Editor’s note: When he is not busy running his uber edgy PLUS Gallery, 2501 Larimer, Ivar Zeile wears a different hat: cultural man about town. Here he previews an event from the Denver Film Society.

The Denver Film Society, now boasting a permanent home since late 2012 on Colfax next to the Tattered Cover and Twist and Shout (through the generous support of Denver’s Sie family), has been producing mini film festivals all year as adjuncts to their annual Starz Denver Film Festival that takes place in the fall. Next week, they launch the third edition of their  “Women + Film VOICES Film Festival,” which focuses on how women shape the content, narrative, and future of both film and society. The event was scheduled to overlap with International Women’s Day (March 8). I was given the opportunity to preview a handful of  topical films relevant to the art community that will be featured during the festival, including the opening night dramatic feature “Leonie,” scheduled for Tuesday, March 5.

It may seem counterintuitive to title a film “Leonie” that’s even peripherally about famed artist Isamu Noguchi, but that just goes to show the respect the production has for its real subject, Noguchi’s mother. In that way it’s also the perfect film to launch the festival, as it’s largely a statement about the strength of a particular woman from an era when it was infinitely harder for women to make a stand against men as well as culture.

The narrative reveals events that led Leonie Gilmour to become intimately involved with a budding Japanese poet, resulting in the birth of their son Isamu, her subsequent estranged relationship with Yone Noguchi, and the forces she had to fight that led to Isamu deciding to become an artist. There’s not exactly a lot of dramatic tension, which might be why this finely crafted film never received a major studio release back in 2010, but it has a solid emotional impact and a few very key moments of motherly fortitude that should resonate well with its intended audience. What comes across as the most shocking element is the direction of study that Isamu ended up taking in his studies as a young man and the way his mother tried to get him to reconsider the artistic inclinations that resonated so strongly in him as a youth. It’s not something one would consider natural in this day and age, but it was obviously a major factor in this particular artist’s life and perhaps fitting for his mixed-culture roots and moment in history.

Two short documentaries “Wonder Women!” and “Going Up the Stairs” also use art as a general context, both in very different ways and both showing polar opposites of the reality that women face today in different cultures, namely the US and Iran.

wonder womenKristy Guevara-Flanagan’s polished treatise on the most important female role-model to emerge from comic books, Wonder Woman, presents a very interesting and in-depth study on how much American society and culture have changed as the result of a heroic cartoon figure. Wonder Woman emerged initially as a gap-filling artistic representation that seemingly defied everything else in its field at the time, a status that largely still stands in the arena of super-hero comic-book characters. While Wonder Woman was bravely introduced as a female role model, complete with her lasso of truth (something only a feminine superhero might deem the most useful tool), her narrative development through time was fraught with imagery that bordered on the gratuitous, even demoralizing, nevertheless it smacked of the reality that women are always fighting against threat and repression at the hands of men or the world at large.

The cult that has grown around Wonder Women may not be visible in our everyday life, but pockets of fandom definitely exist and continue to have a growing and unusual impact. Ultimately, the film claims that Wonder Woman paved the way for a cultural shift that has changed the status of women in comics, in television and in film in multiple ways across the spectrum of life with a degree of depth that goes all the way up the food chain – which just may be why our country has recently put forth a serious and viable presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton. It has been an uphill battle for women on so many fronts in the last century, but when framed within the sphere of comic book art, Wonder Woman’s role has been a rather remarkable component.

And to watch “Wonder Woman” back to back – or at least within the same week as the brief Iranian documentary “Going Up the Stairs” – is like seeing polar opposites on the playing field of life. Not only is there no equivalent to a comic-book figure like Wonder Woman in Iranian society, but Islamic culture quite obviously could be considered an affront to women on just about every single level to those of us well outside it. “Going Up the Stairs” gets to the heart of that idea through the simple, spare depiction of Akram and the complications she faces as an artist.

We can’t really consider Akram an artist in the way we might someone who has devoted their life and interests to the topic. What we have with this 50-year-old, illiterate woman is someone who is allowed to paint, and makes many paintings in the same way women in our country might make crafts in their basement as a hobby. Only in her case she is allowed to paint upstairs, not an easy place for Akram to reach in her hobbled condition. But she’s as devoted to painting as she is to cooking and doing the other chores that constitute her life, and she’s headstrong enough to not take her husband’s input too seriously about what she paints, as much as he tries to impose himself.

Taking us through the day-to-day of her life, Akram tells us about her husband, their meeting when she was just a young girl, how he threatened her life should she ever defy him or even engage in behavior that was even the slightest bit flirtatious, and how she still has much uncertainty about what she can and cannot do in their household. Judging by their setup, she can’t even display any of her paintings on the blank walls downstairs. That fact has particular resonance once Akram is asked to exhibit her paintings at a gallery in France. She must get permission from her husband to do so. While this whole ordeal sounds awful and absurd, it is never portrayed in a heavy-handed way, in fact at times the story is humorous or charming. Ultimately Akram perseveres, gets to go to Paris, and returns with even bigger ambitions to continue a career as an artist, the blind ambition similar to that of many of her western counterparts. What might Akram’s state of mind be if she had a role-model like Wonder Woman to uphold in the face of her reality? We will never know. What we take for granted in the western world just makes the rest of the world seem an increasingly sad and completely foreign place to exist for both sexes.

Akram in "Going Up the Stairs"

Akram in “Going Up the Stairs”

While most of the films presented at the festival are recent releases (and most likely remote releases……the reason for putting them into a festival context), this year contains an assortment of historic films selected for their unique depictions of women in a dramatic context.

A few of them are the more traditional “chick” flicks such as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Julie & Julia,” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but a couple of others come from celebrated directors renowned for their often disturbing vision of society. Park Can-Wook’s awesome spectacle “Lady Vengeance” and Roman Polanski’s classic thriller “Repulsion,” being presented with a new 35 mm print (for those who are not familiar, that is actual film run through a projector giving the best image quality possible, ie…old school!), are examples.

And this year’s festival will also feature one newly dubbed Oscar winner, the short film “Inocente” which took Oscar gold last weekend in the short film category.

To find out more about the full lineup for Women + Film VOICES Film Festival, visit http://www.denverfilm.org


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