In black-and-white thrillers from the ’40s, a “femme fatale” was a dame whose treacherous bangs covered one eye while she duped and betrayed the hero. Despite its punny name, Film Fatales is about the opposite qualities: support, compassion, collaboration.
Some of its members do, however, have bangs.
Started five years ago, when New York-based director Leah Meyerhoff invited colleagues to brainstorm a project over dinner, Film Fatales has become a global organization for women who have at least one movie or TV directing credit (nonbinary and transgender directors also are welcome). Its 15 chapters offer networking opportunities, advocacy and a database of resources, inspired by a simple premise.
“There simply are not enough women filmmakers,” says Meyerhoff. “Ava DuVernay [Oscar-nominated director of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’] cannot mentor all of the hundreds and hundreds of women who want to make films.”
At Film Fatales’ monthly meetings, they mentor each other. The local chapter formed last year when Melody Gilbert, who had been a member when she lived in Chicago, reached out to women she knew and sort-of knew. Following the national format that begins with each woman taking a turn to offer project updates, followed by another round in which they ask for advice, collaborators or equipment they need, the local group met for the first time on the rooftop of Gilbert’s Uptown home.
“We all looked around and said, ‘Holy crap. We are a community here.’ Most of the people in the group had not known each other, but that moment of us all being in the same space was revelatory because most of us had just been working alone,” said Gilbert, whose documentaries include “Silicone Soul” and “Whole.” The women quickly went from “Hi” to “Let’s work together.”
“I met Mel Butts at that first meeting, when she started talking about her Minnesota Lynx project,” recalls Dawn Mikkelson, who directed the documentaries “Risking Light” and “Green Green Water,” and is planning one about the Minnesota RollerGirls. “I said, ‘Based on my experience covering women’s sports, here are a couple things to think about.’ ”
Cut to the present: After months of negotiations, Butts is directing a Lynx documentary. Mikkelson is producing.
“Mel remembered I was ridiculously interested in her project, so she called me and said, ‘Are you really that interested?’ And I was. It’s been so much fun to work with her,” says Mikkelson.
She and Butts are jazzed that the film will salute the power of women.
“It’s about basketball but it’s really about how these women embolden other women and young girls. We started on Day One of training camp this year and we’re with them for the long haul,” says Butts, who directed several IMAX films and who, like many of the women, has worked with Twin Cities Public Television.
At the June Film Fatales meeting, Butts dazzled the group with a “sizzle reel” on her laptop, highlighted by a blistering locker-room broadside from Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve.
“Maya Moore, you have to play!” shouts Reeve in an expletive-filled speech. “Did you notice that take foul they took on [Danielle Robinson]? Did anyone see that? Are you guys OK with that? Are you OK with the way they treat Sylvia Fowles?”
“This clip is coming out on my iPhone at coffees, dinners, fundraising lunches, and it’s getting us some money,” says Butts, brandishing the moneymaking smartphone.
“Ohmygod. It’s so good!” enthuses Norah Shapiro.
Shapiro was at the meeting between film festival appearances. Her “Time for Ilhan,” which tracks Ilhan Omar’s successful run for state representative, is a smash on the festival circuit: “It’s been a whirlwind. We premiered at Tribeca [in April] and it was amazing. Really stressful. We did a day with Ilhan of about 20 back-to-back interviews and it was crazy, but we got out of it what we wanted, which was a really favorable Hollywood Reporter review.”
Another collaboration is being discussed for Shapiro and Keri Pickett. The photographer/director asked fellow Fatales whether to keep advocating for her 2017 “First Daughter and the Black Snake,” about activist Winona LaDuke, or move on to new projects about pioneering photographer (and her uncle) Roy Blakey and the group Radical Faeries.
The consensus? Move on.
“You have a fabulous story here, and you need to do it soon,” advises Kelly Nathe, who directed “Minnesota 13” and produces “The Zimmern List” series.
That’s the kind of tough love Pickett wanted. “Sometimes, in a mixed group with men, the way people listen is different,” she says. “I’m not saying that women don’t want to interject their own stuff, too. But, a lot of times, we are quicker to listen to what you’re saying and to try to help.”
Like Pickett, the members — about eight of the total of 14 usually attend — occasionally want specific advice. At that same June meeting, Gilbert showed a clip that Shapiro and Butts agreed was too long, so she has shortened it. But, sometimes, they just want support.
“In the time of #MeToo, it’s been a place to realize you’re not alone, that the stories you were hearing in the media happened at every level in the industry, happened locally, happened to a number of us,” says Mikkelson. “The healing that comes from finally sharing those stories, realizing that what happened was not OK, has been incredible. It has absolutely changed how I perceive moving forward with my career.”
Film Fatales’ database can help filmmakers find a female sound designer or festival contact (Gilbert already has reached out to the directors of “RBG” and contacted Fatales in San Francisco, who attended a screening of her movie there). But, maybe more importantly, the group is a community in the lonely world of independent film.
“Norah, Melody and Dawn were all at the Duluth Superior Film Festival with their films, which were played back-to-back-to-back, and then they did a panel together. That really captures what Film Fatales is all about,” says Nathe, who co-chairs the chapter with Gilbert. “Sometimes, you get to the end of the road with a project or you are still slogging in the middle of it and you think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again.’ But Film Fatales makes me want to make more films.”
That’s the kind of inspiration Meyerhoff hoped for when she menu-planned that gathering five years ago.
Says Mikkelson, “I’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years and it’s surprising to me that this is the first time we have connected this way. I think it has to do with the change in our culture and with all of us just being tired of pushing the boulder up the hill alone.”
That’s not to say that independent filmmaking is getting easy. The boulder remains. But Film Fatales has introduced members to a bunch of other women who can help them push it up that hill together.