When Geena Davis isn't acting, her side projects in the pursuit of diversity and inclusion keep the Oscar winner busy. Through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the nonprofit research and advocacy group she formed in 2004, she brings stats about representation to studio boardrooms year after year. Complementing that work is the Bentonville Film Festival, held annually in Bentonville, Arkansas, which she co-founded, and which has persevered to open its sixth iteration on Aug. 10 in a largely virtual edition due to the pandemic.
Luckily, Davis has always been an optimist. As the festival's mission to foster inclusivity across media continues to expand, she's hopeful that going online this year will bring new audiences in to see what they've been doing in Bentonville, pop. 54,909. "We realized that this is an exciting opportunity to see how it will go over because now anybody in the world can watch these movies," Davis said over Zoom from her home in Southern California.
Backed by founding sponsor Walmart, the festival launched in 2015 with a strong emphasis on female-directed films. Each year it has taken bigger steps to be more inclusive of underrepresented voices. This year's feature lineup is directed by 65% BIPOC and 40% LGBTQIA+ identifying filmmakers, according to festival organizers. "We're learning and changing and growing, and now here we are with the most radically inclusive program that I've done over the last six years," said Wendy Guerrero, president of programming.
Among this year's 68 films, more than 80% of features are directed by women, including opening-night selection "(In)visible Portraits" by Oge Egbuonu, examining the marginalization of Black women in America; Philippa Lowthorpe's 1970-set "Misbehavior," starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten, the first Black winner of the Miss World competition; documentary "Parkland Rising," from Cheryl Horner McDonough, about the student activists of Parkland, Florida; and Elegance Bratton's documentary "Pier Kids," which follows three queer and trans youth of color battling homophobia and homelessness in New York City.
Filmmakers returning to the festival include actresses Sujata Day ("Insecure"), who makes her feature directorial debut with "Definition Please," loosely based on her own experience growing up Indian American in Pennsylvania, and Janina Gavankar ("The Morning Show"), who makes her foray into directing, co-helming the short film "Stucco."
Panel discussions and special events will include conversations about advancing Latinx and disability representation as well as a "best of" version of the popular "Geena and Friends" series, in which Davis and celebrity guests reimagine male-centric movies.
Ahead of the festival, Davis discussed how her work on-screen, through the festival and in her activism has dovetailed into a multifront effort to effect long-overdue change in Hollywood.
Q: The tagline for the Bentonville Film Festival is, "If they can see it, they can be it." You're now entering your sixth year. Take us back to the reason why you started this film festival in the first place.
A: I had my Institute on Gender and Media for a number of years and became heavily involved in how women are represented in media, particularly in children's media. This opportunity came up as the festival was being put together and I was asked to come onboard and be the cofounder and the chair, and I jumped at the chance. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to expand what I had been doing.
Q: While you're the face of the Bentonville Film Festival, your advocacy work through the institute is largely not public-facing. What does that work look like? Who are you presenting the studies that the group does, and the findings of your research, to?