Syracuse International Film Festival co-founder puts women front and center

SIFF co-founder brings women directors to the forefront

Published: October 23, 2017
Syracuse International Film Festival

Christine Fawcett-Shapiro does not let the discomfort of dental and toe surgery keep her from running business as usual. From board meetings to distributing posters, the 14th annual Syracuse International Film Festival (SIFF) will not wait on Fawcett-Shapiro’s pain to subside.

While seated at a round table inside of one of her favorite eastside coffee lounges, the 70-year-old film festival co-founder and marketing director’s round hazel eyes gleamed as she glanced over the final draft of the festival’s lobby cards for the five-day event beginning Oct. 18. As Fawcett-Shapiro waited for her hot tea to simmer, she softly stated over the loud clinking of silverware that people are struggling in some form in every country and hopes the festival is utilized as a platform to engage in dialogue and share commonalities and solutions with other communities.

Diversifying the festival with films that shine a light toward underserved and disadvantaged societies is the goal, and aside from that Fawcett-Shapiro searched nationally and internationally for brilliant women filmmakers whose directorial visions are not welcomed by major film distributors.

According to a 2016 study conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only seven percent of the year’s top 250 movies were directed by women. Every year the festival tries to expose Central New York to women filmmakers, and this year out of about 30 films, SIFF will showcase three feature films and seven student and professional shorts directed by women.

“There are so many demands for a woman to be successful in her career,” Fawcett-Shapiro said. “Totally focusing on one project from conception to completion can take years, and in particular, women are often raising children and cannot simply put aside two years or more to work on a project.”

Filmmaker and Skidmore College english assistant professor, Cecilia Aldarondo, who showcased her latest film at SU’s Human Rights Festival last month, believes there is a substantial amount of work to be done in regard to women in filmmaking.

“We need more of us in the room to make the change, and a lot of it is unconscious and conscious biases,” Aldarondo said. “For me, when you talk about women and people of color who are not often the center of society, you really need the decision makers to go beyond their ways to seize attention. It’s both the work of raising the conscious of those who are in power and putting women in positions of power.”

Fawcett-Shapiro travels yearly to countries, such as Asia and Europe, in search of women filmmakers who tell diverse stories and who are looking to share their films with the Syracuse community.

“Christine looks out for women filmmakers,” SU transmedia adjunct faculty member Nancy Keefe Rhodes said.

Just as Fawcett-Shapiro opens the door for international female directors to showcase films in Central New York, the highest paid female director Patty Jenkins, recently solidified her presence in the industry with her summer blockbuster hit “Wonder Woman,” which grossed over $800 million. Not only has Jenkins pushed the door open for other women filmmakers, but she also negotiated a “Wonder Woman” sequel with the highest salary for a female director.

Although Jenkins’ story is a successful one the proportion of film directors who are women in the United States is still “horrible,” Rhodes said.

“In the last couple of years, women filmmakers and people in the film industry have really spoken out about the disparities,” Rhodes added. “Surprisingly some of the best films from other countries are directed by women, and in some ways women have almost done better in other cultures than in America.”

Israel’s first female director, Michal Bat-Adam, who will showcased her latest film “The Road to Where” at the festival, has broken many barriers for women in Israeli cinema. Since 1979, she has directed 13 Israeli films and starred in over 20 international movies and television shows. Fawcett-Shapiro speaks highly of Bat-Adam because of her relatability and character.

“I see what she is doing, which is being a successful filmmaker and being a wife and mother,” Fawcett-Shapiro said. “To me this is what I see as the difficulty for women, other things have to be set aside.”

Born in 1946, Fawcett-Shapiro spent most of her early years raising chickens and horses on her father’s dairy farm in Cato, New York. Fawcett-Shapiro acquired her perseverance from her father and gained valuable entrepreneurship and leadership traits from her grandmother and great aunt, who, in the 1950s, were a storeowner and jewelry maker respectively. Because Fawcett-Shapiro was vocally talented, her high school educators suggested she study speech and music, which inspired her love for the arts.

While studying at Kent State University in 1964, she became highly interested in utilizing music as a catalyst to speech rehabilitation. In search of a creative outlet, Fawcett-Shapiro affiliated herself with a group of arts and culture lovers who introduced her to the northeast Ohio film and theater scene. She established herself within the theater community and began operatic training with the pioneering summer stock theater production company Kenley Players.

Though she realized opera was not her long-term goal, she willingly took on the responsibilities of wife and mother all while pursuing her Bachelor of Science in speech therapy and audiology. After graduation in 1968, she returned to Syracuse to support her family and raise her three children. Years later, Fawcett-Shapiro sought out employment and in 1989 she took on demanding positions, such as a speech and occupational therapist, a Catholic church cantor and an opera singer with the Syracuse Opera Company. At the turn of the century, Fawcett-Shapiro retired simultaneously from all three positions because she realized she was “very interested in rehabilitation and bringing people back into the culture of the community through the arts,” she said.

It was not until 2000 and her divorce that she became fully immersed in the theater world again. After a mutual friend introduced her to Owen Shapiro, the two instantaneously became friends, business partners and two years later, they married. During the beginning of their courtship, Owen, SIFF co-founder and SU transmedia professor and film program director, asked Fawcett-Shapiro to assist with the production of a film he was directing at the time.

After shopping Shapiro’s film to festivals across the globe, she noticed how cities economically and socially benefited from hosting film festivals. Fawcett-Shapiro visualized SIFF as a festival where the next generation of filmmakers could create a film buzz for Syracuse and where visionaries would share films that spark in-depth dialogues about culture and society.

Since the inception of the festival in 2004, Fawcett-Shapiro and Shapiro have pushed for more recognition and funding to continue building the film culture in Syracuse despite financial cut backs.

“After the big recession in 2008, we lost a lot of our corporate sponsors. Some went out of business and others moved,” Shapiro said. “And as the digital age became solid, the money for entertainment started to change.”

“Many years earlier, people attempted to create a festival but dropped it because it was just too much work and it didn’t seem to be enough interest,” Shapiro added. “If it was not for Christine, there would be no festival.”

Although Fawcett-Shapiro is no longer raising her three children nor directing, she can relate to the pressures of being a woman in the film industry.

“Every year I question myself, is this valuable to them and are they benefiting from the festival?” Fawcett-Shapiro said.

In her next phase of life, Fawcett-Shapiro envisions herself stepping down as marketing director and becoming a SIFF advisor and film festival consultant. She wants to help younger creatives fulfill their passions in the industry and continue to give a platform to international filmmakers through the festival.

“The Syracuse area is a space where there are opportunities for wonderful things to happen and we are a part of a new wave of things that are happening in American filmmaking.” she said. “We are telling our stories but we are part of the greater whole, so we need to tell their stories. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”