POWfest’s logo. Photo by Tara Johnson-Medinger

Hollywood, and the film industry in general, has a boisterous reputation for casting minority representation aside or grossly misrepresenting these groups. But one film festival in Portland is driven to break down the walls of inequality and bring attention and representation to those who deserve it.

Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival(POWfest) has been around since 2003, but the festival didn’t gain momentum until 2008. Tara Johnson-Medinger, the Executive Director of POWfest and founder of Sour Apple Productions, has an impressive 25 years of experience with film and television, including the production of two documentaries and two features. She received the 2013 Service & Inspiration Award by the Oregon Media Production Association (OMPA) for her work. POWfest happens every year in March, which is Women’s History Month. Typically, there is a call for entries, with around 1000 films being submitted. The only qualification? A female director.

So why a women’s film festival? Gender parity, Johnson-Medinger says. “As I was looking at film festivals, there was a huge disparity for focus on women.” Something many people also tend to overlook is the difference between the cast being women versus the crew. “You can have a film entirely focused on people of color, but when you look at the crew, they’re all white,” explains Johnson-Medinger. There are many films with female protagonists (which is still 71% less than male protagonists), but only 17% of directors for television are female, and a mere 3% are directors of photography. Johnson-Medinger wants to bring light to this issue. She explains that in many circumstances, female-directed films that become popular often get handed to men for sequels. When a film is directed or written by at one least woman, female protagonists make up 57% of the film, compared to 18% with exclusively male crews. These statistics are all from San Diego University’s Dr. Martha Lauzen’s yearly study, “The Celluloid Ceiling,” research on women’s employment and representation in film and television.

But what does being a woman mean when one is submitting to a film festival? “I wanted to make sure I was being more reflective of women besides me,” Johnson-Medinger asserts. “You can’t just look at what appears onscreen.” Intersectionality plays a key role at POWfest. This means that women of all groups, regardless of race, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, and religion are included. Anyone who identifies as a woman or non-binary is welcome to submit. When films are submitted and reviewed, staff ask those filmmakers about the race, economic status, and gender makeup of the crew. Johnson-Medinger knew there was a substantial amount of information not being looked at, saying “it was the right thing to do.” Johnson-Medinger has put a lot of emphasis on intersectionality, both within staff and speaking to other film festivals on the importance of boundaryless inclusion.

POWfest’s inclusivity expands beyond their film festival, with their POWgirls workshop. This weeklong program teaches girls ages 15-19 video production, cinematography, audio recording, set lighting, digital editing and media literacy skills. Mentored by working media producers, the end result of the workshop is a short film with no confines around theme or topic. All of the films made in this program are screened at POWfest. The next generation of filmmakers are being taught the technical and aesthetic knowledge they need while receiving support in a safe and inclusive environment. Johnson-Medinger says a major purpose of POWgirls is “creating a space where girls feel safe to express their authentic self and create work they wouldn’t in a coed environment.” She also brought POWgirls onto the set of her film and made sure they could be a part of it; because of the many connections the staff have, there are more opportunities for advancement and future employment. POWfest keeps in contact with all of the girls and POWfest Guest of Honors hold a private workshop with the students. These guests have included Cheryl Dunye, director of Watermelon Woman, and Catherine Hardwicke, director of Twilight. Misha Stauber, a participant of POWgirls, says that “making films with other girls is so empowering because cinema is a form of expression and art.” This program not only encourages young people to get involved in the film industry, it lets them know there are opportunities within it.

POWfest has helped to create change and diversity within Portland’s film industry, and continues to push the conversation of gender equity. This festival, and those like it, set out to let everyone know that women do make great work. Many people expect women to make “vagina monologues and rom-coms,” observes Johnson-Medinger, but the range of films are incredibly diverse, with a great breadth of knowledge and storytelling.

One of the most common questions received about the festival is “can I come if I’m a guy?” Of course, says Johnson-Medinger. “Feminism is for everyone.” This March, support equality in filmmaking and attend POWfest 2018 at the Hollywood Theater.a