The Women X Film Festival finally went down this weekend after months of anticipation and, personally, I had a great time. Held entirely online, the festival was contained within a welcoming pink and white website with an easy-to-navigate interface. I particularly appreciated the separation of films into distinct thematic categories such as “Unconventional Connections” and “Redefining Belonging,” as well as the Calm Creative Space tab that took you to various mental health resources. The lineup spanned a wide variety of films and panels that were all absolutely wonderful, but one critic can only talk about so much. Though these three films represent only a sample of what was found at Women X, a full lineup can be found on Letterboxd.
Director: Alison Still
Award Nominations: Best Drama, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Performance (Lewis McGowan), Best Production Design
Category: Unconventional Connections
By far my favorite film at the festival this year is Antonio, a drama about an Italian family who moves to Scotland in the 1970s. Their young son, Antonio, loves football but faces opposition when he attempts to play with the other boys in their small housing development. Prejudice against the foreign family permeates the complex, causing Antonio to feel left out and lonely. Fortunately, a girl named Sarah wants to be his friend, even if her father disapproves.
Though a shared passion for sport is a frequent vehicle for stories about overcoming prejudice, Antonio manages to be compelling on its own terms. By showing xenophobia in action toward a group seldom recognized as marginalized in the UK, the film draws attention to the struggles faced by non-English speaking European immigrants as they attempt to integrate into their new community. Buoyed by a sweet breakout performance from Lewis McGowan as Antonio, this isn’t a story focused on violence or hatred but on the things that have the power to connect us. Yes, the neighbors of Antonio and his family show them unkindness and Antonio’s father gets into a fight, but the children are eventually able to see past their differences and enjoy playing together. This focus on the curiosity of children, their ability to shake off the bitterness of their parents and befriend someone they’ve been told not to, is what makes Antonio unique.
Impressively, the film makes strong use of its period setting. The costume and production design is all impeccably 70s, from the peeling orange-patterned wallpaper of Antonio’s home to the pinafores worn by Sarah and her friends, nothing is out of place. Shot on film, the grain of the image works in favor of the period. Even the font chosen for the title is reminiscent of records of the era. This isn’t a mood piece, but it manages to capture the aesthetic appeal of the 70s with ease.
Antonio has a lot to offer, be it the strong lead performance, the production design, or the heartwarming story at its center. Though quieter than many of the films at Women X, it left a big impression on me. I’m looking forward to checking out more from Alison Still in the future.
Director: Nicole Pott
Award Nominations: Best Drama, Best Director, Best Performance (Michaela Longden)
Category: Selfhood Stories
The complete breakdown of a once-promising relationship flashes before our eyes in Asphyxiate, the first short co-written by lead actress Michaela Longden and director Nicole Pott. Longden descends into the dark vastness of her bath, taking us with her as she considers her union with an unnamed boyfriend (Anthony Quinlan, of Hollyoaks fame). It quickly becomes clear that this is a film that explores the depths of abuse; as the couple has sex, Longden hyperventilates as she seemingly relives a previous sexual trauma.
As we dive deeper with Longden’s character, scenes from her life with Quinlan play in seemingly random order. However, Asphyxiate is smarter than that. It shows scenes that seem to have no connection in order to create two parallel narratives that eventually crash into one another. In the first narrative, Longden and Quinlan meet and fall in love. In the other, the established couple fights over Longden’s perceived disconnect from the relationship. As these narratives develop over the film’s ten minutes, we begin to understand why Longden is so disconnected. Strong performances from both leads create a sinister tension that finally explodes into a montage of unleashed fear and anger.
Though marketed and categorized as a drama, Asphyxiate often plays like a horror film about abuse. The scenes that take place once we fully grasp the couple’s dynamic capture an intense monstrosity in Quinlan’s character that deeply troubled me. For this reason, I would recommend evaluating your personal triggers before watching the film. That being said, the film is a technically impressive exploration of an unhealthy relationship and the effects of emotional manipulation. As Longden becomes more oppressed in her relationship, the camera follows her closer and closer until we feel just as trapped as her. It isn’t until her final monologue that we, and her, feel some semblance of air come back into our lungs. It can often feel too personal, and the final montage feels a bit over-edited, but the feelings Asphyxiate stirs are undeniably powerful.
Director: Zoë Hunter Gordon
Award Nominations: Best Documentary, Best Director
Category: Selfhood Stories
One of the few documentaries found at the festival this year, ill, actually tells three separate stories of living with chronic illness. Ben, Jameisha, and Bella are all very online people who have differing views on how they prefer to share their illness with others. The film switches between the stories and the interviewees never cross paths, so each story is allowed to stand somewhat on its own, even within the broader whole of the film. Director Zoë Hunter Gordon seems to understand implicitly that being disabled doesn’t necessarily entail affinity with another disabled person; everyone handles their illnesses differently because they are different people. Instead of essentializing a “disabled experience” for the uninitiated viewer, the film encourages engagement with a diverse range of experiences and ideas about living with chronic illness.
Importantly, no story is any more central than another. Each subject gets an equal amount of screentime in which they describe their illness, how they handle it, and how they use social media as a disabled person. In many ways, these people couldn’t be more different. Ben is a bodybuilder who cosplays as Thor on Instagram. He considers himself a positive influence in his community; he wants to show people struggling with cystic fibrosis that they can live healthy, happy lives. Jameisha is a YouTuber who uses her platform to talk about living with a disability. She’s very open about her ups and downs with lupus, choosing to use social media to break the conversational stigmas surrounding chronic illness. Bella, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about her disability online. She’s a camgirl who chooses not to share her wheelchair with her clients.
Each of these perspectives brings something new to the table. Should social media be used to bring attention to chronic illness? Is it the responsibility of chronically ill people to tell the people they interact with online about their illness? Should raising awareness come at the expense of having a fulfilling online experience, and is it possible to have both? Instead of providing concrete answers to these questions, ill, actually eschews any one right way to go about being ill online. There is no right way to be a person, right? For every Jameisha on social media sharing their personal experiences, there are just as many Bella’s that prefer to remain private. It serves as a reminder that social media doesn’t give us the whole story of someone’s life. Ben, Jameisha, and Bella are all so much more than they share online. They’re simply doing their best to use the internet for good. What that looks like may vary, but they’re united in their search for full, engaging lives. For those invested in the social dynamics of social media, I can’t recommend this film enough.