Byline: Mandy Ellis
From frustration came fire for Patrice Francois who was tired of hearing about womxn filmmakers, especially from the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities, working hard only to have their films overlooked. Thoughtful work and several years of sweat equity later, the founder and festival director debuted Imagine This Women’s International Film Festival (ITWIFF) to celebrate under-the-radar voices and stories from female filmmakers. Over the last half decade, she’s welcomed brands like HBO, Hulu, Netflix, and Refinery29 alongside top-notch talent like Issa Rae and Sara Bennett from Milk Studios. And even launched another networking, mentorship, and community event in her Girl Power Film + Media Summit.
EMINUTES, who recently provided a donation to ITWIFF, spoke to Francois all about how her festival promotes equal opportunities, advice she has for Hollywood about her initiatives, how to amplify and support womxn voices, and how to build and maintain a diverse and inclusive festival culture.
Over the last five years you’ve created, marketed, and grown Imagine This Women’s International Film Festival (ITWIFF). Why did you start the festival and how has it changed the film landscape for womxn?
I decided to start the festival with my mother and it came from being around other women filmmakers and hearing all their frustrations about getting their work seen or accepted into film festivals. Knowing they worked so hard on a film, knowing they’d accomplished their first or second project, and not having the opportunity to have it screened was very frustrating. Hearing that over and over again, I finally sat down with my mom and explained my frustrations and we were like we should start a women’s film festival.
The way it’s helped shift the industry is we’re seeing now there’s more film festivals that understand there needs to be representation. You’ll see other film festivals, major film festivals, that are finally getting it like, “Oh, women filmmakers need that opportunity. They need that platform to showcase that work.” I see it from Sundance, Tribeca, they’re all doing the work to get underrepresented voices out there and I love that. I love that there’s a shift in the industry to share the stories of women filmmakers.
How does ITWIFF work to promote equal opportunities for BIPOC womxn and the LGBTQIA+ community? What education, development programs, and resources do you offer?
In the last year we’ve opened up waiver opportunities for BIPOC and LGBTQ communities so if they’re unable to pay the submission fee, they can apply and let us know why and we’ll grant them a waiver fee. We also started the Girl Power Summit in 2018, with a full day of panels, workshops, and mentorship, and where womxn filmmakers and BIPOC filmmakers can hang out and learn from women in the entertainment industry. And we just had our fifth annual film festival with a panel that highlighted telling authentic BIPOC stories with writers from HBO’s Insecure, and Refinery29. They talked about telling authentic stories, finding that platform, and using your own unique voice to share your story.
How do you create and maintain a culture of diversity and inclusion at ITWIFF? What advice can you give to other film festivals and Hollywood about your initiatives in these arenas?
Being a woman of color, that’s one of our main goals is being open and allowing as much opportunity for underrepresented minorities and the LGBTQ community. That starts with accepting films from diverse voices, and we make sure we have diverse programming in the films and screenplays, and that our judges are diverse.
We make sure they come from various backgrounds that they’re black, that they’re LGBTQ, that they’re older, that they all represent a very diverse background. It starts with programming, judges, screeners, and having a diverse group of people who are willing to work with you and understand your platform is showcasing work without any politics involved.
If they’re not seeing a large amount of submissions from womxn filmmakers or LGBTQ filmmakers, possibly include a program specifically for those filmmakers. Whether it’s a category for best BIPOC filmmakers or best LGBTQ filmmakers because that way filmmakers know you’re inclusive and willing to showcase their work. I know a lot of women filmmakers after they screened at our film festival and won awards, they’re like, “You’ve opened up so many more opportunities and I’ve gotten the courage to submit to more film festivals.” Film festivals need to include diverse staffing, diverse programmers, and put in programs that reflect that they’re inclusive.
With a festival of 56 screenings, 35 filmmakers, and 500 viewers including unique and diverse filmmakers and speakers, why is it of the utmost importance to share womxn’s stories to expand the views in independent films and media?
It’s important because this is what our world looks like. A lot of our voices have been shut out in media and they usually get shut out of the conversations and discussions. This is what our world looks like and all voices need to be heard, all stories need to be told. And it’s important for us to shift the narrative and allow womxn filmmakers the opportunity and platform to share their voices.
Why is it important to support initiatives like ITWIFF and provide a platform to encourage and develop underrepresented female voices and storytellers?
Film festivals like ours, we’re small and very Indy. This film festival is my mother and I, and we run everything. We have volunteers and interns, but there’s a lot of competition when it comes to funding. And the bigger festivals tend to be the ones who get all the funding and grants and the little indie film festivals are the ones who don’t get the opportunity and resources. It’s truly important to support small film festivals whether it’s monetary donations or even in-kind donations, like providing software programs or workshops; it helps the festival to continue their mission and provide a platform.
