When you think of Colorado Springs, the words “film festival” might not spring to mind, but the city is host to the longest-running women’s film festival in the Western Hemisphere. Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival is in its 35th year and has grown substantially since its debut, taking place over three days and four screens at Colorado College. “We have a lot of people who have been coming for many, many years,” says Linda Broker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute. “Many say it is the highlight of their year.”
The mission of the festival is to celebrate the drive, spirit and diversity of women. Submissions don’t need to necessarily be created by women, but films made by men must reflect the festival’s mission. What you’ll find in the lineup is a diverse group of films and subjects with a heavy lean toward documentaries that shed light on real issues, intimate and large. “Documentary film for me is such an accessible way to learn about anything under the sun,” Broker says. “And I feel like that’s one of the great values of the festival is that you come, you spend a weekend and you’re just transported to all kinds of different places in a short period of time.”
The months-long selection process is an ordeal, paring the initial group of roughly 350 submissions down to 41 films in short and long form in various stages. The festival’s program reflects a complex spreadsheet of scheduling, submissions, and topics that have to be balanced out and then finely tuned. Because of the festival’s short weekend run and limited number of programming slots, lengthy discussions will unfold about what makes it into the lineup and what receives a polite decline. “It’s brutal,” Broker says.
While there’s a delay between a modern issue affecting women and films being made about it winding up with RMWF, the festival never starts programming with a theme in mind. And while the committee avoids selecting multiple films on the same subject, RMWF felt it pertinent to include some this year. “We’re just looking for a great selection of high-quality films,” Broker says. “That said, inevitably there is often a theme that kind of emerges by happenstance.” In one instance, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and Mississippi Messiah, about James Meredith, are both films about Civil Rights icons. Another pair of films, And Still I Sing and With This Breath I Fly, portray the very different lives of women in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power.
Broker points to a big board in her office, similar to the festival schedule you can find online, but here each film is color-coded, something not displayed publicly. “The color coding reflects the general tone of the film. We try really, really hard to provide people with a variety of options in each band of film,” she says. Between each block of films are breaks and opportunities to regroup and reflect.
Broker has been part of the festival since 1994 and as the festival’s full-time executive director, oversees the process end-to-end each year alongside RMWF’s growing number of year-round events, including a filmmaker’s retreat. Hailing from Southern California where she worked at a law firm as a paralegal coordinator, she moved to Colorado Springs in 1993. When she first arrived, Broker had three young children and wasn’t involved in much else. “One of our close neighbors wandered over and introduced herself,” she recalls. “She was sort of one of the founding mothers of the festival, so she told me all about it.” Broker volunteered, but had never been to a film festival, had no background in film and she describes her taste in film at the time as “mainstream and fairly unsophisticated.” One of the first films that spoke to her was Leona’s Sister Gerri, a documentary about a woman who died from a botched illegal abortion in 1964. “[It’s] ironic that that’s a film that’s stuck with me from 1993 and look at where we are today.”
Over time, Broker hopped between committees, gathering a comprehensive understanding of the organization. In 2000, she applied to be the first Rocky Mountain Women’s Film executive director and got the job. In nearly three decades with the festival, Broker has seen hundreds of films come through and understands how technological progress has changed more than just how submissions are screened and handled. Films were originally projected by film or tape, then eventually digital. Submissions arrived on VHS, then DVD, then eventually digital. Broker admits she misses being able to physically pass screeners to the next person and have a brief discussion about the film, as she did before the whole process became digital. But it was this gradual migration that allowed the festival to continue through the COVID pandemic with virtual and hybrid offerings.
That technological progress has also changed how the festival works philosophically. Film festivals aren’t competitive for premieres today like they were in the ’90s, when scoring distribution deals with studios was the best way to be seen. Now, filmmakers can submit their films directly to their audiences via video-on-demand services and RMWF has no issue screening films that have already found audiences. “We don’t have distributors coming here, we don’t have buyers coming to our festival to see our films like you see at other premiere festivals,” Broker says. “I’ve always felt that a lot of our patrons come to our festival for the overall experience [and] don’t consider themselves as cinephiles.”
The festival has proven resilient enough that filmmakers are able to bring subsequent projects. One of this year’s entries, The Flagmakers, is the seventh entry by Oscar-winner Cynthia Wade, who co-directed the film with Sharon Liese. Reflecting on the festival’s longevity, Broker sees the founders as ahead of their time. “I don’t think they envisioned the festival being around as long it has,” she says, “…or maybe they did.”