Exploring the 10th Annual Women and Minorities Media Fest with Director Elsa Lankford: An Interview by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

From Wednesday, April 19, through Saturday, April 22, Towson University will play host to the 10th Annual WAMMFest (Women and Minorities in Media Fest), as it has since festival’s inception. With approximately 75 shorts films of a variety of genres—made by and/or about women and people from a diverse array of backgrounds (as defined by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, and more), as well as some VR (virtual reality) pieces—WAMMFest promises a delightfully eclectic mix of content for a broad audience. Beyond the media content, you can expect to find panels and parties. It should be an exciting four days, all of it taking place at Towson’s Van Bokkelen Hall.

I met with Festival Director Elsa Lankford to discuss her role as co-founder and to hear her take on this year’s selections. What follows is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for clarity.

BmoreArt: So, Elsa, How much are tickets?

Elsa Lankford: Tickets are very reasonable. Opening Night is a little bit more expensive: $15 for general admission and $10 for students. Every other night is $5, and if you are a Towson student, it’s free. Saturday has a day and an evening, so Saturday would be $10 if you did the whole day. So the whole thing – if you’re not a student – is $35.

I noticed you have some other events, as well. There’s an After Party on Opening Night. Is that included in the ticket for Opening Night?

Yep! So you get to hear Sonja Sohn – whom we mostly know as the actress from The Wire, but who has also directed the upcoming HBO documentary For the Love of Documentary, about the city in the aftermath of Freddie Gray – see a short block of WAMM films, and then go to a party.

Does Ms. Sohn have a film here?

No, but she’s the guest speaker.

And then you have WAMMFest Karaoke on Thursday.

Yes, and it’s going to be awesome!

Friday, you have a VR Master Class. Who is teaching that?

A couple of the VR filmmakers from the festival.

And then you have Women in Film and Video/Docs in Progress Pitch Panel.

Yes. People will need to sign up ahead of time, but you will have 5 minutes to pitch.

And where will people be able to sign up?

It’s on our website [due date April 17].

There will also be the local Film Fatales Panel and the Filmmakers Panel. Who will be on that?

That will be all of the attending WAMMFest filmmakers.

All of them? How many is that?

Last year, we had 12. I don’t think we’ll have 12 this year. I’ve invited quite a few. I know there will probably be at least 10.

Are you able to help them get here?

Anybody who comes here from out of state gets an honorarium that includes some money for travel. As soon as we started going international – or even national – we had to do something to try and get people here.

Tell me how and why you started this festival.

I was involved in co-creating the festival, back in 2008. I and a couple other faculty members in the EMF (Electronic Media & Film) Department at Towson University realized that there was a lack of diversity in the classroom. We wanted to celebrate and encourage what was there and try to get more. So it started as a very departmental festival, the first couple years.

WAMMFest 2016 Winnning Filmmakers

So, 2008, 2009, you’re strictly EMF … When did it expand beyond that?

Probably in the second or third year, we started looking at other colleges, other high schools, in Baltimore and Baltimore County. It was still primarily our department, but we were expanding the net. And then probably in the fourth year, we started to put it out to some audio/video listservs, and we started to get some entries from different places, but still, we weren’t dealing with a whole lot of entries. It was really when we started using Withoutabox, which is a submission website for festivals, that we went fully international. I believe that was five years ago.

Your festival is devoted entirely to short films, so I imagine that as soon as people saw this thing called WAMMFest, which stands for “Women and Minorities in Media”—and that it was purely for short films—it probably seemed like an attractive festival to which to submit films. How have you expanded since that time? How many films were you screening in your first few films, and how many are you screening now?

So in the beginning, probably because I’m an audio professor here, we had a mixture of audio and video. We were then a two-day festival, and by now we’re four days, Wednesday through Saturday. So in the beginning, we did about 20 films, or something like that, but with a very high acceptance rate.

And all from EMF, that first year.

Yes, exactly. Now, the last couple of years, we’ve had over a thousand entries, and we have an emerging filmmakers’ screening, which is for filmmakers that show promise, but they’re not quite ready to be an official selection. So between the emerging filmmakers and the official selection, we’re screening about 75 films.

That’s quite a ratio of submissions to acceptance. It’s not easy to get in! You’re very selective now.

It is very selective. Between last year and this year, we’re at about 5-6% acceptance.

So, what are your selection criteria? It’s “women and minorities in media.” And, obviously, the film has to be by the jury’s standard, a good film. What else?

It has to be a good story, and the story overrides the technical aspect. We’ve had some technically great films where either the story wasn’t good or they were putting women and minorities in a very poor light. It’s amazing how many come in like that. So by a regular judging standard, the film might be awesome, but if you look at it from an inclusivity standpoint …

So built into the great story, you want inclusivity.

Definitely.

Any other criteria? Obviously it can’t be completely technically incompetent.

There was this one film from Afghanistan, that came in maybe three years ago, that was technically awful, but it told the story of these kids and what they had to go through to get to school, and it was from a point of view that you never see.

So you included that. I get it. Who’s on your jury?

