San Diego International Film Festival debuts new Women’s Series – San Diego Downtown News

By Kendra Sitton

COVID-19’s disruption of art industries has required many organizations to collaborate anew, retool productions and find creative solutions to stay afloat. In the case of the Women’s Film Festival San Diego, the solution was to fold into the region’s premiere film festival after struggling with the switch to virtual.

Now, the San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF) returns to an in-person event with a brand new Women’s Series sponsored by the Women’s Museum of California – which previously hosted the Women’s Film Fest. This year’s combined hybrid event, includes in-person events at Westfield UTC, Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center as well as digital screenings of movies from Wednesday, Oct. 19 to Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022.

The 40-year-old Women’s Museum hosted its 8th annual, and last, film fest in 2021.

“When we got into the pandemic and had to pivot away from an in-person film festival to a virtual film festival, we realized that we didn’t have the infrastructure to move into this new line of business very well,” explained Felicia Shaw, Executive Director of the Women’s Museum of CA. “We recognized that there was already another organization in town with San Diego International Film Festival that was screening women’s film and we said, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we working at cross purposes?’”

The museum leadership reached out to Tonya Mantooth, CEO and Artistic Director of SDIFF to discuss bringing their audiences together. Mantooth and Shaw realized combining their efforts to highlight woman filmmakers under one roof could lead to new opportunities. They both wanted to urge audiences to support female filmmakers and the need for investment dollars to get more films on screen.

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Debut director Alison Jayne Wilson sheds light on sex trafficking victims in Spain, like Vanessa, in her documentary “Exit.”

“It’s better to come together and leverage all of our contacts in order to accomplish this goal,” Mantooth said. “I’m so excited to not only kick this off this year but to continue growing over time.”

As to turning this abstract idea into a reality, the film fest opened up submissions to any films that had at least two of the three major roles – director, producer, writer – needed to be women. Not wanting to limit creativity, the storyline of the film did not need to be female-centric.

After a selection process, the slate of the Women’s Series has six feature films and four documentaries. The film festival circuit is an important way for women filmmakers to get feedback on their work, find devoted audiences, and secure future funding.

While Mantooth noted that this is currently the best time in history to be a female filmmaker, there are still concerning gender parity disparities. She noted that this is especially apparent in short films.

“A man has an easier time getting funded,” she said. That funding also means short films from men will largely have higher production value than those from women, which can give the filmmaker more experience ahead of securing larger projects. “[Men] can exercise the process in a way that the abundance of females don’t.”

The documentaries and fiction features that make up the Women’s Series often focus on social issues. The festival is promoting three films in particular, the first being “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” which is based on the bestselling book by Jeanne Theoharis and produced by journalist Soledad O-Brien. The documentary focused on her lifetime of civil rights organizing and activism before and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott – which was intentionally obscured during her trial for remaining seated on a segregated bus so she would not be painted as a radical communist while being used as a test case to challenge Jim Crow laws.

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Civil rights activist Rosa Parks holds a poster of Malcolm X in 1972. (Photo courtesy San Diego International Film Festival)

The second film Mantooth and Shaw are highlighting, “With This Breath I Fly,” is also a documentary, this one focusing on the complicity of the European Union in supporting Afghanistan’s justice system during the international occupation of the country. Two women speak out about being imprisoned for ‘moral crimes’ after being raped and suffering violent domestic abuse as well as the EU’s efforts to censor their voices.

The most promoted film of the entire festival is director Alison Jayne Wilson’s debut film “Exit – A Journey Out of the Heart of Human Trafficking,” a documentary about how three women in extreme poverty are tricked into moving to Spain for a job and instead being exploited in the sex industry. For these three women, trying to leave comes with extreme difficulties and not all of them will make it.

The festival aims to raise awareness about human trafficking during this year’s event, especially as San Diego is a hotspot for sex trafficking. Dr. Brook Parker-Bello, an activist against human trafficking, will receive the Humanitarian Award at the Night of the Stars Tribute on Thursday, Oct. 20.

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A still of an Afghan woman raped and impregnated by her uncle than imprisoned for ‘moral crims’ in the documentary “With This Breath I Fly.”

The new Women’s Series will be interspersed throughout the weekend’s film fest with a special award at the end of the event.

SDIFF offers a variety of ticket types at different price points. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit