Going to film festivals means watching the sometimes dispiriting process of which films get picked up for distribution and which ones languish: the best documentary I saw last year, One Cut, One Life didn’t get its brief, limited theater run until this spring, 13 months after I’d seen it. At the same time, an offensive piece of pap like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which shared some of the same elements with One Cut, One Life) was everywhere, at least until word-of-mouth could debunk the puzzlingly rapturous reviews it received.
What will surprise no one who reads Bitch Flicks is: films directed by women and told from a woman’s point of view are often the last to get distribution–and more likely to have limited theatrical runs or to be released only on VOD and streaming services, skipping theaters entirely. Two great films by women I saw during the spring are still very much on my mind and will be playing film festivals in October.
Writer-director Paz Fábrega’s Viaje (non-Spanish speakers: say “bee-YAW-hey”) which plays the London Film Festival Oct.11 and Oct. 15, is the more realistic counterpart to Sleeping With Other People (which I enjoyed in spite of its conventionality) in its portrayal of how couples meet, pass the time and get to know each other. Shot in lustrous black and white (by Esteban Chinchilla) the film follows two Costa Ricans in their late 20s, Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) and Luciana (Kattia González) from their first drunken encounter in the city waiting for the bathroom during a costume party (Pedro dressed as a bear, Luciana as a schoolgirl: at first she’s not interested but then returns to where she left him) through a shared taxi ride in which they both agree (and high-five) on the best way to have a family. Luci says, “I think I could have kids if I could raise them with one person, but could still go on dates sometimes and it wasn’t an issue.”
Pedro, always the joker, then suggests, “Let’s have a kid together… you can go out on Fridays and I’ll go out on Saturdays.” When they discuss the advantages of sharing parenting with a queer couple, the cab driver (whom we don’t see: the choice of shots in the film is often quite shrewd–and its stills are beautiful enough to fill any coffee table book) cannot resist interrupting and berates them for not wanting the traditional family life that he and his wife have. Pedro and Luci don’t argue and resist rolling their eyes: we’ve seen they had to wait forever for this cab.
The “trip” of the title is on a bus to a national park situated around a volcano, where Pedro has work studying biology for his graduate degree and a hungover Luciana (still in her costume, with no luggage other than her purse) has spontaneously agreed to accompany him. The film has a leisurely pace, especially once they are in the wilderness (in spite of its 70-minute length I found myself nodding off a couple of times) but its pleasures (the beauty of the Costa Rican landscape and the chemistry between Bolaños and González, whether their characters are about to have sex or are just shooting the shit) and surprises (this film might seem like loose, funny improvisation at first but by the end we see it’s cleverly scripted) are genuine ones that many will recognize from their own lives–and which rarely, if ever make it into the movies.
On Oct. 14 and Oct. 16, Mill Valley Film Festival in California will be showing writer-director Laurie Kahn’s Love Between The Covers, a feminist, bad-ass, diverse documentary about the successful authors of romance novels. The women (most of whom attend romance novel conferences and other similar get-togethers shown in the film) talk about a “pay it forward” philosophy in which each explains how veteran writers helped her out at the beginning of her career and so she now helps writers who are just starting out.
Every time I expected this film to let me down it proved me wrong. When I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be all straight women,” it included as one of its main players a queer writer, Radclyffe (Len Barot) a former surgeon who writes about queer women. When I thought the film would be all white women it included, again as part of its main focus, Beverly Jenkins, a Black woman whose novels feature Black protagonists. We also see other women of color and queer women in one-off scenes and interviews. And nearly everything the women tell us in this film is a revelation. As Jenkins says of the romance sector (which includes its legions of fans) “You have nothing like this in science fiction. You have nothing like this in fantasy. You have nothing like this in mysteries. We are the shit.”
For those of us who aren’t romance novel readers, the film is not only a pretty good case to reconsider, but also has Nora Roberts, a superstar of the genre (she employs at least two men in her immediate family as part of her empire) setting straight those who might dismiss romance novels as “formulaic.” She tells us most genres adhere to a formula, including mysteries: for a whodunnit, the author had better reveal who the murderer is at the end!
Other genre fiction doesn’t get the flack romance novels do, namely because romance novel readership is nearly all women–and romance novel sales are what support more literary writing (which sell just a small fraction of books) in the publishing industry. As one author says, “We’re the ones who keep the lights on.” Another interviewee tells us it’s not unusual for a romance fan to read a book a day.
Although the writers are in the business of Happily Ever After (HEA) stories, they aren’t under the thumb of traditional gender roles and family life: more than one woman says that she started writing because of how bored and frustrated she was as a stay-at-home Mom. They also show no hesitation in cutting lose men who don’t respect their work: two of the authors (who also write together) divorced their husbands and then decided to move in (platonicly) together. We also see how hard the women work: in-demand authors are expected to write more than one full-length book (sometimes many more than one) a year, every year and they (or their assistants) are expected to engage with fans on their own websites, on social media and in person as well. Love Between the Covers is my favorite documentary of the year so far and could easily turn out to be the best one I see in 2015. Go to the theatrical showings of these films while you have the chance.
Ren Jender is a queer writer-performer/producer putting a film together. Her writing. besides appearing every week on Bitch Flicks, has also been published in The Toast, RH Reality Check, xoJane and the Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @renjender