The year before The Women’s Center opened in Carbondale, a group of women for 10 days occupied a building on the Harvard campus to demand a women’s center in Cambridge.
That’s the topic of “Left on Pearl,” the headliner of the Big Muddy Film Festival’s Female Empowerment Showcase, and the winner of the festival’s John Michaels Film Award this year.
The annual film festival is one of the oldest student-run film fests in the country, and is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. The festival wraps up today, with the John Michaels Award Showcase at 2 p.m. at the Carbondale Public Library (“Left on Pearl” will screen there) and the Best of the Fest at 5 at the Longbranch Cafe & Bakery.
The John Michaels Film Award is named for the late John Michaels, who was a Southern Illinois University Carbondale student in the ‘80s and was a community organizer and activist. Southern Illinois residents make up the jury that selects the winner of the annual award.
A couple dozen of us squeezed into the back room of Longbranch on Thursday evening for the Female Empowerment Showcase. With the din in the background of flatware on plates and the ding of the call bell indicating an order was up — a reminder that the festival is home-spun and student-run — we watched three documentaries, each focused on women’s stories.
The three selections were a crash course in the state of feminism.
The first, “Wearing the Big Heart,” a five-minute abstract documentary made up of footage from the Los Angeles Women’s March of 2017 — held worldwide the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration — transported me back to that day. I rode the overnight bus from Carbondale to D.C. with several Southern Illinois women, some of who were marching for the first time.
The second, “Here Still,” a short documentary in which several women, in stripped-down interviews, recounted their experiences with intimate partner violence. In their apartments, in their cars, in their studios, and in one case on a street at night, her face lit by a cellphone flashlight, young women — none of them could have been older than me — told their stories: Stalking, rape, physical violence, emotional abuse, all at the hands of romantic partners.
And finally, “Left on Pearl,” the headliner (and clear crowd favorite), a group of hard-nosed women who in 1971 took bold action for what they wanted — a building in Cambridge that could serve as a Women’s Center. The women marched into the building on International Women’s Day in 1971 and stayed for 10 days. They cared for one another’s children, had dance parties, cut their hair, discussed the women’s movement, and held classes teaching things like karate and auto mechanics. In the early ‘70s, when job advertisements were separated in newspaper listings by gender, and women couldn’t open a bank account without a husband’s signature, these women wanted a place where they could organize, socialize and work practically for independence.
The three films formed a feminist activist sandwich, with the “why” of the now as the filling.
The Women’s Center that was established in Cambridge following the occupation in 1971 is the longest continuously operating center in the country. Carbondale’s Women’s Center opened shortly after, with the more specific aim at helping women who are victims of sexual assault and partner violence.
“Left on Pearl” is part history lesson, part celebration of resistance, part engaging narrative (with shining moments of levity and joy). It’s also the umbilical cord of the modern pink-hat-outfitted women’s movement seen in “Wearing the Big Heart.”
And somewhere in the middle is that why of the now: Violence against women as discussed in “Here Still.”
When the Women’s Center in Carbondale was threatened with closure during the state budget impasse, no one doubted its importance to the community. And, doesn’t that say it all?
ALEE QUICK is digital editor of The Southern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-351-5807. Follow her on Twitter: @the_quickness