What do ITWIFF screenplay competition winners receive? How does this elevate their voices and get their films made?
With the screenplays, we’ve been fortunate to have in-kind donations from Final Draft so they’ll win Final Draft software. We’ve partnered with ISA Network who provide winners with a year membership to Writers Guild of America East. And then our filmmakers receive software like Red Giant Software or Cyberlink software so we try to give them something to help them develop their skills.
The software helps them create more efficiently and now that they’ve won at our film festival, they can present to producers to help fund their next project because then they see it as, “if you were able to win at this film festival, then you must be producing quality film.” It can help them with their next project and gives them encouragement that they’re capable of getting accepted and winning at a film festival, and having a platform that supports them in a way that highlights their quality.
Walk us through the Girl Power Film + Media Summit. How does this impact womxn beyond ITWIFF, and how does it motivate the next generation of female filmmakers?
With the day-long Summit, it has panels, workshops, and networking. And the most important part of the Summit is that these women filmmakers and aspiring women filmmakers have the opportunity to grow their community, talk panelists, and gain mentorship. That’s the core value of our summit: growing their community, their network, and getting mentorship from working filmmakers. That also encourages them with professional development and provides them with a resource to work on their next project.
ITWIFF went completely virtual this year. How did this change allow expansion for international viewing? What changes have you seen from the additional worldwide access?
We loved going virtual this year because it allowed us to introduce ITWIFF to a whole new audience who might not have the opportunity to enjoy these films. We had attendees from London to California to Canada, and that was great having our films watched by attendees from all over the world.
Our panel, which was redefining authentic storytelling, like BIPOC stories, with Issa Rae and her platform, and she shared that panel because we had two speakers from Insecure. And that opened up a whole new audience so that was great having folks from network Netflix and Hulu attend our panels.
How does the EMinutes sponsorship impact ITWIFF? Do you have any plans with the sponsorship so far?
EMinutes was very helpful. They provided a monetary donation, which helped us continue with our mission and get a virtual platform to host the festival. Being an independent film festival, we solely rely on submission fees, and over the years we have to spend out-of-pocket to actually run this film festival. So it was very helpful in getting us the platform where we hosted our film festival and right now we’re planning for Girl Power. We’re certainly thinking about having EMinutes do a workshop or have a moment where they can talk about all the programs they offer to our community.
What’s impacted you the most while running the ITWIFF? Any particular films or stories that have stuck with you?
We had a workshop about how to get your film into film festivals. That one was one of the most insightful workshops because it was a way for independent filmmakers to see how to submit, especially during COVID, because we’re all trying to figure out how to move forward. So it was great to have Rebecca, who’s the Film Doctor, put together the workshop and have filmmakers continue to create and submit and have their work seen because that’s the most important part of being a filmmaker is having the audience see your film.
When you’re not trying to amplify and empower independent, international womxn filmmakers, who are you and what are you doing?
I’m trying to get back into screenwriting and filmmaking. This film festival’s a full-time job and I haven’t been able to work on any films in the last five years because I’ve focused on the festival. So this year has given me more time to get back into writing.
My favorite place to travel is Thailand; that was my first solo trip and I did that for a month. Traveling all around Thailand, seeing the culture, the food, the beaches, because I love the water, that was definitely one of my favorite experiences. My second would be Spain. I find Barcelona is one of those places that you can get lost and find something you weren’t looking for. That’s what I love about traveling internationally is letting yourself go and not worrying about schedules or where you need to be next; just getting lost and exploring the country.
What should we look forward to in the future from ITWIFF and all its bold, thought-provoking films?
Definitely look for the Girl Power Summit. We’re planning a virtual summit in March with panels and workshops that will create resources and professional development for our filmmakers, and definitely look out for our six year. We’re going to hopefully screen more older films, more original films next year. We’re really looking forward to our Girl Power Summit in March and then our sixth annual festival in September.
What advice would you give to aspiring womxn filmmakers, especially BIPOC and LGBTQIA+?
Continue to work and don’t let anyone hold you back. You have a voice and people need to hear your voice and your vision and your stories. Keep creating, find your community, find people who are willing to work with you, who believe in you and in your story, and will work with you to get that story told.
BIO: Patrice Francois is the founder and festival director of Imagine This Women’s International Film Festival (ITWIFF), which aims to amplify and empower independent and aspiring womxn filmmakers while promoting equal opportunities for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities, in Brooklyn, New York. She’s also a filmmaker as well as a mentor for Cutter Connections.