|WIDC presents filmmaker Yvonne Welbon with its action award March 15.|
Women in the Directors Chair’s 22th annual film festival March 14-23 opens with an important documentary by Yvonne Welbon, “one of our own,” says WIDC program director Sabrina Craig.
Welbon has made the first documentary on black women filmmakers that reveals a surprising number of “Sisters in Cinema” going back 80 years. “It attempts to begin to write African American women directors into American film history,” she says.
“Sisters” is one of 135 women-made films from 35 countries to screen at theatres throughout the city, culled from a record 750 entries this year. “The festival,” promises Craig, “will premiere terrific work by amazing talent.”
An estimated 5,000 guests are expected over the 10 day event.
Welbon is one of their own by virtue of WIDC being a fiscal sponsor in bringing in $100,000 in in-kind grants to fund “Sisters.” Welbon spent $50,000 of her own money and producer’s rep John Pierson, of IFC’s “Split Screen” series, also contributed a small amount. Furthermore, says Craig, “Yvonne is invested in creating a community here.”
It was while earning her MFA from the School of the Art Institute that Welbon, who planned to produce, researched black women filmmakers and it found it “disturbing that people didn’t know about them.”
“Sisters” recounts generations of struggle to make it in Hollywood, then a growing movement starting in the 1990s by black women to make movies on their own terms.
“There are more than 100 African American filmmakers, from shorts, to experimental films to features,” says Welbon, a Vassar undergrad with a PhD in film. In features alone she found 46 directed by women of color.
Among the directors she cites are Tressie Souders’ “A Woman’s Error” in 1922, the first known feature by an Africa American woman; Julie Dash’s 1992 “Daughters in the Dust,” the first nationally distributed film; Darnell Martin’s first studio feature in 1994, “I Like it Like That” and poet Maya Angelou’s first feature, “Down in the Delta,” released in 1998.
“If black women want to make movies, they basically have to figure out how to raise the money to do it themselves without the power of the studio system behind them,” Welbon says.
Starting in 1997 and finishing only last month, Welbon used a mini-DV to gather 100 hours of interviews among 20 black feature directors for her dissertation.
The 100 hours were whittled down to 62-minutes over a two years via an editing residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus Ohio, founded by Gap owner Leslie Wexner.
Welbon had produced Catherine Crouch’s acclaimed 1991 fiction feature “Stray Dogs” and Crouch handled camera and sound for “Sisters.” Welbon herself narrates the doc.
Welbon argues that it is not only black women who are shut out of top creative roles in the U.S. film industry. She cites a statistic from the Directors Guild: while women comprise 60% of film students, they make up only 7% of working directors.
Welbon directed the acclaimed documentary “Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100,” about the oldest known “out” African American lesbian.
She is currently developing a documentary series on women in the Black Power movement, “Where are we now?” looks at how black women in 1970s contributed to black culture and historical change, and her first narrative feature, about a black lesbian high school student in Chicago in 1972.
“Sisters in Cinema” plays March 14 at 9 p.m. at LaSalle Bank Theater, 4901 W. Irving Park Road, and repeats March 15 at 4 p.m. at the Charles A. Hayes Family Investment Center, 4859 S. Wabash. Welbon will receive the WIDC Action Award at a reception prior to the screening.