“I’ve always felt that the gender disparity on screen is the most easily-fixed area of inequality,” says Bentonville Film Festival co-founder Geena Davis. “The same applies to diversity and intersectionality. And if we change what we see on screen, it will impact real life as well.” 

Davis and BFF co-founder Trevor Drinkwater have made it their mission to build a festival that not only showcases diverse voices in the media but also champions the cause of inclusion year-round through their 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, The Bentonville Film Festival Foundation. The fest itself—held every May in Bentonville, Arkansas, and which is now in its fourth year—is the Foundation’s flagship event, and draws an impressive mix of industry and local cinephiles alike. “They really take care of everybody here. It’s a big deal,” said Mark Dennis, writer and co-director of the female-led science fiction feature Time Trap. His co-director Ben Foster concurs: “It’s been awesome. It’s much bigger than we’d anticipated.”

A fan gets a photo with Benji the Dove moviemakers Kristin Bernhardt and Kevin Arbouet at Bentonville Film Festival 2018. Photograph courtesy of Bentonville Film Festival

In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp (the anti-sexual harassment movement of which Davis is a part), this thoughtfully-executed festival couldn’t be more timely. 2018 films ranged from the funny (Jenna Laurenzo’s coming-out comedy Lez Bomb, which won Best Narrative) to the thoughtful (Luis Prieto’s feature documentary on the 2016 U.S. election,The Disunited States of America) to the bleak (Skye Borgman’s true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, detailing one family’s fight against a sociopathic pedophile who abducted their daughter the early ’70s). But most importantly, the films at BFF 2018 were not simply diverse; they demonstrated great range of talent that also happened to be diverse.

“Of course I’m always trying to help people like myself, who are minorities, to get a high position [on crews],” said Kendall Goldberg, co-writer and director of the Jon Heder-led comedy feature When Jeff Tried to Save the World. “But it wasn’t something I set out to do. I just wanted to surround myself with people who were the most passionate about filmmaking and about the project.” Of her crew, which is roughly fifty percent female, she says simply: “They were the best people for the job.”

In addition to competition films and episodics, this year’s fest featured a family-friendly showcase of Marvel movies, a tribute to Meg Ryan (who was in attendance), and a range of discussion panels on topics related to gender and diversity in entertainment. Particularly popular was the Saturday morning panel “Geena and Friends,” in which Davis and a cast of female celebs re-enacted scenes from notable, male-dominated films in order to demonstrate how easy it is to add women to a cast without changing a word on the page. “They did a Napoleon Dynamite, and I took a video and sent it to Jon,” said Goldberg. “He called me and said, ‘They were so good!’”

At 11:00am on a sunny Friday I sat down with Davis—six feet tall in white eyelet and every inch the strong, funny, radiant heroine you’ve always envisioned her to be. It’s easy to see why everyone who attends BFF considers her to be a kind of den mother or spiritual leader.

“She’s awesome,” gushed Goldberg. “Not only is she the face behind the festival in championing all of this, but she’s fully involved…she’s done numerous panels, interviews, she comes to screenings, and I heard she was at the bar last night singing opera. She’s there, and you can tell she really wants to be, and she’s having fun. It’s hard to beat that.” 

MovieMaker writer Jennifer Blair (R) interviews Lez Bomb‘s Caitlin Mehner and Jenna Laurenzo at Bentonville Film Festival 2018. Photograph by John Wildman

Davis is quick to give props to her fellow women in the industry—from her longtime friend Susan Sarandon to Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, America Ferrera and other leaders of the #TimesUp movement. “To see how they operate and navigate the world is incredibly inspirational,” she said. She is also exceptionally well-versed in the titular subject of her personal research organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

“What’s interesting to me is that film schools are now half women,” Davis said. “So what happens between this fifty percent of film students graduating and getting hired? It’s horrifying to think what’s happened for them, whether it’s just not being able to get hired or finding so much resistance and hostility that they give up…I read something—I think it was [about directors in] television—that said 75 percent of first hires are male. So in other words, people with zero experience! They have the same resume: blank. But right out of the gate, women are excluded…and we really have to do something about that, because if everything we see is from a white male perspective, it’s really skewing the world. We really need to reflect culture as it is, which is 51 percent female and 38 percent people of color.”

Davis’ motto—“If she can see it, she can be it”—was evident everywhere in Bentonville, from the diverse programming itself to the Jane Walker bottles on display at the bar in the Filmmakers’ Lounge (a nod to Johnnie Walker’s recent foray into inclusive branding). According to a global survey of 43,000 women cited by the Geena Davis Institute, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “women should have a louder voice when it comes to cultural influence.” One in nine stated that strong female role models in the media had given them the courage to leave abusive relationships. In that light, even a small gesture (like a glass of Jane Walker) seems like a pretty great idea.

“There’s a saying that I love, which is, ‘The future is the past, changed by the present,’” said Kulap Vilaysack, director and producer of the autobiographical documentary feature Origin Story. The film, which held its world premiere at BFF, chronicles Vilaysack’s search for her Lao birth father and serves as a prime example of the type of moving, intensely-personal (and largely female-driven) films that were on the ticket at the festival. “In doing this type of work and diving deep, you change your future.”

Attendees ready for the Filmmaker Family Bike Ride at Bentonville Film Festival 2018

The hopeful mood was encapsulated in one of my favorite films of the fest: Santiago Rizzo’s autobiographical narrative feature Quest, which had many audience members sobbing cathartically by film’s end. A former juvenile offender with a history of family violence, Rizzo turned his life around with the help of a teacher and mentor. Since then, he graduated Stanford, spent 10 years working on Wall Street, and has held audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. (The film details the early days of his journey.)

Gregory Kasyan plays 12-year-old Rizzo—“Emilio” in the film—with an adept, brutally-honest hand that belies his age and leaves you with the distinct impression that you are watching one of our future greats in action. Lou Diamond Phillips takes a stomach-wrenching turn as Emilio’s abusive, gaslighting stepdad, while Betsy Brandt (“Breaking Bad”) plays his unwittingly complacent mother. Dash Mihok plays Tim Moellering: Rizzo’s real-life coach, teacher, and de facto foster father, to whom the film is dedicated. It’s an assured debut feature that doesn’t pull any punches; you leave the theater transformed.

Rizzo—who screens the film at juvenile detention centers around the country—is the first to point out that some audiences can and will find the film’s subject matter challenging. “We are in a time of evolution in consciousness,” he says. “But if we are to evolve, the shadows have to come to light first.” MM

Bentonville Film Festival 2018 ran from May 1-6, 2018 in Bentonville, Arkansas. For more information, visit their website here. Featured image photograph courtesy of Bentonville Film Festival.