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WENDY ROSE: Digital but delightful: annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival returns

“Little Orphans” writer Emily Bridger (left) also appears onscreen, playing the role of Gwen, one of three sisters coming back to Newfoundland for a wedding and a rocky family reunion. Rhiannon Morgan (right) plays Kay.
“Little Orphans” writer Emily Bridger (left) also appears onscreen, playing the role of Gwen, one of three sisters coming back to Newfoundland for a wedding and a rocky family reunion. Rhiannon Morgan (right) plays Kay. — Contributed

Over 60 films, including 13 that are feature-length, will be featured in the event running from Wednesday to Sunday

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

The 31st annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, and runs until Sunday.

This year’s festival is going digital in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that opens the festival to viewers Canada-wide, while offering an increased number of films at a decreased price.

This year’s roster boasts 11 feature-length films from across Canada, the United States, Belgium, Norway and Hong Kong, as well as a whopping 50-plus short films.

Also available from the comfort of home is the festival’s industry events — master classes, how-to sessions, discussions on accessibility, diversity and more, as well as a series of “in conversation with” deep dives into the back end of the industry with knowledgeable professionals.

This year, these industry events are offered free of charge, giving an opportunity to aspiring filmmakers countrywide to glean knowledge from top-notch creators.

Prior to the 2020 festival, the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival offered The Telegram a sneak preview at the stacked lineup, with a focus on three features — “Little Orphans,” directed by Ruth Lawrence (Newfoundland and Labrador), “Queen of the Morning Calm,” directed by Gloria Ui Young Kim (Ontario) and “Happy Place,” directed by Helen Shaver (Ontario).

The first of my three viewings began with “Happy Place,” the film adaptation of the Pamela Sinha play of the same name.

This film focuses on a woman entering a private mental-health clinic after a suicide attempt.

Instead of zeroing in on the main protagonist, we also meet her co-inhabitants and learn about their struggles — dealing with trauma, abuse, rape, depression, loneliness and more. A tissue or two would not go astray when watching “Happy Place.”

Less of a mother-daughter bonding tale and more a story of knowing one’s own self-worth while navigating motherhood and adulthood, “Queen of the Morning Calm” follows sex worker Debra and her 10-year-old daughter, Mona, as the pair seek stability amidst financial insecurity, job instability, behavioural problems at school and a slew of issues with The Sarge, Mona’s doting dad and Debra’s abusive lover, who seesaws between loving parent and angry abuser, leaving both mom and daughter with complex feelings toward the meaning of family.

In short, “Queen of the Morning Calm” is a story of female empowerment, proving that no matter how bad it gets, we all have the power to make sure it gets better.

My third and final feature preview was “Little Orphans,” the festival’s opening night gala film set to screen at Cineplex in Mount Pearl Square on Oct. 17.

Written by Emily Bridger, “Little Orphans” details the reunion of three sisters — Kay (Rhiannon Morgan), Gwen (Emily Bridger) and Janet (Marthe Bernard) — who are back home in Newfoundland for Janet’s wedding.

Now adults, the sisters are struggling with abandonment issues stemming from childhood and their turbulent relationship with their mother, as well as Kay’s parenting (or lack thereof).

Add in the general madness of planning a winter wedding and the trio have a ton of work to do, from packing up wedding favours to working through emotional trauma.

Comedic at points, serious at others and gripping throughout, the viewer becomes involved in the individual storylines of each sister, leaving one wanting to call their own siblings after watching.

To view all 11 features and 51 short films of this year’s film festival, one would need more than 26 hours to take in all of this great content.

Clear your calendars and stock up on popcorn, film junkies — the SJIWFF is coming to a screen near you.

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