The European Union Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, has always been the place to check out what’s new in the world of cinema from across the pond. This year it’s also the place to discover an array of women filmmakers who directed or co-directed more than a third of the 60 films slated for screening at the festival.
Showcasing women at the festival, which features nothing but Chicago premieres, has always been a priority, says Gene Siskel Film Center director of programming Barbara Scharres. She chooses the movies along with associate director of programming Marty Rubin. But she says compiling this year’s lineup felt different.
“This year it was actually quite easy because the many films we were considering and choosing by women were just coming to us,” Scharres says. “It just fell together that we have a very large representation of films by women.”
European Union Film Festival
When: To April 4
Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State
Carmel Winters, an award-winning Irish writer and director for stage and screen, helms one of these films, “Float Like a Butterfly.” It’s a boxing story with an intriguing feminist twist.
Set in 1970s Ireland, the film follows Frances (a wonderful portrayal by Hazel Doupe), a 16-year-old Irish Traveller who dreams of being a great boxer like her idol Muhammad Ali. A coming-of-age story and a father-daughter story, it vividly captures the Irish landscape and the Travellers’ mobile caravan world filled with intense family ties, ancient Irish folk songs, companionable campfires and inevitable persecution by police.
Frances is assertive and unforgiving in her interest in boxing while also serving as a champion for her more sensitive younger brother. When her father returns after a decade in prison, his misogyny has intensified and he clashes with his strong-willed daughter as they attempt to find a way to co-exist.
Scharres first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize for the Discovery Programme, a major coup for any independent film.
She says she was drawn to how Winters skillfully “brought so many different elements together in a story that also had a tremendous amount of energy.”
Winters, a self-described “feminist by nature and nurture,” says she wanted to tell a story that would be the next chapter in the #MeToo movement “moving from the acknowledgement of injury and suppression to suggesting how vital women’s leadership will be to us as a society as we go forward.”
The character of Frances came to her first and refused to leave.
“I remember I first wrote what was almost a ‘testimony’ in her voice,” Winters recalls. “And after that she just would not let me go.
“From the get-go Frances was intrinsically noble, clear-eyed and, against all odds, very much a champion of her circumstances. I recognized there was great power in seeing a young female Irish Traveller in this light on screen.”
In addition to getting a memorable performance out of Doupe, who believably embodies Frances, Winters also creates in fine detail the world of the Travellers. Growing up one of 12 children, she had an affinity with the clan culture of the Travellers.
“We lived in a caravan for a period as a family and I remember feeling a very strong sense of solidarity with Traveller women in particular. I think they have survived so much and deserved to be honored and celebrated,” she says, adding, “I collaborated with so many wonderful, inspiring Travellers in the making of this film — musicians, actors, historians, activists, singers, horse breeders and traders, schoolchildren. I am very proud of what we created together.”
Winters gives credit to her production designer Toma McCullim, who she says brought “great magic to the film” and who worked with costume designer Triona Lillis to bring this world to vivid life.
“The old Traveller way of life really was a tremendous treasure-trove of visual flair and imagination,” Winters says. “Both Toma and Triona believe in the potent life of objects so every single item you see in the film is the real deal.”
Scharres says especially when it comes to Europe she feels there is a “greater awareness of opportunities for women, of having more advantages to compete for the opportunity and production money and so forth.”
But while that may be true, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to secure financing and get a film made. Winters says “Float Like a Butterfly” was a case in point.
“It took quite a while to get the film financed, I think because as a society we are slow to celebrate the greatness of women,” Winters says. “But the harder the film was to get made, the more I knew it was needed.
“I think as filmmakers, women are raising the bar. Being excluded from filmmaking for so long has hurt us as a society. We urgently need more women filmmakers to help us recover our humanity and imagine a future.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.
NOTE: “Float Like a Butterfly” screens at 8 p.m. March 29 and 5 p.m. March 30 with director Carmel Winters and production designer Toma McCullim scheduled to appear at both screenings. For a complete list of films, go to siskelfilmcenter.org.