Community and Collaboration Make Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival Special

Oscar-winning filmmaker Cynthia Wade has made the most appearances at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival. This year she will present The Flagmakers. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Wade.

There was a point early in Cynthia Wade’s career when she wasn’t sure she could continue making films. As a director, Wade had already found success; her film Freeheld had won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. But making and fundraising and finding an outlet to present documentary films is a grind, especially in those days before streaming services opened new gateways. As she toured her latest film, presenting it to audiences around the country, Wade felt she had given everything. It was a good place creatively, she says, because “that means you gave everything to this film.” But she was uncertain she could muster the emotional energy to do it again. “I don’t know if I have anything left in me,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to — if I can — make another film again.”

But Wade had been invited to the inaugural Filmmakers Retreat by Rocky Mountain Women’s Film, a now-annual retreat in Colorado for women directors to gather and compare notes. While the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film board hosted and handled all the logistical details, 10 women filmmakers could feel free to share their ideas, show rough cuts, ask for feedback and discuss their challenges and struggles of working in the industry, no matter where they were in the creative process. 

“We could just be ourselves and be real,” Wade says. “There are not a lot of places to do that, particularly communally with other filmmakers and directors.”

The group called themselves the Colorado 10, and for a year or two after that, the group held monthly phone calls when they would share goals and challenges and be accountable to each other. “It was really about setting up a support structure, moving into the next year or two after that,” Wade says. “Of course I went on and started and finished many other kinds of films.”

Wade did indeed continue. She has received multiple nominations and has won an Academy Award, an Emmy and more than 60 film festival awards, including at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival. Her current film The Flagmakers is nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award. Wade and co-director/producer Sharon Liese will be presenting that film and participating in this year’s Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival, Nov. 11-13, 2022. It will be Wade’s seventh appearance at RMWFF, making her the most frequent presenter. “It’s just the best,” she says. “I love, love the festival.”

The Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival is the oldest women’s film festival in the Western Hemisphere. For 35 years, it has created a space for driven, spirited and diverse voices and elevated the stories of women and others often unheard or unseen through film. In total, RMWFF has screened nearly 1,000 films, hosted more than 250 filmmakers and drawn a cumulative audience of tens of thousands. (You can read more about the festivals origins and history in 30 Years of Rocky Mountain Womens Film Fest from our archives.)

workers featured in the film The Flagmakers shown in the factory
Workers at the Eder Flag company in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, featured in the film The Flagmakers, directed by Cynthia Wade and screening at the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival. Photo by Womyn Films LLC/Heidi Gutman

RMWFF is a special festival for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for the sense of community it creates, both for audiences and for filmmakers. There’s a sense of connection that flows through the festival, as well as other Rocky Mountain Women’s Film events, such as the filmmakers retreat Wade experienced. As the festival continues to elevate sometimes unheard voices, it also draws people together around stories and fosters a space to listen.

“I feel like a lot of the films that we show really humanize situations that we tend to objectify,” says Linda Broker, the executive director who has been with the organization for 30 years.

Those situations may center on another country, a political issue or a personal experience. Cynthia Wade’s The Flagmakers is a good example. The 35-minute film focuses on the employee-owned Eder Flag in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which sews and ships five million American flags a year. The flagmakers — locals, immigrants and refugees — stitch stars and stripes as they wrestle with identity and belonging. 

“It’s a really interesting juxtaposition,” Broker says. “You get some of the backstory of people that are working there, and it’s a different lens on what the American flag means. I really appreciate the different perspective that it gives you on refugees and what they contribute and how they view our country.” Whatever film she is screening, Wade enjoys the interaction with attendees. “The audiences at this festival are spectacular,” she says. “The seats are filled. The community is super-engaged. And it’s a returning community, so they remember you from other films.”

She especially recommends the Filmmaker Forum Box Lunch. “You’re literally eating on stage and people are eating in the audience as they throw how-to questions to filmmakers,” she says. “That’s always a spirited, nuts and bolts, industry kind of discussion that gives a different look at filmmaking. Those are great.” 

The fact that RMWFF is a noncompetitive festival also adds to the sense of collaboration among filmmakers. “I love that. It really fosters this environment where I have long-lasting collaborations and friendships with filmmakers I’ve met at the festival.”

Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlisle in the recording studio, from the film The Return of Tanya Tucker
Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlisle in the recording studio. The film The Return of Tanya Tucker will be screened at the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival. Photo courtesy of RMWFF.

This year’s Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival will screen 41 films, and Broker hopes to see attendance return to pre-Covid levels as the event returns to a full, in-person schedule. In 2019, about 1,500 people attended. By film festival standards, that’s relatively small, but Rocky Mountain Women Film’s leadership and staff have remained purposeful about how the festival has grown. 

“I am really proud that we’ve been able to grow in a way that’s very intentional,” Broker says. “While the festival itself has really expanded, I don’t think we’ve lost the intimacy, which is what I think a lot of people appreciate about this event.”

She believes its mission is as important as ever. “Listening to another perspective matters now more than ever,” Broker says. “It’s an honor to do this work, and we believe people will leave this festival a little different than when they came in.”