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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Women Sports Film Festival celebrates the stories of female athletes

Women Sports Film Festival celebrates the stories of female athletes

“The Will to Fly,” directed by Katie Bender and Leo Baker. All images courtesy of Women Sports Film Festival



By Kara Newhouse

Kara is an education reporter for Lancaster Online, a creator of the Faces of Mental Health Recovery project, and a 2015 ivoh summit attendee. You can follow her on Twitter at @KaraNewhouse.


It started with a film about an Olympic weightlifter. Then there was a documentary about a teenage boxer in India. And another about a young boxer in Flint, Michigan.

After seeing three separate documentaries focused on impressive women athletes, Susan Sullivan wanted to rinse and repeat.

“It was a really powerful experience to see a female athlete and her story being told in such a compelling way,” she said.

But she didn’t just want to watch these sort of movies at home on her couch.

Sullivan, who is a filmmaker herself, believes that a documentary’s impact depends on the viewing experience.

“We can watch so many things on our screens now, but you can never replace being in a group watching something together and responding to what’s happening,” she said in a recent phone interview with ivoh.

So she organized the Women Sports Film Festival, a three-day event to celebrate female athletes and their stories. Held in Oakland in July, the festival included nine full-length documentaries and eight short films about swimmers, lacrosse players, race car drivers and other female powerhouses.


Women Sports Film Festival Trailer from Women Sports Film Festival on Vimeo.


“The athletes worked so hard living their lives and being who they are, and the filmmakers worked so hard to bringing the stories to the screen. I saw there was an opportunity where I was going to take the ball the next mile,” Sullivan said.

About 400 people attended the inaugural festival, including a sold-out first night. The crowd brought a level of enthusiasm that one filmmaker who participated said was unrivaled.

“There was just this sense of, ‘Wow, we have been waiting for this and didn’t even know we were waiting for this,’ ” said Megan Shutzer, “That was something that not every film festival achieves, this sense of community.”


"New Generation Queens," directed by Megan Shutzer.

“New Generation Queens,” directed by Megan Shutzer.


Shutzer’s documentary, “New Generation Queens,” follows Zanzibar’s women’s soccer team as they travel to mainland Tanzania to participate in a tournament for the first time. It also examines the cultural barriers the female Muslim soccer players faced.

After “New Generation Queens” played at the festival, audience members asked Shutzer how the documentary was received in Zanzibar and the challenges it could create for the team members.

“That was really cool to hear those questions, because it showed that the audience cared about these individuals,” said Shutzer. “But also it was exciting because I got to share with them what has been happening in Zanzibar.”

For example, one village chief who was initially opposed to female athletics invited the team to lead a girls soccer clinic after seeing the film.


"Luchadora," directed by River Finlay.

“Luchadora,” directed by River Finlay.


The past and present hurdles faced by women athletes was a common theme in films at the Women Sports Film Festival. For instance, the documentary “Althea” told the story of Althea Gibson, the first African-American to play at Wimbledon. “Luchadora” followed a Mexican professional wrestling star trying to make ends meet as a single mom. A short film called “An Equal Playing Field” highlighted the challenge of keeping a pro women’s soccer league viable in the U.S.

Though some of the struggles seemed worlds apart, “the essential issue (of equality) is similar” and “they can inform each other,” said Sullivan. Discussions about the political context of sports were part of the game plan for the festival, she said, but it was “not all grim and serious.”

The film “The Will To Fly,” for example, shined a spotlight on career of champion aerial ski jumper Lydia Lassila.

“Some of it was just like, ‘Oh my god, did you see what she did?’ or ‘She’s the greatest ever! She’s amazing,” Sullivan said.

Whether serious or celebratory, Sullivan doesn’t want the conversation about women’s sports to stop after this summer.

The festival took place a week before the Rio Olympics, a time when women’s strength, speed and agility captured more air time and headlines than ever before. But the competition also highlighted ongoing sexism in coverage of women’s sports.

During the Olympics, “it’s almost like there’s a mandate to cover it, but we could be talking about women’s sports all the time if we wanted to,” Sullivan said.

With that in mind, she’s already working on the second Women Sports Film Festival for next year. In the meantime, Sullivan and others involved with the festival are transforming the website into a place for talking about women’s sports and storytelling outside the event. Going forward, Sullivan said, the site will feature updates about other screenings of the films, crowdfunding campaigns for new films, interviews with documentarians and more.


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