A few films not to miss at this year’s Sonoma International Film Festival – both feature length documentaries – Circus Dreams and The Girls in the Band. These films are unique in that they not offer insight into the many hurdles female artists have faced throughout the years, but the inherent gender bias against, say, a female clown or a big band saxophone player in the 1950s. The films deliver an empowering message to aspiring young performers, especially women, and trying hard to get a foot in the door.
Circus Dreams follows the personal journeys of a group of kids ages twelve through eighteen as they compete for a chance to perform with the prestigious traveling youth circus Circus Smirkus. During their intense three-week rehearsal period in Vermont, seasoned circus performers from Ringling Brothers, Big Apple Circus and Cirque Du Soleil coach the kids. The filmmakers enter the lives of the kids – their individual dedication and hard work, their friendships and even a few budding romances. Director Signe Taylor is never intrusive; she maintains a respectful distance from the personal struggles the kids endure and instead focuses on their artistic challenges and what is wonderful and good about teenagers and youthful inspiration.
While it is impossible not to be charmed by all the kids, aspiring clowns Joy Powers and Maddy Hall, best friends and clown partners, steal the show. Both young women are set on proving to their fellow performers, instructors and audience members that “girls can be funny too.” Anyone who remembers the late shock columnist Christopher Hitchen’s insidious proclamation that women are genetically unfunny will experience the triumph of these two extremely funny physical comediennes. Powers and Hall are living proof that comedy is gender blind.
As a special treat for festival-goers – Circus Dreams will bring a few fearless performers for an aerial demonstration at the Sebastiani Theater prior to the film’s screening. Circus Dreams is appropriate for all ages.
Documentary The Girls in the Band won audience awards at several film festivals, and for good reason. The film opens up the repressed and censored history of the collective contribution of women to jazz for nearly one hundred years.
Director Judy Chaiken begins with the famous photo A Great Day in Harlem taken in 1958; the photo brings together dozens of the leading jazz musicians of the day, all of them male with the exception of two women who, for reasons the film explores, have remained largely unacknowledged. Throughout the documentary, through interviews with musicians, jazz scholars and historians, Chaiken establishes the real misrepresentation of how many women actually made up the intricate tapestry of the American jazz scene at the time the photo was taken.
Like Circus Dreams, The Girls in the Band looks at the early decades of big-band and swing, a time during which female musicians were treated as novelties, wore ridiculous, revealing costumes and were expected to project the image of a sex symbol even while blowing a horn. Archival footage celebrates the unsung talents of these women, many of them still alive such as drummer Viola Smith, saxophonist Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert and Peggy Gilbert and trumpeter Billie Rogers. The role of Woody Herman, a uniquely progressive band leader who was proactive in opening doors to women in jazz. The film explores the history of all-girl bands such as Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, the Fayettes, and the International Sweethears of Rhythm. That these bands were multi-racial, presented an entirely new set of obstacles, especially in the Jim Crow South where many of the bands toured. Ultimately, the women of The Girls in the Band are irreducible to gender or race.
Both Circus Dreams and The Girls in the Band are bittersweet reminders of how far women have come and the challenges they faced in carving out a path for future generations of artists. Yet both films manage to provide an upbeat and optimistic prognosis for women in the performing arts, as well as the passion, dedication and talent required to make it in a band or the big top.
Going to see Scottish animated film Sir Billie tonight (Sir Billied voiced by Sean Connery). Can’t wait!