Ohen you think of Colorado Springs, the words “film festival” might not come to mind, but the city hosts the longest-running women’s film festival in the Western Hemisphere. The Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival is in its 35th year and has grown significantly since its inception, taking place over three days and four screens at Colorado College. “We have a lot of people who have been coming for many, many years,” says Linda Broker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute. “Many say it’s the highlight of their year.”
The festival’s mission is to celebrate the vibrancy, spirit and diversity of women. Submissions do not have to be created by women, but films made by men should reflect the mission of the festival. What you’ll find in the lineup is a diverse group of films and subjects with a strong leaning towards documentaries that shine a light on real, intimate and broad issues. “For me, documentary film is such an accessible way to learn about everything that happens under the sun,” Broker says. “And I feel like one of the big values of the festival is that you come, you have a weekend, and you’re just transported to all kinds of different places in a short amount of time.”
The months-long selection process is an ordeal, paring the initial group of about 350 submissions up to 41 films in short and long form at various stages. The festival program reflects a complex spreadsheet of programming, submissions and topics that need to be balanced and then refined. Due to the festival’s short weekend and limited programming slots, there will be lengthy discussions about what’s on the lineup and what gets a polite decline. “It’s brutal,” says Broker.
Although there is a time lag between a modern issue affecting women and making films about it with RMWF, the festival never begins its programming with a theme in mind. And while the committee avoids selecting multiple films on the same subject, RMWF has seen fit to include some this year. “We’re just looking for a great selection of high-quality movies,” Broker says. “Having said that, inevitably there’s often a theme that sort of emerges by chance.” In one case, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and Mississippi Messiah, about James Meredith, are both films about civil rights icons. Another pair of films, And I always sing and With this breath I flydepict the very different lives of women in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power.
Broker points to a large board in his office, similar to the festival schedule you can find online, but here each film is color coded, something not displayed publicly. “The color code reflects the general tone of the film. We really try to give people a variety of options in each group of films,” she says. Between each block of films, there are pauses and opportunities to regroup and reflect.
Broker has been with the festival since 1994 and, as the festival’s full-time executive director, oversees the end-to-end process each year, alongside the growing number of events RMWF runs throughout the year, including a filmmaker’s retreat. Originally from Southern California where she worked at a law firm as a paralegal coordinator, she moved to Colorado Springs in 1993. When she arrived Broker had three young children and was not involved in much else. “One of our close neighbors approached and introduced herself,” she recalls. “She was sort of one of the founding mothers of the festival, so she told me all about it.” Broker volunteered, but had never been to a film festival, had no film training, and she describes her tastes in film at the time as “traditional and quite unsophisticated”. One of the first films that spoke to him was Gerri, Leona’s sistera documentary about a woman who died from a botched illegal abortion in 1964.”[It’s] ironic that this is a film that has stuck with me since 1993 and look where we are today.
Over time, Broker jumped from committee to committee, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the organization. In 2000, she applied to be the first executive director of Rocky Mountain Women’s Film and got the job. In nearly three decades with the festival, Broker has seen hundreds of films pass and understands how technological advancement has changed more than how submissions are screened and processed. Movies were originally shown on film or tape, and eventually digital. Submissions came on VHS, then DVD, then finally digital. Broker admits she misses being able to physically pass the screens to the next person and have a brief chat about the film, like she did before the whole process went digital. But it’s this gradual migration that has allowed the festival to continue during the COVID pandemic with virtual and hybrid offerings.
This technological advancement has also changed the philosophy of the festival. Film festivals aren’t as competitive for premieres today as they were in the 90s, when securing distribution deals with studios was the best way to be seen. Now, filmmakers can submit their films directly to their audiences through video-on-demand services, and RMWF has no problem screening films that have already found an audience. “We don’t have distributors coming here, we don’t have buyers coming to our festival to see our films like you see at other premiere festivals,” Broker says. “I’ve always thought a lot of our customers come to our festival for the overall experience. [and] don’t consider themselves moviegoers.
The festival proved resilient enough for filmmakers to bring in subsequent projects. One of this year’s entries, The flag makers, is the seventh participation of Oscar-winning actress Cynthia Wade, who co-directed the film with Sharon Liese. Reflecting on the longevity of the festival, Broker sees the founders as ahead of their time. “I don’t think they envisioned the festival being around that long,” she says, “…or maybe they did.”