Q&A: Filmmaker Cynthia Wade on the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival

Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade talks about her career, her latest work and her experience at the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival.

generation startup film at rocky mountain women's film festival
Photo courtesy of Generation Startup

What’s better than a weekend of binge-watching movies or TV series? A leading film festival in your backyard.

The Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival (RMWFF) is the longest continuous-running women’s film festival in North America. Since 1988, the festival has aimed to honor films and filmmakers that present the world as women experience it. This year on Nov. 11-13, the festival will showcase more than 40 world-class films, from full-length documentaries to featured shorts, and draw over 1,000 attendees, many from across the nation.

One notable filmmaker who will be on hand and participating in a Filmmaker Forum is Cynthia Wade, who has won an Academy Award for her film Freeheld, an Emmy for Sesame Street: Growing up Against Hunger, and numerous festival awards. We spoke with the New York City-based director about her experience at the RMWFF and her documentary, Generation Startup, which will be screening at RMWFF this year.

Springs: How did you first get into filmmaking?

filmmaker cynthia wade, rocky mountain women's film festival
Cynthia Wade

Cynthia Wade: I was very much into theater in high school and college, and I was actually a theater major in college as an undergrad. About halfway through my college experience, I realized that, even though I loved theater and I loved the creativity of it, it was so much based on the auditions, and the auditions were so much based on what you looked like that you could very easily be cut out of a semester’s worth of a creative endeavor if you didn’t look the part. … They had a few video cameras but no film program. I picked up a video camera and started making documentaries without any experience or training and realized that what I wanted to do was apply to a scholars program for my senior year and make a documentary for my senior thesis. And the school allowed me to do that. The school gave me a dedicated camera for my senior year. And I made a documentary. It was about 60 minutes, and it was a breakthrough, informative experience for me.

You’ve had several films in the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Fest through the years. What keeps you coming back?

You’re always guaranteed a full audience, really engaged, really focused—like, serious about their moviegoing, good questions. It’s just so well organized and filmmaker friendly, that it’s always a pleasure to go. And as a working mother, my first film there was in 2003, and now here we are in 2016. … It’s been 13 years of showing films. In 2003, I had one child, and she was 2-years-old. She was just too young. I think in 2010 and then again in 2012, I took my older daughter. And this year, I get to take both my daughters. The younger one is now old enough. They are both so excited. For them to be able to go to a festival where it’s women focused, women directors, it imprints them, and its empowering to them in a lot of ways. But also I feel like in other areas in this industry, you have to hide the fact that you’re a mom to get work or just to keep being competitive. It’s a strength of the festival instead of something you need to hide. And now I get to involve my daughters in the festival. They are so excited.

What makes the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Fest different from other film festivals? Were you drawn in by it being women focused?

I didn’t know much about the festival when my first film played there. It was a film called Shelter Dogs, a feature length film about the ethics of who lives and who dies at an animal shelter in upstate New York. It was a really hard film to make. I started filming it when I was pregnant with my first child. I filmed it and did sound all myself and had this bigger and bigger belly as I was shooting. Then I gave birth and lived three hours away from the shelter and had to figure out how to finish this single-handedly. So that was tough with an infant. … And that was my first experience [at RMWFF] in 2003, and it was really just amazing, great audiences. Ever since, it’s been on my radar, and I’ve had a few other films there. Last year I produced a film and said to the director, “If there’s one festival you have to go to with this film, The Nomest, I promise you its RMWFF.” She went and was like, “Oh my god, you were totally right.”

generation startup film
Photo courtesy of Generation Startup

Your film Generation Startup is screening at this year’s RMWFF. How did you find and become interested in the topic of startups and entrepreneurship? What made you want to invest in this topic?

The film’s producer, Cheryl Miller Hauser, who also become co-director of the film, was really looking for a director who could be in the field and shooting “chaos.” Because as a documentary filmmaker you are going into the field, and you’re organizing chaos into a narrative. You don’t know what’s happening next with the characters and with the stories. …. It was an enormous film to make, because it was six characters, all of whom had different business stories. Not only were we telling the stories of the characters, but also the companies behind them and the larger story of Detroit. …

Ultimately the reason I was attracted to it was because there is no clear path for my career, and I see very few people who I can model my life after. There are just not enough women who are directing in really high-level, hardcore feature films or TV. There are just not as many models as there are for male directors, for sure. So I really struggle with how do I put together this career. How do I forge ahead and make a career and a small business? It’s really wading into the unknown.

So in making this film, what attracted me to the topic was that I was going to be following recent grads who are doing the same thing. Who are not taking the traditional office jobs and who are really trying to create something out of nothing. That interested me because even today I struggle with that, like, how do we sustain this? How do we keep going? How do we scale up? That risk-taking and throwing yourself into the unknown is what really interested me in the film.

Why do you think this topic is important, specifically to this younger generation?

I hope that the film will encourage more college grads to think, I don’t have to necessary follow the traditional or sage path. When you, quite frankly, don’t have children and you can take more risks, you should—and being not afraid of failure. Even throwing yourself into it is a gutsy success, regardless of the outcome. So I think that the more people can be creating things out of thinking outside the box, the more vibrant our economy and our culture will be. My hope is that [this film] encourages people to be thinking, whether they are millennials or older, of ways they could launch projects that are meaningful to them and meaningful to society.

generation startup film
Photo courtesy of Generation Startup

The film is set in Detroit. How does this relate to young entrepreneurs in Colorado?

One of the films characters, Kate Catlin, launched her startup in Detroit, but now she lives in Boulder, and she’s running Women’s Rising from Boulder. I believe she will be at the [RMWFF] Q&A with me. Detroit gave her space to create, and she is continuing that in Boulder.

How can young entrepreneurs take what they see in the film and bring that to Springs?

Even if it’s volunteering, even if it’s a hobby, to live a little uncomfortably and do a little extra things in life, even if it’s not career based. I think that is a really healthy thing for anybody. All of those small incremental steps really add up in your life.

You are already on to your next project. Can you give us any details or teasers on what that one is about?

I really hope that it will be at the RMWFF next year, to be honest. I am in edit of a film that I have been working on for almost five years. It is a film based in Indonesia, and it is a really long-term. It’s been a tough one to make. It’s a film about an unexpected environmental disaster that occurred 10 years ago. This unstoppable mud volcano has been erupting, erupting, erupting, and it has swallowed 16 villages and will continue for another 10 years. And the people who lost their homes in these villages have banded together for justice.

Indonesia is a relatively new democracy, so they elected a president in 2014 who said he would help them, which is interesting because it is the largest Muslim population in the world and the third largest democracy in the world. And there have been so many negative stereotypes of Muslims that this is a really textured, nuanced and deep film about political activism and democracy at work and a community banding together to make better lives for the next generations. It is a film called Mud Flow, and it has taken years. We are now in edit, and we will finish it in 2017. There is actually a really strong mother-daughter pair in the film, and I said to Linda [Broker, RMWFF executive director], “I want to take Mud Flow back to Colorado Springs.”

Any last thoughts about RMWFF?

I love the festival; I really love the festival. It seriously is a fantastic, unbelievably organized festival with the best audiences. I love it. I really have to pick and choose, because I am usually shooting or editing, but any time I have the opportunity to go, it is a festival I try never to pass up the opportunity to go. It is just so well run and the audiences are fantastic.

Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival 2016

When: Nov. 11-13

Where: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College

What: About 40 films that present the world as women experience it and that inspire curiosity, educate, entertain and stimulate conversation. Filmmaker discussions and an opening night gala

Details: rmwfilminstitute.org

Read more about some of the weekend’s must-see films here