Weekender: Women’s Lives in View shines a spotlight on women in film

The promotional poster for Women's Lives in View is pictured. Courtesy of Women's Lives in View

On Thursday, March 28, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s annual Women Take the Reel film festival will make its way to Tufts through Women’s Lives in View at Tufts, a screening of a collection of short films.

The festival was founded by individuals from the MIT’s Women’s and Gender Studies department involved in the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women, and Sexuality. The films are all directed by women and focus on topics relating to gender, race, sexuality, class and feminism.

Jennifer Burton, a professor of the practice in Tufts’ Film and Media Studies (FMS) Department, explained the idea behind the festival.

“The idea is to get communities who are interested in representations of women or in women film directors together across different communities … Tufts is part of this initiative, and we do an event through Women Take the Reel every year,” Jennifer Burton said.

Ursula Burton, Professor Burton’s sister and an actor, director and producer who has performed on shows such as “The Office” (2005–2013), emphasized the importance of shining a spotlight on women who work behind the camera. She spoke about the pervasive lack of women in production roles.

“Out of all the top grossing movies … seven percent of women are directing them,” she said. “Meanwhile, women are coming out of film school at fifty-fifty … There’s a bigger problem happening.”

Festivals like Women Take the Reel increase the visibility of women in film, and the passionate community response to such events challenges preconceived notions about films with female-driven stories.

“For example, one thing it’s shown is that there’s a market for seeing complex women’s lives on screen. People go to the movies, they watch these things on television, right? … Always, the argument was that actually, the market is driven by teenage boys, or … these kinds of market ideas, but … most tickets are bought by women,” Jennifer Burton said.

Jennifer Burton teaches classes on advanced filmmaking and directing in the FMS department. She is focused on drawing as many people to the classroom as possible to tell stories that go beyond those in a typical mainstream movie.

“We’re actually making extra efforts like having the Tufts Women in Filmmaking Group, like encouraging these different filmmakers to come to campus so that people see themselves represented in the professional world … These kinds of efforts, I think, are building on Tufts’ values of equality, equality of representation and of opportunity,” Jennifer Burton said.

Women’s Lives in View at Tufts will carry this spirit of inclusion forward. The collection consists of short films produced by Professor Burton and Five Sisters Productions, a production company based in Los Angeles, Calif. and run by both Ursula and Jennifer Burton in addition to their three other sisters.

Jennifer Burton explained that Women’s Lives in View at Tufts would be structured as a conversation. She explained that they will show a series of shorts, some from the “Half the History” series, which highlights under-told stories of women in American history. A question-and-answer session about the films will follow.

Material at Women’s Lives in View at Tufts ranges from “Half the History” to work done by other producers. Gabrielle Burton, another Burton sister who recently directed a feature documentary called “Kings, Queens & In-Betweens” (2017), about drag culture in Columbus, Ohio, will be at the event.

Ursula Burton spoke about an untitled, unfinished work in progress that will be shown at the festival. It explores the intersections of age and gender as the piece centers around two older sisters in their nineties.

“It’s very rare to see older people at all on screen, and then to see older women on screen, and then to see them talking about their lives as opposed to just … their grandchildren. We’re not used to seeing them talking about, like, ‘Should I start dating again?'” Ursula Burton said. “I’m also very interested in gender issues, and I have a film about how we inadvertently or unintentionally gender our children, even when we think we’re not.”

Jennifer Burton said that the “Half the History” short film about Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, would also be on view. The film is co-directed by Jennifer and Ursula Burton.

“It was important that Ursula was here because all of these different threads … It takes so many filmmakers to even make a dent in the billions of stories that need to be told,” Jennifer Burton said.

Since the films at Women’s Lives in View at Tufts are short films, there will be plenty of opportunity for discussion in between each showing, and each entry will explore women’s unique struggles and triumphs.

“I feel like what happens is that [when] people start to tell these stories, people look to them as like, ‘That’s the female experience.’ But the point is that … you need to have a gazillion stories out there before you even get a sense of what … the female experience [is],” Burton said.

Of course, filmmaking is about more than storytelling, since it requires a high level of technical knowledge. Through her work in the classroom, Jennifer Burton is also empowering students of all backgrounds in order to help them tell their individual stories, something that she hopes Women’s Lives in View at Tufts accomplishes as well.

“One thing that we’re trying to do is make sure that people who have the desire to learn technical or narrative techniques are encouraged to develop their talents to the fullest at Tufts … We’re trying very consciously at Tufts to make sure that people who have the desire to develop themselves as film artists have the opportunities,” Jennifer Burton said.

Although there are many problems facing the film industry, especially when it comes to the lack of support provided for women in the field, both Burton sisters had plenty of advice for aspiring filmmakers.

“Being an artist is challenging. It’s a difficult life in many ways, and I think you really need to be passionate about the projects you pick, because you end up working a long time on each one. I think sometimes people start and they say, oh I’ll dabble in this or do this little thing. And I think that it always ends up being a lot more time than you think. So you really want to love the project you’re working on,” Ursula Burton said.

Jennifer Burton spoke about the importance of technology in filmmaking.

“I have so much advice … I think there’s such an opportunity now with the revolution in technology that everyone can learn something about cinematography. Everyone can learn something about sound recording … Particularly for people interested in directing, we have this opportunity to take these classes at Tufts which give you access to the equipment, and you can learn what your vision is,” Jennifer Burton said.

As for what’s next for the sisters, they already have many projects in the works, including a film that’s part of “Half the History.” The short film is about two female composers: Florence Price, who was the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, and Amy Beach, who was one of the most famous composers of her time. The film will explore how race and gender affected their ability to get published. Shooting starts the same day as Women’s Lives in View at Tufts.

Jennifer Burton said she was excited to start working on this new project.

“The first day of shooting is at the Eustis Estate, which is this incredible historic home in Milton, and they have given us permission to film there. It was the house for Amy Beach … And so having this location, which is just phenomenally beautiful … is incredible. So we will actually just be coming directly from filming there … We’ll … talk about the experience of just having shot [during] the hours right before the screening,” Jennifer Burton said.

 Women’s Lives in View at Tufts takes place on Thursday, March 28 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Crane Room. The event is free to attend. Refreshments will be served. RSVPs can be e-mailed to WSGG@tufts.edu.


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