Women+Film Forges Real Community Over Virtual Screenings

The festival hit Schoolgirls will play at Denver Film's Women+Film festival.
The festival hit Schoolgirls will play at Denver Film's Women+Film festival. Schoolgirls
As Women + Film, Denver Film’s annual celebration of movies by and about women, enters its twelfth year this week (and its second virtual-only edition), founder Barbara Bridges is feeling bittersweet about the whole endeavor.

She’s happy the festival is happening and that Denver Film has worked out many of the issues that come with online screenings in order to create a smooth virtual experience. But she’s ready for the fest to come back in person — next year, with any luck.

Artistic director Matthew Campbell says that’s looking likely. Denver Film plans to start bringing back in-person screenings in the fall, aiming for a hybrid virtual and in-person iteration of the Denver Film Festival.

“It could change in a couple months and be totally different,” Campbell acknowledges, as a fourth wave of COVID-19 hits the country while vaccines continue to go into arms, creating an entirely unpredictable second half of 2021.

The joys of people sharing space are no longer something Bridges takes lightly. In a normal year, the festival has sweet opportunities for community engagement — like handing out caramels to festival attendees. Audiences debate movies and hobnob between screenings; they drink and eat together and make new friends over film. “When it’s live, there are so many other ways to bring the community in,” she says.

Still, the festival has managed to pre-record question-and-answer sessions with Bridges, Campbell, filmmakers and subjects of films, along with Denver organizations working on the issues that some of the movies address. And attendees themselves are organizing screening parties to go with the festival.

“I just got an email from a woman sending all these films out to their friends and creating watch parties around it,” says Bridges. “The festival has grown by the people attending and all the things we get to do to create energy around it in person. Virtually, we create energy behind all the QAs and films.”

A select few donors have had the chance for limited in-person gatherings; the Premiere Circle, which comprises high-level donors, has been meeting over Zoom to speak with Bridges and Campbell about the various fest picks and the issues they bring up. They even gathered at the Sie FilmCenter for a small private screening of Colorado filmmaker Karen Whitehead's Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heinz, about a photographer who adopted a fake family of mannequins in an effort to challenge stereotypes about women in society.

“It was twenty people in a theater for a hundred,” recalls Bridges. “We gave them wine and popcorn and the whole theater. People are so excited. They got dressed up to come. It was very VIP.”

While the Sie isn't yet hosting its regular slate of in-person art-house screenings, Denver Film is renting out its theaters to people looking to do small and COVID-19-safe in-person events, where you can create your own VIP screenings with your friends and family.

Most of the Women+Film programming will be available to screen from April 13 to 18. That includes biopics about Amy Tan, actress Rita Moreno (which opens the festival on April 13) and Representative Barbara Lee.

Bridges is particularly looking forward to Playing With Sharks, which tells the story of Valerie Taylor, an 85-year-old woman who has spent her life in the water, enjoying the company of the much-maligned (if large) fish, and continues to swim with them to this day. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director, Bridges and Taylor.

There's also a documentary about the need for 24-hour child care, a look at the Standing Rock conflict over the Dakota Access oil pipeline that cut through Indigenous territories in South Dakota, and the award-winning Schoolgirls, which swept Spain's Goya Awards, the country's equivalent of the Academy Awards.

And Bridges is eager to screen Kiss Me Kosher, a rom-com about two women in Tel Aviv, one German and the other Jewish, who decide to marry — and the various issues their families face.

“It is a lot of fun,” says Campbell. "A good breath of fresh air and a nice change of pace from the typical downtrodden narrative that we’re well known for.”

For a full list of films, tickets and more information about Women+Film, which runs from Tuesday, April 13, through Sunday, April 18, go to the Denver Film website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris