As the 15th Ashland Independent Film Festival closed Monday, it left behind a legacy for women in film. Twenty-four of the 39 feature films in the festival this year were directed or co-directed by a woman, according to Candace Turtle, AIFF communications director. This level of participation inspired a new event — a breakfast followed by a Women Make Indie Movies panel discussion Saturday. 

Maylee Oddo, AIFF board president, was part of the planning designed to encourage and nurture women in film, primarily because she said AIFF is interested is seeing and exploring new voices in film. She describes an industry which under-represents and miscasts women with only 9 percent female directors and 25 percent producers. Oddo says this year’s greater participation by women directors and producers has the opportunity to change women’s roles on and off screen.

“Representation of women is sexualized and diminished," she said. "Film is predominantly male and it shapes how we think about the world.” 

Richard Herskowitz, the festival director of programming, selects the films and explains that the large female participation was a "happy accident."

“The films were so damn good by the women directors,” he said. Herskowitz says when selections are made, gender is not a consideration. “We had no idea it was going to be so high, there was no conscious intention, but I was very happy to see it turned out that way. We got the right balance.”

There 1,300 entries for this year's festival and only 110 were accepted. 

The breakfast allowed filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers to meet in a casual atmosphere of breakfast and Bloody Marys at Hearsay before heading across the street for a more formal panel discussion. Networking was the primary reason. 

A major theme was women hiring women. Deborah Zimmerman, executive director of “Women Make Movies,” a distribution and production house aimed at encouraging women in the film industry, urged women to hire each other. She said if a woman is directing a movie, she is six times more likely to hire other women. 

While progress is being made, she told a packed room attending the panel discussion, ”Better than horrible is not really better.”

Zimmerman cited statistics showing only 28.5 percent of the time do women in movies speak, that only three of 16 films at the famed Sundance film festival are created by women and less than 10 percent of Academy Award winners are women filmmakers. And, she says, as the rise of big documentaries have come along, doors are closing for women, rather than opening, even though the form has more female directors than any other type of film. She and the panel of female filmmakers agreed that it’s tougher for women to be included in high-dollar films as director and producers. 

In fact, Heidi Ewing of Loki Films, famous for their movie “Jesus Camp” and their contributions to “Freakanomics,” urged women not to work with men as co-director. “When you co-direct with a man, he gets all the credit. If you’re sitting next to him it’s assumed you’re his wife, girlfriend or assistant.” 

The sentiment was echoed by longtime filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who has been making movies primarily on her own since the 1970s. She urged women to believe in each other and themselves. “I’m here because I believed in me," she said. "I’m here because I had a mother who believed in me.” 

Hammer is noted for her ability to bring texture, which she describes as a “neglected sense,” to the screen. She uses the technique of showing touch and texturing her films in a way to convey the message. A longtime experimental director and credited as "the mother of lesbian film," Hammer urged women to continue creating original work. “I want to shake up the documentary film. We need to shake it up. Encourage experimental work." 

She also advised women to be smart about finding money for their work. Hammer describes writing grant after grant and working to have her films accepted as art at museums of modern art more than 15 times before finding acceptance. Her latest film about American Poet Elizabeth Bishop was financed by the Guggenheim. 

The bottom line for all the filmmakers revolved around finding mentors and being bold enough to ask for work, projects and money. Ewing advised the note-taking audience of aspiring women, “Make films only you can make. Don’t pitch generic subjects. If they can go with a man for the project, they will.” 

The Ashland Independent Film Festival grows by about a thousand tickets a year with some 19 thousand tickets sold this year, according to Turtle, who expects the participation of women to continue growing with it.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.