- Activist Praxis Meets Project-Based Learning: A Case Study of Student Involvement at the Chicago Feminist Film Festival
Introduction: Chicago Feminist Film Festival Background
born in 2016, the Chicago Feminist Film Festival (CFFF) was created out of a desire to showcase films created by and about women and gender-nonbinary people while fostering an inclusive space for dialogue around stories being told onscreen. The closure of the Women in the Director’s Chair film festival in Chicago in the mid-2000s left a programming gap in the city, and while the CFFF has not entirely filled that gap (Women in the Director’s Chair was a larger and better-resourced festival), the CFFF has provided another opportunity for under-represented filmmakers to screen their work in a supportive festival environment. The CFFF features primarily short films from around the globe created by people underrepresented in media fields (particularly women, people of color, and queer or transgender folks) or, as our mission statement says, films that aim to address issues of gender, sexuality, race, and other forms of inequality often missing from mainstream media (“About”). In our mission statement, we claim, “[A]rt plays a vital role in bringing people together and encouraging them to think deeply about issues of equality and social justice” (“Chicago Feminist Film Festival”). However, the CFFF seeks to connect makers not only with their audiences but also with one another. Contacts made at the festival are between audiences and content but also between makers and potential collaborators or employment opportunities to affect real industry change.
The CFFF falls into Mark Peranson’s category of “audience festival” since it exists primarily for audiences rather than for the film industry (27). The CFFF, an entirely free three-day event, features mostly short films, submitted by filmmakers through submission platforms, interspersed with several features solicited through distributors. However, the CFFF includes consciousness raising (in both audiences and the industry) as one of its goals, so the festival is not as focused on pleasing audiences as many “audience festivals” proper might be (like best-of international film festivals). The CFFF is also somewhat out of step historically with film festival developments in that it was created well after the second period of film festival circuit developments, the 1960s–80s, wherein most agenda-oriented festivals began (Loist 58). However, Patricia White notes, “Festivals established and programmed [End Page 67] around identity and community . . . rarely function as launches for feature film releases,” and “their influence lies in the culture and community, not in the film world” (77). This places the CFFF in something of an activist-audience hybrid position, since it aims to build audience awareness as well as industry connections for participating filmmakers—both of which have been influenced by larger cultural structures, such as patriarchy.
The goal of the CFFF is to address the patriarchal imperatives and misogyny embedded within the film industry as well as to present a range of feminist content that is otherwise underrepresented in the mainstream film industry. Intersectionality is at the heart of this goal, including student involvement in the festival both in and out of the classroom. As Sumi Cho, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall write, intersectionality is “a gathering place for open-ended investigations of the overlapping and conflicting dynamics of race, gender, class, sexuality, nation, and other inequalities” (788) and “conceiving of categories not as distinct but as always permeated by other categories, fluid and changing, always in the process of creating and being created by dynamics of power” (795). Following the work of Dean Spade, Cho et al. argue that intersectionality does not mean “dismantling identities or categories themselves, but, rather, dismantling structures that selectively impose vulnerability upon certain bodies” (803). This means highlighting films primarily by and about women and gender-nonbinary people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color. This also means integrating students into every aspect of festival programming, planning, and facilitation, as a means of enacting feminist practice through the film festival, and including students in project-based service learning, where they acquire the soft skills so coveted by future employers while engaging in feminist practice.