She 'wanted a new venue for women'
Reprinted with permission from: signonsandiego.com
By David Elliott, Movie Critic
Though the day is gray, the woman inside the small apartment is like a sunbeam talking. A beam with a dream. Her dream-in-progress is the San Diego Women's Film Festival, opening another run for four days starting Thursday. It's back at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, with some events at the nearby Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
The sunny dream-maker is Renee Herrell, 28, who gave up the title of executive director but remains a central dynamo, along with director Jennifer Hsu, of Southern California's very first fem-fest of film. “Part of me is shocked,” the smiling Herrell says, “but in a really neat way, that our festival still exists. So many things could wipe it out, yet we're having our fifth!”
Herrell, born and raised in Fallbrook, a San Diegan since 2001, has a glow of health and blond-streaked hair. In her tidy flat near Balboa Park, unlighted red candles and deft watercolors by friend Larry Mason rule the living room near a little office. It all fits her as neatly as an eggshell. A fundraiser and Joanie Appleseed for nonprofit groups, Herrell is wearing an antique Spanish necklace and the demeanor of a confident convincer. One can easily picture her igniting a festival.
“We had our first one in October 2003, at the University of San Diego,” she says, eager to share credit with co-founder Courtney Fredericks Bell. And with local critic Beth Accamando, who enlisted early as a key programmer “and taught me what that's all about. It isn't something you just figure out yourself.”
The early process was hectic but the agenda clear, “to show works by women filmmakers, whether director, writer, producer, but at some executive level. Not all the films are about women. It's very diverse.” This year's fiesta packs in 112 movies, and may well exceed last year's draw of 2,500 people. The first event had about 200, and Herrell feels, “We just stumbled into it, an enrichment to a teen-mentoring program for girls I was involved with. “Later, we saw it as a movement, once we realized how male-dominated the film world is. The feminist era was so long ago, but women are still not given the same opportunity in film as men. I wanted a new venue for women.”
Raised in a “very conservative background” as daughter of a minister and a schoolteacher, and “just going to movies like anyone else did,” Herrell has “stumbled” in bold, fast steps. She incarnates confidence. After Fallbrook High, then English studies at UC Santa Barbara, she “figured I'd be a second-grade teacher just like my mom, but got a job right out of college working at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and fell in love with the nonprofit world and working in the arts.
“We traveled with our board and donors to many cities. I found out at about 22 that I could relate to people three times my age, often very wealthy, and act on behalf of nonprofit groups.” She recently earned a degree in nonprofit management from USD. Herrell first began working here with a nonprofit effort to help abused and displaced kids, “and I got on the fundraising charity path and have moved on to consulting other efforts. Then, started the festival because (she laughs) I had so much free time!”
The fest, run by the San Diego Women Film Foundation, began with a mere sprinkle of movies, all local, using a budget approaching $1,000. Now, although by Big Fest (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance) norms a pup, it spends about $78,000 through the year and about $25,000 on the fest itself. It lives via donations, volunteers and supportive tie-ins with local media organizations, plus “invaluable help from other local festivals,” co-hosting and promoting works with the gay, Latino and Asian efforts.
This year brought in around 400 digital submissions, screened by a committee of 12. While Herrell feels “we don't take sides on issues in films, and try to show different sides,” the core mandate remains true to first inspiration. “What came up in our very first talks,” she remembers, “from working with teen gals in the mentoring program, is that there aren't many real images of women from Hollywood to go with the very beautiful. We wanted to show real women, tall or short, big or small, not just the blond supermodels.
“For that first event, we found four teen girls making films in Seattle, so we got money to fly them down for our first fest and meet our teens, and also got some adult women filmmakers. And then it just grew.” Herrell keenly gives credit to early mentor Joelle James, “an amazing woman,” who joined the first board. Another crucial player has been UCSD professor Giovanna Chesler, a documentarian who “helped me to write the first curriculum” for the after-school Diva Directs workshops for young film aspirants. The SDWFF is a hive with more than one queen bee.
In 2005, the focal hub for shows became the small, classy theater at MoPA, which had shuttered its regular film program the year before. The fest, which shows movies and holds workshops through the year, relies still on the tireless networking of Herrell and Hsu, and staffers “on minimal pay who work amazing hours.”
For Herrell, “it's all about building the base, but you want to keep it real, not sell out. You need to market and hype and maybe even get some Hollywood community films, but keep true to mission. And we are now getting more works, and higher quality, with about 30 percent international.” While mostly devoted to digitally made shorts, some academic and nearly all indie in origin because “features are so expensive and so darn hard to make,” the fest hopes to expand. Right now, one of the big plex locations is beyond its means.
Ask Herrell about the vision thing and she winds up the pitch with a touch of modesty as if fearing to brag. But she lets it fly: “Yeah, I have a vision. I mean, for crying out loud, I'm supposed to be a visionary, right? I do hope we can grow in an incremental way. I'd like submissions to build up to a thousand a year, and maybe we could show 300 or more films, and really develop our reputation. We are already getting stuff from all over.”
This single but hardly solo (as a film booster) woman maintains a fast, steady stride. A committed traveler (Brazil early this year, Spain and China last year, Cambodia coming over Christmas), she is also a veteran jogger, ran six half-marathons this year and is “in training for triathlons.”
In slower rhythm, she is a big reader who feels “the film is never as good as the book.” And, as she knows, a festival is as good as its films.