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'Feminists: What Were They Thinking?'

"Feminists: What Were They Thinking?" contrasts two generations of women's stories on progress and personal awakenings.

In 1977, photographer Cynthia MacAdams published "Emergence," a book of black-and-white portraits of women. Musicians and composers like Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. Artists like Judy Chicago. Actresses like Jane Fonda. Many were women she met on the streets of New York.

One of the them, artist and filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas, saw the book as a way to examine the subjects' personal stories of awakening during the second wave of feminism, and contrast them with stories from women now in the their late 20s and 30s.

"Feminists: What Were They Thinking?" will have its world premiere during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, screening in the feature competition. The showings are Monday, Feb. 19, and Sunday, Feb. 25. (See "if you go" for more information.)

At screenings so far, Demetrakas said it "blows people's minds because it isn't just politics, it's personal, and that's really what I was trying to do."

Demetrakas said the photography book, with which she's well-acquainted, was the source of inspiration. MacAdams "captured something, that for me, is the personal expression of freedom as a woman," she said.

"Mostly when you see books of photographs of women, especially back then at that time, they are mysterious, sexy, innocent, gorgeous. All things that as a person, as a human being, you don't really feel when you live inside those bodies. Being sexy is great, everybody likes being sexy. But it's not who you are, and how you look, you want it to be communicative and warm and open and good-looking, but it's not who are you. You realize your self, the personal self, is a human being and that's kind of the awakening that I had and that most women had," she said.

She shot the film over the course of four years, traveling back and forth from Los Angeles and New York. The film includes a high volume of seated, on-camera interviews, that she and her team ensured were "extraordinarily well-produced and beautiful to look at" with carefully arranged backdrops.

The women relate their backstories and childhoods, moving through to adulthood. Fonda recalls how she was an adventurous child, happy in solitude, who looked up to Lone Ranger types, a quality that was shunned in girls as she grew older. Chicago relates how her union organizer father instilled a sense of worth in her. It moves forward in their lives, touching on the power balances in relationships, personal awakenings, often around the age of 30, and further development of their professional and personal lives afterward.

Demetrakas contrasts her generation with interviews with women in the late 20s or 30s, like Wendy J.N. Lee, a filmmaker; Funmilola Fagbamila, Nigerian-American playwright, activist and scholar; and Celine Kuklowsky, an activist and scholar.

The movie is interspersed with historical footage that helps illustrate the time period, including looks into Chicago's pioneering and sometimes controversy-provoking feminist artworks.

"The historical footage is a character in the film as far as I'm concerned," Demetrakas said. It functions as a "voice of culture then and culture now. Did it change? Sure it did. And in other cases, it's worse," she said.

Demetrakas studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and lived and worked as a painter in New York and Paris.

She became interested in film while living in Europe. She directed documentaries about Chicago's work, "Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party," and "Womanhouse."

As an artist who was "always the master of my own work," she entered the film industry and encountered steep barriers to creative jobs for women. Like many of her peers, she went into editing, "straight to where I thought I could be creative and make money," she said.

"The editors are the ones who are in the room alone with the footage and who are not given the same kind of artistic respect, as say the cameraperson or the director. And yet, in documentaries in particular, editing is a completely creative gig. You start deciding where the film starts and where the film ends," she said.

She said editing was one of the "few places women get any respect at all." She pointed out Rachel Morrison's recent Oscar contention for "Mudbound."

"This year, 2018, for the first time a woman has been nominated for an Academy Award for shooting, for being a cinematographer," she said.

Demetrakas has since directed on TV shows like "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D.," in addition to features and shorts and to her work in documentaries. She teaches at the University of Southern California's film school, where she sees a new generation of women with aspirations to direct.

"They're going to snatch the power when they can, but they're going to come up against it in the industry," she said.

Demetrakas' son, Pablo Bryant, is also a documentary filmmaker and served as a cinematographer on her film. He's bringing his own film to the festival, "Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End," about the career of an edgy editorial cartoonist. 

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.