredibly simple: the powers that be in Hollywood are simply interested in maintaining the status quo. How could Hollywood be unaware of how sexist it is? They have had people giving them hell on this front for years. I seriously don’t think this is an issue of lack of awareness. I do, however, think it’s time for Hollywood executives to step out of their offices and get a peek at real life, and then choose to represent the mainstream desires more accurately in the films they produce.
How do you define woman-in-action? I have an in-production documentary about my journey nursing my son while being a filmmaker and an academic. I feel that it represents a lot of strength and ingenuity but it’s not exactly an off-the-edge of your seat piece. Are you looking for pieces that represent women in action broadly or more specifically?
I personally define a woman in action as any woman who is out in life working hard to make her life, the life of her design, the life of she wants to create for herself. When we stop being a leaf in the stream of life and start choosing, we generally have to confront some ‘issues’ and it really takes guts to do that.
There are a couple of reasons we focused on physical power: 1.) Films that feature physically powerful females are generally action, and the action genre is one of the most exciting film genres and typically gets ignored by studio executives, award bodies, and critics; 2.) The discipline of creating a physically powerful form is truly demanding and asks us to dig deep within to do it. All of the strength we harness in the area of creating physical power can be used in any other area of life – in fact, it’s the perfect training ground to learn discipline and strength. And then add to that – physical mastery for women is really not taken very seriously.
I have a HUGE admiration of many facets of strength! Demonstrating to our children, family, friends and co-workers stick-to-it-tiveness, dedication, steadfastness, boldness, and accountability has the potential to inspire everyone around us to greater levels of accomplishment. We essentially become a walking public service announcement to all that cross our paths when we live in our strengths.
As our festival grows, we will certainly endeavor to showcase more facets of strength. At this time, and mostly due to our limits of staff, budget, and time, we are focused on physical action.
You named the festival after the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman counterpart Diana). In which ways does this symbol of female independence and danger help you embody the spirit of the festival?
As the goddess of the hunt and the matron of the Amazons, we thought that Artemis was the perfect symbol of what our film festival represents. The image of women that we want the film industry and culture to embrace is a physically empowered vision of womanhood. In her myths, Artemis is shown as fearless, independent, untamable, and indomitable. By naming the festival after this magnificent goddess, we also wanted to send a message that these physically powerful female images are nothing new. They stretch back throughout history and myth to the beginning of human civilization. Whether it was the Amazons, Boudica, or Joan of Arc, there have been many strong, dynamic female heroes in world culture—the stories of whom were often ignored or suppressed. As we like to say at Artemis Film Festival: women in action are nothing new; women have been in action since the dawn of time.
What are some of your favorite moments from the festival last year?
There were so many amazing moments last year. Here are a few in no particular order:
- I almost fell over when the former mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa landed on our red carpet.
- We had an amazing panel discussion with seven stuntwomen. A wonderful radio personality, Sheena Metal, moderated it. The entire audience smiled and grinned and laughed for an entire hour as they listened to these incredible stunt ladies tell mind-numbing stories about their craft.
- We had a live red carpet radio show hosted by brilliant and sharp-witted radio personalities Langdon Bosarge and Sheena Metal. Their interviews were absolutely stellar, irreverent, and laugh out loud funny.
- We also had Sherry Lee Meredith conducting red carpet interviews – she was interviewing very impressive people and the number of smiles this woman caused blew my mind. Even among the people watching the interviews, it was a sea of smiles and laughter. It was beautiful to watch.
- Watching young girls leave the theater totally stoked after watching strong women onscreen.
- Finding so many people that love the concept of the festival – essentially finding our audience.
- Watching people get excited and inspired by the content we were screening.
What lessons did you learn from hosting your first festival and how have they affected your approach to the second?
We learned just how much work and effort is involved in producing a festival. Getting submissions open so that we could have a great slate of films, reaching out to people in the area of women’s empowerment to come to talk at the festival, planning our themes – these were just a few of the things that we had to prepare. We tried to make sure that we lined out our wants and needs long before the festival came about.
We were prepared for many weeks of long hours to get the 2nd year rolling. We also knew that we had built an incredible network of friends, followers, and filmmakers, who would help make the second year an even greater success.
Of course, there’s the issue of money—We all know that!—we expected to crowd fund and we expected it to be hard so we had to make changes in our lives to be ready. We had to give up many things to be able to focus on our second year.
The reward is focusing on powerful women and a message that is very dear to our hearts—female empowerment.
As difficult as the process is, we’d never trade it for anything. We believe that what we are able to do with our festival, the ideas we can express, and the images that we can convey, will have a profoundly positive effect on the lives of women everywhere.
You are currently running an Indiegogo campaign for this year’s festival. What will it cover?
Our campaign only covers the festival budget—the cost of screens, marketing of the festival, rental gear, and crew to film our red carpet events, Indiegogo perks and shipping, and Indiegogo fees. It’s a real bare-bones budget – not one person on our staff is paid. The Indiegogo crowd funding is central to making the festival the special event that it is—not only in terms of financing, but also in terms of the excitement and the sense of ownership it generates among those who love the festival and the message it sends. We crowd funded our first year as well. And given we are focused on women, I’m guessing it will be some time before we attract proper sponsorship, as efforts dedicated to women are generally more easily passed over. I personally hope we are always fan-backed as this affords greater autonomy.
What advice do you have for women hoping to tell that will someday screen at the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival?
Stop waiting around for studios to buy your project or agents and managers to find/sell your work. Find a way to get out there, collect your resources, make your project into a finished film, and build your own audience. Beating on the door of Hollywood is waiting for a train that may never arrive, so be creative and find a way to put your real projects into the world. Your finish line is not putting a finished film in the can! You’ve also got to be prepared to market yourself and your project. In today’s world of filmmaking, we can no longer pick one discipline and master that. You’ve gotta be willing to wear many hats, say yes to a pile of new learning curves, AND you must be absolutely willing to carry your film across the line of distribution, which means learning marketing. Use social media to start building your audience. This is the low budget filmmakers’ P&A. And never make any project, short or feature, without making key art for it. Collect great screen grabs and production stills – these are going to be the grist for your marketing mill.
You can check out Alexandra’s profile here.