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Professor’s film shows ‘21st-century issues’

A film and media arts professor created a film that discusses sexism in the film industry.

David Brown recalls watching the screening of “12 Years A Slave” at the Philadelphia Film Festival three years ago. After it ended, he stood in the lobby of the Kimmel Center and processed the power of the film with other viewers.

“We’re having these sometimes very difficult conversations about race and power and privilege with people who were strangers before they saw the film … that all of a sudden formed a community to have a dialogue about it,” Brown, a professor of strategic communications, said.

It’s this type of dialogue that the Philadelphia Film Society hopes to continue during this year’s festival, which runs Thursday until Oct. 30. More than a dozen theaters across the city will screen nearly 100 films in a variety of genres, from feature films up for Oscar consideration, to independent films produced by local filmmakers.

Elisabeth Subrin, a film and media arts professor, will show her full-length feature film, “A Woman, A Part,” that first debuted in January 2016.

Subrin said she aims to reveal an often overlooked issue within the film industry at this year’s festival with her film, which had its world premiere this past January at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and follows the story of a strung-out Hollywood actress who leaves her successful, but repetitive role at a popular television show.

The actress tries to rediscover her authenticity in New York and reconnects with two friends from her old avant-garde theater group.

“I just became more and more interested in narrative storytelling,” Subrin said. “So much of what I’m interested in is talking about people’s complex emotions that are hard to articulate. … My protagonist is questioning what it means to play other people and in a certain way how she’s become the character she portrays in the film.”

Both Subrin and her protagonist, 44-year-old Anna Baskin, decided to rediscover where their artistic expression originated. For Subrin, that meant moving away from her usual work as a visual artist and creating her first full-length narrative film.

The film went into production with more than 50 percent of the production crew and 80 percent of the film’s cast being women. Two of the four principal roles in the film are women of color, according to a press release from Subrin.

“A lot of the actors in interviews have talked about the impact that it had on set, in an environment like this,” Subrin said. “When you take away ‘bro culture,’ there’s so much love on the set and people are just so much happier.”

“I didn’t anticipate that phenomena,” she added. “I was just trying to give women opportunities and have a more gender-based and racially diverse environment, but it had a really huge effect on the energy on set.”

The problem with this marginalization, Subrin said, is that it ends up forcing actresses into repetitive, cliche roles with little to no complexity. Women generally pay minor, unimportant roles, “or if they’re the protagonist, they’re usually fetishized both by the writing and the camera,” she said.

“There’s never been a narrative feature film to my knowledge that more explicitly explores the psychological consequences of an actress playing a sexist role on a television show,” she added. “The main problem about women in the film industry is that they are so marginalized as writers and directors that their perspective on being women is not represented through the roles they’re playing.”

The problem can also be seen on Main Campus, Subrin said, in the low number of female students in her film classes. Subrin teaches the Women Film/Video Artists course at Temple, screening more films by women and encouraging female students to speak up in class.

“I’m not the only one doing this,” she said. “My department is really committed to trying to change those statistics and cultivate and nurture more women students and a more racially diverse student body.”

While Subrin stresses the importance of more women in film, she said she understands the difficulty in pushing for political change, describing the film as a “first-step film.”

“People don’t change overnight,” she said. “I don’t want them to walk away with a mission statement. … What I want most is for people to have feelings about the film and be moved by it and have an experience of the complex layered characters going through complicated 21st century issues.”

Subrin’s goal of adding a unique female voice in an industry so dominated by men is similar to those of the Philadelphia Film Society, which screens films like “A Woman, A Part” in order to get some dialogue started about these difficult issues.

“That’s one of the things I love about film in general,” Brown said. “As an art form, it tends to be one of the few mediums that enables you to express ideas and capture the human condition in ways that no other medium can.”

Emily Thomas can be reached at emily.ralsten.thomas@temple.edu.

CORRECTION: In the print version of this article, it stated that the film premiered in January 2015, but it premiered in January 2016.

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