The Promise of Access: How the rePRO Film Festival is Opening Up the Conversation Around Women’s Reproductive Health

Earlier this spring, Lela Meadow-Conner was in a bind. As the executive director of the Film Festival Alliance, she was fielding calls left and right, offering comfort to regional festivals from across the country that were being forced to cancel as a result of the coronavirus, while she was wondering what would become of her own microcinema in Wichita, Kansas where she had started a film series called Mama Film, aimed at fostering the kinds of conversations within a community that can start with a good movie. Like everyone she was talking to, she had bigger plans for 2020 than 2019, applying for a grant from the Dr. George Tiller Memorial Fund to start a program of films around female reproductive rights that could travel from Kansas to Cleveland, where Debby Samples and Mallory Martin of the Cleveland Film Festival had set up their own chapter of Mama Film. When that festival had been canceled, the duo moved a portion of it online, opening up a conversation with Meadow-Conner about doing something similar.

“We started out by saying, “Okay, we’ll reach out to these other women programmers that we know and other filmmakers,” and through those little connections, we got connected to a vast network…a village really of women and trans men who have helped us so much,” says Meadow-Conner of a process that started just shy of two months ago. “It really does take a village to create the sort of change and it’s amazing. It’s given us a lot of hope.”

That rare feeling these days is one that’s likely to be passed onto those who check out the rePRO Film Festival, which will run this week from August 12th through 16th. A far more ambitious and accessible event than Meadow-Conner, Samples and Martin had in mind when they were first awarded the seed money, the online festival won’t require filmmakers to travel to the Midwest and no one will have to call a sitter in order to catch a screening, but that hardly means people won’t be moved to action with an impressive lineup of films that cover a broad range of topics within the area of female reproductive rights. Over the five-day event, rePRO will play host to five features, 20 shorts and a number of call-to-action conversations that push discussions that begin with the films into a greater context by mixing activists working on the front lines to protect women’s rights and clinicians with filmmakers to talk about issues such as postpartum mental health and how to ensure you receive proper health care from your provider, which may sound like a standard festival Q & A from its description, but can be expected to be more dynamic when organizers have taken this unique time to reimagine how a festival can serve its audience best.

“You have this opportunity to play with formats in a different way, so if you went to a physical festival, your typical short program would be between 70-90 minutes, but for this, we have a 10-minute short followed by an hour-long conversation or we have a 45-minute shorts program because you don’t have to fit your typical boxes, so you can really play around with things,” says Meadow-Conner, who has been keeping her eye on how other festivals have made the leap into the virtual realm. “We found a lot of these Q & As in these virtual festivals have gone long because in a theater, you’re shooed out because they need to bring the next film in. Typically, you have 15-20 minutes for a Q & A and then people want to get up and go, but for these virtual conversations people want to stay and talk and that highlights the beauty of what a film festival can do for a film and an audience.”

That will give more space to films such as “Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa,” the documentary set at a Philadelphia call center which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the shorts program and one of its directors Janet Goldwater will take part in a conversation moderated by Amber Tamblyn concerning access to abortion that will also include Melisa Resch, the director behind the protest drama “The Line,” and Kira Dane, a co-director of the animated doc “Mizuko.” The diversity of films represented on that panel is reflective of a variety of experiences that festival organizers strived to express throughout the event where heavy topics such as illegal sterilization that is the focus of Erika Cohn’s “Belly of the Beast” can be addressed with the weight they deserve while Maria Finitzio’s wily and crowdpleasing look at the historic marginalization of female sexuality “The Dilemma of Desire” will lighten the mood with both a screening and conversation, moderated by the sex educator and entrepreneur Twanna Hines. It is of special significance that the festival will close with “Our Bodies, Our Doctors,” Jan Haaken’s documentary spotlighting the work of abortion providers, including those at the Trust Women Clinics that serve as the legacy of Dr. George Tiller, with a conversation to follow that includes Trust Women’s founder and CEO Julie Burkhardt.

Of course, “Opening Night” and “Closing Night” are distinctions that are relative terms for a virtual festival such as rePRO where films will be available to watch at any time, as will the panels after they occur live, allowing viewers to create their own schedule. Given how these issues often hit the less fortunate the hardest, the festival is also employing a pay-what-you-can sliding structure with proceeds benefitting five reproductive justice organizations — Sister Song, Endometriosis Foundation of America, Center for Reproductive Rights, URGE (Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity), and Trust Women.

“It’s just really important to us that people have access because without access there can’t be change,” says Meadow-Conner, who may have pulled together the festival in just six weeks with Samples and Martin, but hopes they’ve laid the foundation for a lasting event. “We need to know what’s going on and we need to be educated, otherwise how can we possibly make sure that we’re voting for the right people or making any sort of progress for the future generations of people who are going to hopefully not have to deal with this? So while [the situation we’re in is] sad and depressing, you have to remember what it is that’s giving you hope to continue and march forward and fight for these rights.”

rePRO Film Festival runs from August 12th through 16th and a full lineup of films can be found here and a schedule of the Call-to-Action-Conversations is here.