Film Fest Honors Women's Day

Nicole Sheldon-Desjardins first conceived of a Women’s Day film festival during her time in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. There, she said, International Women’s Day is one of just three holidays—along with Independence Day and Youth Day—celebrated by parades and a complete suspension of school and work.

“It was shocking to me that in Cameroon, where there is such inequality,” Sheldon-Desjardins says, “women celebrate in this way.”

When she returned to the States in 2006, Sheldon-Desjardins, a director of programs with Hostelling International, decided to combine her passion for film with her interest in women’s issues to establish the Boston International Women’s Day Film Festival.

The festival—which ran last week March 5-9—screened 20 films in Boston and Cambridge, primarily at the Brattle Theatre. The films remind viewers of the many trials suffered by women around the world—from the kidnapping and murder of young women by the Nepalese national army to the controversies concerning women’s headscarves in Dubai.

The event—presented by Hostelling International USA in conjunction with Women in Film & Video/New England and The United Nations Association of Greater Boston—kicked off its second year with a screening of the new documentary “Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority” at the Boston Public Library on March 5.

Kimberlee K. Bassford ’99—who wrote, produced, directed and co-edited the documentary—became fascinated by Mink after the former Hawaii Congresswoman’s death in 2002. Bassford discovered then that Mink had not only been the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress but had also co-authored Title IX, the landmark amendment that banned gender discrimination in federally-funded education and sports programs.

“It was a great way to look at history differently through the eyes of an Asian-American woman,” Bassford says. Drawing upon hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings from Mink’s relatives and from Library of Congress archives, Bassford traced a life of struggle and perseverance.

When Mink was elected in 1965 to the U.S. House of Representatives, one headline read, “Pert and Pretty Patsy Mink has a Lot of Serious Thoughts as She Approaches Her Role in Congress.” This patronizing fascination with the Hawaii native of Japanese descent soon gave way to the pejorative communist label “Patsy Pink,” as she voiced her fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, demanded gender equality, and pushed for increased government spending in education.

Her story is little known because, Bassford says, “She wasn’t out to make a name. She wasn’t out for her greed or her ego.” The goal of recognizing oft-ignored contributions made and injustices undergone by women shapes all of the festival’s selections.

A collection of short films—screened on March 7 and 8—created a well-rounded and global perspective, balancing the domestic, marital, religious, political and economic challenges faced by women.

“Through the Negev” depicts the struggle of Sudanese women and children trying to survive as refugees in Israel despite intense suspicion and distrust against them. “Club Native” reveals how Mohawk women in the Canadian town of Kahnawake face patriarchal norms that force them to marry to preserve “blood purity” while disenfranchising women of mixed heritage. Another film, “The Sari Soldiers,” profiles six Nepalese women on divergent ends of the political, economic and social spectrum during Nepal’s civil war and democratic revolution.

The prejudices and sufferings depicted in these films serve to underscore and pay homage to the women’s resilience. They depict sexual violence, poverty, political instability, and community strife, but do not seek to perpetuate the idea of women as helpless victims.

About her documentary, Bassford says, “Really it’s a film about the courage to stand up to injustice, about having courage to act on your conscience and to initiate change, and [Patsy Mink is] kind of a way to exemplify that.”

Similarly, despite the personal tragedies depicted in the films, Sheldon-Desjardins sees the festival as an inspiration. “Ultimately, the films carry a message of hope and are a testament to the strength of the women portrayed.”