Everything is all volunteer-based. It is a jury of… some of them are past WAMM filmmakers, some of them are local film- and-media-makers, some are from beyond the local areas, because judging films can be done remotely. We have people judging from Los Angeles, Australia, England, which is awesome. I always ask the WAMM filmmakers from the previous years, and it’s always cool when they say yes. And for the first time this year, I also had a class involved in judging.

There have always been several students, maybe an intern, or some students that volunteered to judge. For the first time, this fall, there was actually a class involved in that process, which was really interesting. The call for entries usually opens in late summer, and this year ran through the middle of the fall, so that we could get all the judging done in the fall. I think it’s needed experience for students, to see not only inclusive filmmakers – beyond who or what they might see in the classroom – but also to be able to raise their bar of what good work can be, and to develop their own vocabulary about talking about the work.

Still from Born Into Exile (VR)
Directed and written by Charlotte Windle Mikkelborg
http://wammtu.com/portfolio/born-into-exile-vr/

So the name of the festival is “Women and Minorities,” and not “Women or Minorities.” Are all of the films that you accept made by women …

They’re not all women. It’s really an “or.”

So ideally you would have women of color, or other minorities, but you do have male filmmakers of color.

Definitely! Filmmakers of color, LGBT.

Got it. So one can expect filmmakers of all genders.

Genders, sexuality, nationality. Although we do definitely get a lot more women-directed and -written films.

Probably because it’s right up there in your name.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Of course! But I did see some male names among the list this year, which is why I was asking. Let’s say that you get a film directed by a white male, cis filmmaker, but it’s a really wonderful, inclusive story, would you consider that film?

In the past, maybe up until last year, we required that the film be by or about “women and minorities.”

By or about.

Yes, by or about. Now, it’s by and about. So hopefully there would be a woman writer involved, in that example you gave, or a person of color, then that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be just the director. Just somebody in a high-level creative role in that film needs to represent inclusivity.

You have animation, comedy, documentary, and narrative, which are all straightforward film categories, and then you have VR [virtual reality]. How long have you been doing VR?

This is the first year.

And how is that going to work? At least as of now, in 2017, VR is not something that is easy to experience collectively.

True. I put VR on there, even though I didn’t know how it would go, because I thought, “Let’s just try it.” Especially with having an inclusive film festival. People doubted that I would get any entries, but there were quite a few. So what we’re going to do is have a classroom, where there will be students/volunteers helping to tether people to this world, so that the room will be cleared of chairs, for example. What I’ve heard is best is to have a chair that can spin but not move.

Right. It’s tough to lock it down, otherwise. In my experience with VR, if I can move around within the room, that’s not so good.

Exactly.

And it’s also dangerous.

Yes! So I’m hoping we can find something. Otherwise, it will be people standing and having enough volunteers… (laughs)… to make sure people aren’t crashing in to each other.

So how many VR projects are there?

There are 5.

That seems manageable.

Yes! That was intentional. And some of the submissions were really good, but too long. I wanted them to be around 4 or 5 minutes.

So roughly 75 shorts plus 5 VR. Great. And what’s the distribution throughout the different genres? Are they about equal?

Definitely more narrative, followed by doc, and then animation and comedy are about the same.

It’s interesting to me that you break comedy out of narrative. Why do you do that? You’re not the only festival to do that, but why do you do that?

(Laughs) For an inclusivity festival, it was just necessary. I was screening a documentary in an Event Management class I teach, and it was heart-wrenching, and I turned on the lights and everyone was crying, and one of the students asked, “Are all diverse films this sad?” (laughs) So comedy was added specifically so that when I’m curating, I can have a happy/sad ratio, which normal film festivals probably don’t need to do. With an inclusive film festival, there ends up being a lot of really emotionally heart-wrenching topics that need to be balanced with lighter fare. I’m not saying that they’re all sad! But there are some – especially with the docs – sad topics. So that’s my honest reason why comedy is pulled out.

So when you have your programmed screening blocks, they are not defined by genre category. You’re able to curate each block with a mix of intense, sad, happy, so that regardless of where the films fall in a category, the screening blocks remain a healthy mélange of tone. With animation in there, too. I imagine that makes, for you, for some real curatorial fun, in terms of figuring out what goes where.

(Laughs) That, to me, is my favorite and least favorite part of working on the festival each year, because it’s definitely the most creative aspect. It’s almost like a mystery. The puzzle pieces are there, but you just don’t know what the puzzle is going to look like. But putting them together and finding a common theme is a challenge. It’s eclectic.

So, when you started the festival, you probably had almost no overhead, since all the filmmakers were local. But now you’ve had to come up with some real funding. Who pays for all this?

It is university funded – different departments on campus give us funding – and also funded by the call-for-entries fees through Withoutabox and Film Freeway.

But the bulk of your funding comes from Towson?

Yes.

Wow! That’s nice that they support the festival in this way. Congratulations on your great work. I look forward to seeing as many films as I can.

EL: Thanks!

Photography of 2016 WAMM Festival by Kanji Takeno

Top Photo – Still from Traces (VR), Directed and written by Gabriela Arp
http://wammtu.com/portfolio/traces-vr/

For information on the schedule and tickets, visit the WAMMFest site. Festival runs from Wednesday, April 19, through Saturday, April 22, 2017.

Our website: wammtu.com
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