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Feature: Festival celebrates women in film industry

By JULIA WATSON   |   Oct. 26, 2004 at 4:08 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Catherine Wyler shows a flair for lateral thinking that would have made her film director father William Wyler proud.

Producer of the 1990 feature film "Memphis Belle," and, among other documentaries, of the 1986 "Directed by William Wyler," Washington-based Catherine Wyler is the driving force behind the High Falls Film Festival (highfallsfilmfestival.com), 4 years old this year.

A "small intimate film festival," as she calls it, in Rochester, N.Y., she has to find a hook to draw celebrities to the audience since, "Every festival needs a celebrity."

But they are hard to snare because "there is such competition between festivals," she said.

So she sat down and thought, if the presence of movie stars draws people to a festival, who is the person most important to movie stars who they might wish to celebrate? Ding! -- their publicist.

This epiphany was particularly powerful, given that the unique formula of the High Falls Film Festival is, Wyler explained, "to highlight the work of women and bring attention to women in positions in film who don't often receive it." And that the doyenne of film publicists is Lois Smith.

Smith represented everyone: Marilyn Monroe, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, Rosie O'Donnell, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson to name just some.

"When I heard she'd just retired, I really thought I'd like to show our audience the different kinds of jobs available in the industry," Wyler said.

Smith is one of three honorees being presented at the festival that runs from Nov. 10-14 with the Susan B. Anthony "Failure is Impossible" Award, named after one of Rochester's most famous citizens.

Another was George Eastman, the inventor of film and the reason why the people of Rochester were keen to launch a film festival of their own.

When they approached Catherine Wyler to be its artistic director, she decided it could become the perfect opportunity to recognize women in the industry, behind the camera as well as in front.

Wyler said, "In the independent film world women are doing just fine. But in the Hollywood world they have a much more difficult time. There are a lot of producers but very few cinematographers, very few directors of the big movies."

One of them, Mira Nair, the Indian director of "Vanity Fair," is receiving the festival's "Web of Life" award that recognizes the power of art to entertain and connect with an audience and its resultant responsibility to seek to improve the world.

Wyler knows firsthand the importance of the people behind the camera. Her mother used to say to her that William Wyler was "God on the set, that the director was the most important person on set." Then she became a producer and discovered something different. "Actually, it's the cinematographer who decides when you roll the camera," she said.

So she pushed for the High Falls Film Festival to celebrate those women who were not so visible to the public, as well as commemorate particular women in front of the camera. This year's fellow honorees of the Susan B. Anthony award that recognizes women who have persevered in their careers and triumphed over adversity are actors Joan Allen and Sally Kellerman.

"In this business," said Wyler, "so much tenacity and guts and drive is needed it's not hard to look at these careers to make a case as to how their award is deserved."

The opening-night film is "Sideways" by writer/director Alexander Payne of "About Schmidt," the most talked-about film at this year's Toronto Film Festival, to celebrate the work of its producer/designer Jane Ann Stewart.

Films from 22 countries were shown at last year's festival, split almost equally between documentaries and feature films. This year, women in the industry have been invited from as far away as China, Bhutan, Patagonia and Iran. Wyler is concerned how easy it will be for them to attend from such countries.

The women behind the camera are vital to the industry, said Wyler. "Without them there would be no film."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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