film festivals

Saving lives

"We're just making films. We're not saving lives."

It's a saying you hear on film sets when the shit is hitting the fan. And I get it—a sudden onset of torrential rain might be incredibly stressful during an outdoor film shoot, but it's not the end of the world.

I had reason to re-think this, though, when I was in Munich last week attending the Munich International Festival of Film Schools, or Filmschoolfest Munich as it is also known.

For a week I got to sit and watch 44 of the best student films from around the world. It was inspiring on so many levels, but it was also deeply shocking. There was a pronounced and recurring theme that rose above the many insightful explorations of current issues: the abuse of power against women.

After each film screening there was a Q&A with the director, and so I heard directors from Austria to Israel talk about how being a woman so often means feeling unsafe in this world. These films were all made pre-#MeToo but feel incredibly relevant in this post-Weinstein age.

And then it happened to me. Twice.

Late one night a group of us were walking through the streets on our way to a night club. My friend, also Australian, and I had fallen a short distance behind when two men propositioned us. They'd clearly heard us speaking in English with foreign accents and so their jeering open was: "Have sex with us."

Where once my instinct would have been to avoid and to ignore, I turned around, looked them directly in the eyes and stood my ground: "Get fucked!"

This was clearly not what they'd expected and they immediately left us alone, cowed by the encounter.

The next night, it was after 11pm and I was walking on my own through the city centre of Munich on my way to meet the other filmmakers at a party. I was on the phone to my father in Australia when I was approached by an attractive, well-dressed man more than 20 years my senior. I tried to communicate that I was on the phone and not interested, but he was very persistent.

So I ended the phone call ("Dad, I'm going to have to deal with this.") and responded, "Do I know you?"

I wasn't sure if perhaps he'd been at the festival and had recognised me from my film screening and Q&A a couple of hours before—maybe he just wanted to talk to me about my film (which is, of course, about this very abuse of power).

"No, but we go to that bar down there and have a drink and then we know each other..."

I declined, and he persisted. I held my ground.

Three or four times I had to say very firmly, "You're making me feel uncomfortable. Leave me alone."

All the while, he invaded my personal space, took advantage of me being out of my comfort zone in a foreign country, and looked like someone who should have known far better.

Eventually he seemed to realise that it was not up for discussion. As I walked away from him, I saw a text message from my father: "Let me know that you are ok"

Then I got lost and spent the next 20 minutes looking over my shoulder until I eventually found my way to the venue. By the time I arrived, I was near tears and the other filmmakers greeted me with hugs.

That second incident, in particular, affected me—especially in the context of the films I'd watched that week and the many conversations about these issues over recent months. The men from the night before were just your average late-night sleazes, but here was a man who looked like he should have known better.

I've thought a lot about these encounters in the week since and the thing that strikes me is this: the films I watched at Filmschoolfest Munich, and the subsequent Q&As, changed me.

Historically, my instinct was to avoid, to ignore, to disengage. Instead, in these instances, I felt empowered. I turned. I made eye contact. I held my ground. I told them that they could not use their power against me. Those films changed me.

It was a reminder: films matter. They can save lives.