This July, you are hosting the inaugural Nevertheless Film Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The festival’s focus is that the films you screen must feature women in at least 50% of their crew leadership roles. Can you tell us how you define leadership roles and how you think this brilliant approach will help women filmmakers?
The emphasis on requiring certain leadership positions to be filled by women is really the backbone of Nevertheless. So much of the conversation about gender parity in the entertainment industry has focused pretty exclusively on women directors, but I think we can all agree that making a film is a tremendous team effort. A film’s crew has so many positions and departments and leadership roles within it, beyond the person in the director’s chair! I came up with the eight leadership positions on which to focus the festival’s 50% rule by thinking about my experiences in film production and the different leaders I’ve worked with—the director, of course, as well as the producer, editor, cinematographer, screenwriter, production designer, sound mixer, and composer/music supervisor. I think by shining a spotlight on some of the many leaders on a film crew, Nevertheless can play a small role in shifting the much-needed conversation on representation even further.
When did the idea for the festival come to you, and what has the road to bringing it to life been like?
The idea to start a film festival came to me while riding the bus to work in March of last year—coincidentally on International Women’s Day of all days! Ever since graduating from the University of Michigan in 2013, I have been freelancing in film festival operations and working for festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, San Francisco International, and more. In March of 2018, I was riding the bus to my job at San Francisco International Film Festival, thinking about what I’d do after my seasonal contract ended (a story very familiar to fellow film festival freelancers), and it struck me—quite literally all at once—that it was time to try building a festival from the ground up. For the past six years, I have been surrounded by incredibly smart, driven women who understand how film festivals work just as well as the folks at the top. And I realized, with our combined knowledge and strengths, we could design and execute a festival exactly how we’d want to.
The road from that fateful bus ride to now has not been without its bumps. I’ve had people whose opinions I valued tell me I’m crazy. I’ve had to learn—through plenty of mistakes—elements of film festival operations I’d never touched before, like fundraising, sponsorship, and venue contracts. I’ve been told “no” or simply ignored countless times. But for all the challenges, there have been breakthroughs and successes beyond my imagination! We received hundreds of submissions when I thought we’d get maybe…50? And all 26 films we programmed accepted our invitations to screen. Every single day I’ve learned something new, not just about the industry but about myself, too. It’s been wild.
What makes Ann Arbor the right location for Nevertheless?
The first thing I knew for sure about Nevertheless was that it would be for films that have inclusive film crews. The second thing I knew was that it would be in Ann Arbor. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, I have lived primarily in New York City but have also spent time in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and even briefly an Italian village. When thinking about what community would embrace an event that celebrates inclusivity and asks tough questions about representation, I knew it was Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor community places an emphasis on the arts and new ideas in a way I’ve never experienced elsewhere. It was truly a no brainer!
On the festival’s homepage, you cite the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s report, which shows how dismal representation of women is in the film industry when it comes to key creative roles like directors and composers. As the Celluloid Ceiling Report shows, there has been little change in those numbers in the last two decades. How do you see festivals like Nevertheless helping transform the entrenched inequality in the film industry?
You’re right, the numbers out there are pretty dismal. What I hope we can accomplish with Nevertheless is shining a spotlight on the fact that there actually are women out there making amazing, impressive work all the time. The statistics so frequently talked about are generally about the mainstream, Hollywood, but if we ignore the hundreds of women directing, producing, editing, and composing successfully on the independent level, we might be causing more harm than we think. I believe that initiatives like what we’re trying to do at Nevertheless can show audiences big and small that women are making work that deserves to be celebrated, and if a platform like ours makes someone in a position of power think twice about who they hire for their next project, I will be proud.
You have years of experience working on various high-profile film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and DOC NYC. What did you learn from your time at those festivals that you’re using to make Nevertheless as successful and transformative as it can be?
Sundance was my first film festival job, and to say it changed my life would not be an exaggeration. It really taught me all of the groundwork I’ve needed to start Nevertheless. One major takeaway from my time working for festivals that may seem obvious is the importance of a strong program. Programming Nevertheless took a ton of hard work, and every submission was watched and given due consideration. From year one, it was important to me that we wouldn’t program anything out of a “favor” to anyone or anything—believing 100% in the value of our program was crucial and something I’ve seen done really well at a number of festivals I’ve been involved with. Additionally, having an inclusive program was also a top priority—50% of the directors in our program are people of color, and 20% identify as LGBTQ+.
Something I took away from festivals like Tribeca and San Francisco International is the importance of community when programming and organizing the festival. Both Tribeca and SFFILM frequently program city-specific films, which audiences love! While we don’t have any Ann Arbor or Michigan-themed stories this year, a number of our short films are directed by Michigan natives, and getting a Michigan-centric story in the future is a definite goal.
You have gathered an impressive group of women, many of them of color, to help you organize the festival. What was your approach to selecting your team, and why do you think it’s important for women to organize a festival like Nevertheless?
Nevertheless would not exist without the team of women behind it. The women who make up Team Nevertheless are friends I’ve had for years, many of whom I met through film festivals! I’ve worked with Alana, Alexandria, Cat, Courtney, Gina, and Priya at both Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals. Nicole and I met while working together in film distribution. And Emily, Proma, and Radhika are friends from my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan.
The approach to selecting the team was thinking about people whose experiences I could learn from, whose opinions I value, and the diversity of perspectives that could be brought to the table.
While I would not be averse to inviting a man to join the team, I do think that a team of women making decisions about a festival that elevates the work of women is a pretty natural pairing. Many of us have experienced the lack of equal opportunities first-hand, and it really goes hand-in-hand with what we’re trying to accomplish at Nevertheless.
You also work as an independent documentary producer. How does your experience behind the camera inspire your work as a festival director?
Being a producer is much like being a festival director or any sort of founder—it’s all about making decisions, solving problems, and leading a team. If it’s not obvious, my experiences as a producer majorly influenced the creation of Nevertheless. Only once in my years of producing did I find myself on a crew with more than one other woman. And that wasn’t even the time I worked on a film quite literally about female empowerment.
While making decisions and solving problems are areas I feel rather comfortable in, there is still so much for me to learn when it comes to leading a team. It is hard!! And I think perhaps extra hard as a woman, where I feel I’ve been conditioned to fear seeming “demanding” or “bossy” or a slew of other adjectives exclusively used to define women, while men get to be “driven” and “assertive.”
What plans do you have for the future of Nevertheless?
The future of Nevertheless rests on the community’s reaction. I hope that we can come back in 2020 with an equally robust and diverse lineup of films, free panels, and partners who want to help us amplify our message that women in film deserve to be celebrated and elevated!
To learn more about the festival, be sure to check out their website. You can also connect with them on social media by visiting their Instagram (@neverthelessfilmfestival), Facebook, and Twitter (@neverthelessff). Visit Alexandra’s profile to learn more about her.