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SXSW: Qualified

“All I want to do is race cars.”

Janet Guthrie

Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.

Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?

“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”

Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers

Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.

As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.

Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.

Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

SXSW: Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

“She is a prophet for Mexican food.”

Nick Zuckin

Cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy is the leading expert on traditional Mexican cooking. For over 60 years, Kennedy has immersed herself in Mexican culture and food, learning and respecting the traditions of one of the most celebrated cuisines. This feisty and unapologetic British woman may be an outsider looking in but because she has lived in rural Mexico, in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, for most of her life and sticks to the tried and true approaches to different dishes and recipes, she’s become what one of her friends calls an “adoptive daughter of Mexico.” 

Director Elizabeth Carroll, in her debut documentary Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy explores the life and work of this outspoken advocate for preserving Mexico’s culinary history. Nothing Fancy is a reference to one of Kennedy’s cookbooks but also speaks to Kennedy’s approach to cooking and to life. There are no variations, twists or updates. She sticks to the old ways. Kennedy is a fascinating subject. She’s scrappy, resourceful, and is a champion for organic gardening and sustainable living. She’s always on the road exploring different parts of her adopted country. Kennedy isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks in her abrupt and frank manner.

In the film we mostly hear from Kennedy herself but Mexican chefs, including one of my favorites Pati Jinich, and other experts also chime in on Kennedy’s legacy. My favorite scene shows present day Kennedy making guacamole with spliced in archival footage from decades earlier of her making the exact same recipe. Kennedy is a free spirit who does not change and is true to what she believes in. 

Perhaps the only flaw of the film, which the director hinted at during a screening of this documentary at SXSW, is that the relationships Kennedy has with people in the film isn’t explained. In one case, she is very close to another chef and there is a lovely scene where they have their portrait taken together. But we really don’t find out much about who she is and how they bonded.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is a charming documentary that allows its subject’s vibrant personality shine through. It also serves as one way we can ensure Kennedy’s contributions to preserving Mexican food culture is appreciated for decades to come.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Feature Competition.

SXSW: Days of the Whale

Cristina (Laura Tobón) and her boyfriend Simon (David Escallón) are two street artists living in Medellin, Colombia. They collaborate on their graffiti art, live in a commune with other artists and rescue a stray dog. Cristina is a free spirit and lacks any interest in University life spends most of her time wandering the streets, making art and hanging out with Simon. Her family life is tense and divided. She lives with her father (Christian Tappan) and his new bride and her mother (Margarita Restrepo) has fled Medellin in fear for her life. When a local gang spray paints the threatening message “snitches get stitches””/“los sapos mueren por la boca”, Cristina and Simon decide to paint over it with the image of the whale. Will this act of defiance put their lives at risk?

Days of the Whale/Los dias de la ballena was written, directed and produced by Colombian filmmaker Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. This is an auspicious start to what I hope is a long and fruitful career. Arroyave studied communication and film in Colombia, Argentina and Cuba and brings a new and fresh perspective to Latinoamérica cinema. 

It’s important to step out of our own bubbles and explore the world around us. Days of the Whale offers viewers an insight into life in Medellin, Colombia through the perspectives of two young free-spirited artists. I love how Arroyave’s film drives home the symbolism of the whale. We see a whale trapped in a canal and as the film progresses the city kills the whale in stages. Cristina decides on a whale as the image to draw over the gang’s threatening message. Her reasoning is that they travel, take care of their young and its her mother’s favorite animal. The whale is symbolic of freedom, specifically creative freedom and being free from the fear that can stifle artistic expression. It can also symbolize being true to yourself and freedom to live your life, as Cristina and Simon do in spite of the oppression from local gang members.

Days of the Whale is a promising debut from a fresh new voice. It explores art as both expression and defiance and shines a spotlight on one of the lesser known urban communities of South America. It also features a fantastic soundtrack with a mix of Colombian hip hop and Cuban salsa.

Days of the Whale had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.

For Cine Suffragette, I interviewed Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. Check out the interview in Spanish here and English-language version here!

Update June 2020: Days of the Whale will have a virtual theatrical release on July 24th.

Period. End of Sentence.

“Women are the base of any society. And women are more powerful. But they don’t recognize themselves. They don’t know how much power they have and what they can do.”

Menstruation. It’s not a subject people like to talk about but it’s one that shouldn’t be ignored. Director Rayka Zehtabchi new documentary Period. End of Sentence., follows a group of women from a small town outside of Dehli, India. We learn that menstruation in this patriarchal culture comes with a deeply rooted stigma. It’s embarrassing to talk about and the women use dirty cloths or whatever they can get their hands on during their time of the month. They’re not allowed to pray when menstruating and are essentially isolated from their community until their cycle is over. Many young women even leave school shortly after they get their first period.

Alarmed by these findings, a group of students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, California, with the help of The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Girls Learn International program, banded together to start The Pad Project. They raised funds for the equipment that would help these women create their own sanitary pads. The inventor of the machine, Arunachalam Muruganatham, trained the women in the art of making sanitary pads. With this knowledge, these women were empowered to not only overcome their shame but to start a new phase in their lives as enterprising career women making and selling sanitary pads in their community. For some of them, this was their first job and a chance to learn a trade and become successful at it and to earn money for their household and for themselves.

Out of all the Academy Award nominated documentaries (short subject) this is by far my favorite. Period. End of Sentence. is a feminist manifesto that demonstrates how empowering women can make a huge difference. It’s moving, endearing and full of hope. This film touched my heart and I hope it’ll do the same for you.

“The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”

Arunachalam Muruganatham

Period. End of Sentence. is nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The film premieres on Netflix February 12th.

Alright Now

“It’s over. It’s time to let go.”

Singer Joanne (Cobie Smulders) and her band are on a nostalgia tour in Dorset. Big in the 1990s, Joanne is struggling to hold on to the magic from two decades ago. When her bandmates quit and she discovers her boyfriend Larry (Noel Clarke) is cheating on her, Joanne is left to her own devices. She meets up with her best friend Sara (Jessica Hynes) and they drunkenly apply to a local college. The next morning they find out they’ve been accepted. Not willing to deal with the current state of their lives they become part of the college scene, going to parties, challenging each other to ridiculous competitions and making friends with their dorm mates. Joanne meets Pete (Richard Elis), a relatively shy and awkward guy who works as the college registrar. At first Pete is just a potential hook-up. But as she gets to know him she discovers something more meaningful in their encounters. Pete and Joanne are polar opposites and the positive aspects of their personalities start to rub off on each other. Can Joanne let go of her past and embrace a future full of unknowns?

Alright Now was written and directed by Jamie Adams. It’s was shot over 5 days and the scenes are entirely improvised. This is quite a filmmaking feat and I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary discussing this aspect of the process. The story and the flow felt more organic, like I was watching a real story unfold rather than a scripted piece.

I really wanted to know more about Joanne’s career and the affects fame had on her. Instead the story focuses more on the love story between Joanne and Pete. At times I think there would be more to Joanne and Sara’s story but the movie would deviate away from them.

Alright Now is a charming indie movie that goes with the flow and lets the main character take her story where it will. Cobie Smulders is a natural fit to play the erratic yet fun loving rock star trying to make sense of her new life.

The movie is available on VOD from Gravitas Ventures.

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