When Geena Davis is not acting, her side projects in the search for diversity and inclusion keep the Oscar winner busy. Across Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, the nonprofit research and defense group she formed in 2004, she brings statistics about representation to the studios’ boardrooms year after year. Complementing this work is the Bentonville Film Festival, held annually in Bentonville, Arkansas, which she co-founded and which persevered in opening its sixth iteration on August 10, in a largely virtual edition due to the pandemic.
Fortunately, Davis has always been an optimist. As the festival’s mission to promote inclusion in the media continues to expand, it hopes that going online this year will bring in new audiences to see what they’re doing in Bentonville, pop. 54,909. “We realized that this is an excellent opportunity to see how everything is going to happen, because now anyone in the world can watch these films,” Davis said of Zoom at his home in Southern California.
Supported by the founding sponsor Walmart, the festival was launched in 2015 with a strong emphasis on films directed by women. Each year, greater measures were taken to include more underrepresented voices. This year’s program is directed by 65% of BIPOC and 40% of LGBTQIA +, identifying filmmakers, according to the festival’s organizers. “We are learning, changing and growing, and now here we are with the most radically inclusive program I’ve done in the past six years,” said Wendy Guerrero, president of programming.
Among this year’s 68 films, more than 80% of the films are directed by women, including the opening night selection “(In) Portraits Visible” by Oge Egbuonu, examining the marginalization of black women in the United States; the 1970 set by Philippa Lowthorpe, “Misbehavior, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten, the first black winner of the Miss World contest; documentary” Parkland Rising “by Cheryl Horner McDonough on student activists in Parkland, Florida and Elegance Bratton’s documentary “Pier Kids” which follows three gay and transgender youths struggling with homophobia and homelessness in New York City.
The documentary “(In) Visible Portraits”, director Oge Egbuonu’s debut, “destroys the often invisible appearance of black women in America” and opens the Bentonville Film Festival in 2020.
(Courtesy of Bentonville Film Festival)
Among the filmmakers returning to the festival are actresses Sujata Day (“Insecure”), who makes her directorial debut with “Definition Please”, loosely based on her own American Indian growth experience in Pennsylvania, and Janina Gavankar (“The Morning Show “), which makes its foray into the direction, co-directing the short film” Stucco “.
Panel discussions and special events will include talks about the advancement of Latinx representation and disability, as well as the “best of” version of the popular “Geena and Friends” series, in which Davis and celebrities reimagine male films.
Before the festival, Davis discussed how his work on the screen, through the festival and his activism, joined a multi-faceted effort to effect long-awaited changes in Hollywood.
The Bentonville Film Festival’s slogan is: “If they can see it, it can be.” You are now entering your sixth year. Go back to the reason why you started this film festival in the first place.
I had my Gender and Media Institute for several years and I was heavily involved in how women are represented in the media, particularly in children’s media. This opportunity came when the festival was being organized and I was asked to embark and be a co-founder and president, and I took the opportunity. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to expand on what I was doing.
Although you are the face of the Bentonville Film Festival, your advocacy work at the institute is not aimed at the public. How is this work? To whom are you presenting the studies that the group does and the results of its research?
Almost everything is not aimed at the public and was designed this way from the beginning. When my daughter was young, I realized that it was a problem with gender non-parity in what the children were seeing. It was so revealing! It really made me realize: “What are we doing? We are all trying to solve this problem of gender equality and, from the very beginning, we are training children that boys are more important than girls.
I became obsessed with it and couldn’t find anyone else in the industry to see what I was seeing. I spent two years having the largest study ever done on gender representations in children’s films and TV, and the main point was that I could go directly to the creators. I know everyone. I can go directly to them and I have this research. So, I called a studio when I had it and said, “Can I share some data with you?”
Keira Knightley (left) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in “Misbehavior”, describing the events of the 1970 Miss World competition.
(Parisa Taghizadeh / courtesy of Bentonville Film Festival)
How was the first meeting?
It was a room with about 40 people and we presented the data, and their faces fell. They were thinking about the things they had done, and an animation director said, “I just designed a scene in a restaurant today and everyone I drew, customers and waiters, were men. I don’t know why I did this. He made a joke: “I am the problem!” The studio’s casting director said, “Every script we get, my team and I go through it and try to find out who can become Asian? Who can become Hispanic? Who can become black? And we never said once, who can become a woman? And I don’t know why. That was the reaction of the first meeting to one we held last week. We go to every studio, every network, every guild, every production company.
The best part was that they always said, “Please come back.” Sometimes, they ask us specifically to analyze this or that factor. So it’s happening. The change is happening, and without anyone really needing to know that I am doing it.
What changes are you seeing?
Last fall, we did a new study of children’s TV and found that, for the first time, achieved parity between the main characters, female and male. And earlier this year, we found that, in films G, PG and PG-13, we achieved parity in the main characters, male and female. We still have work to do with people of color, although it is getting much closer – there are 32% and 38% of the population – so it is getting closer. But when you look at the supporting characters, that is still bad. And there is still a long way to go for LGBTQ, people with disabilities, people of size. But it is encouraging.
The numbers are just a part, right? How important is it also to evaluate qualitatively what we are seeing on the screen?
This is the other half. The first thing that caught my attention was: where are they? We are half the population and we show children’s worlds almost devoid of female presence. But then, of course, it’s also the quality of the character – what are they doing? I remember watching a cartoon with my boys about trucks that could talk. Maybe they were monster trucks? There was a female and it was pink with a car-sized bow over it and I’m like, really?
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but age, for women, is one thing,” said Davis. “I would be very happy because it would impact me! I am an eternal optimist, and fortunately for me we are progressing in what I chose to focus on, which gives me a lot of hope. “
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
In the spirit of “If they can see, they can be”, you knew that you wanted to be an actor from a young age. Who did you see then who showed you what it could be?
I wish my parents were still around so I could discuss them more about it, but, of course, I announced to them when I was 3 that I would be at the cinema. It’s the only thing I remember wanting to be, but I can’t imagine what I saw. How did I know this was a job? When I was older, my best friend and I played every day after school and pretended to be characters in “The Rifleman”. I would be the father, because I was taller, and she would be my son Mark, and we would just stage stories from that TV show. It never occurred to us that it was strange or interesting that there were no female characters we wanted to pretend to be; we naturally gravitate towards the much more exciting male characters.
“Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Own Own” are his influential films whose female characters have been strengthened and, in turn, have empowered generations of fans. When did you realize that your work could have that kind of impact?
It’s interesting. People liked movies “Beetlejuice” and “The Fly”, like that, so I got used to people who recognized me. After I did “Thelma & Louise”, suddenly, if people recognized me in that movie, it was completely different. They wanted speak about it – “It was how many times I saw him!” “That’s how it impacted my life!” It made me realize how few opportunities we give women to leave a movie feel empowered and inspired. Me [started] thinking about it with everything I’m going to do or not: what will the women in the audience think about my character?
This does not mean that I want to interpret models – in any case, I hate that term, because many people say, “We want strong female characters” and often “strong female characters” are totally boring. They have no personality, but they are “tough”. What we want is complex female characters. I was looking for characters in charge of their own destiny. That’s what I realized …