You bought a mini DV camera for the family reunion. When you plugged the Firewire connection into your computer, you felt a twinge. Then you found yourself obsessively re-editing the footage. A few days later, you came up with the winning bid on a Super 8 camera on eBay, and now you’re torn: Should you make a short experimental film about that recurring dream, or a family saga that would make use of the home movies in Dad’s attic? What about a soundtrack? You’re stuck and a little frustrated. You need some guidance and, more importantly, some inspiration.

Relief is here, thanks to the superhuman efforts of a small group of women and girls who have organized the second annual Ms. Films: A Festival of Movies by Independent Women. The festival will be held at the Durham Arts Council this Saturday, Feb. 8. If you’ve ever had the urge to pick up a film or video camera; if you’ve lain awake at night translating the vision in your head to the a screen, then clear your calendar for the stunning variety of workshops, panel discussions and screenings. And you don’t even have to be a woman to take advantage of this unique festival. “It’s for everyone who wants to see what women are doing, which is why so many men came out and participated last year,” says indefatigable festival organizer Niku Arbabi.

Arbabi recently relocated to Durham and favorably compares the Triangle to the heady arts scene of Minneapolis. She and local filmmaker and musician, Joyce Ventimiglia, worked with an all-volunteer planning committee that runs the gamut from teen filmmakers to university faculty members. The work has clearly been a labor of love. Saturday’s events are designed not only to expose film enthusiasts to the very best short films made by women, but also to act as a catalyst for local filmmaking activity.

Ms. Films is unique in its practical emphasis: One important goal of the festival is to inspire participants to make their own films. To that end, Arbabi and Ventimiglia have worked tirelessly to put together a set of workshops that address the most pressing questions beginning filmmakers face. Topics include, “How to make a Super 8 film” (led by the president of Chapel Hill Flicker and Super 8 guru Jen Ashcroft), “Scoring your movie” (with a group of local musicians), “Girl Director” (aimed at teenage filmmakers) and workshops on Screenwriting, Animation and Sound. “The workshops show women can handle the tech stuff–and, more importantly, that you can do it–that anyone can do it,” says Arbabi. And if you spend enough time with the festival’s organizers, you begin to believe it.

Arbabi, who acts as the Coordinator of the Women Film Pioneers Project at Duke, and Ventimiglia, whose experimental documentary film, Lena, was screened at last year’s Ms. Films (and who plays guitar with Holy Roman Empire) agree that several factors–including the universities, the friendliness of the artists, the constant renewal from artists who leave home, move on, then return, or attend college in the Triangle and stay–make the Triangle a fertile environment for visual artists and musicians. They hope to make Ms. Films a permanent part of the mix.

Arbabi and Ventimiglia have left no stone unturned in their quest to gather resources that might prove useful or inspirational to beginning filmmakers. Two panel discussions round out Saturday afternoon’s events: a panel of local documentary filmmakers and a discussion about the Women Film Pioneers Project at Duke University. The corps of volunteers has also collaborated on the Ms. Films Resource Guide, an informative zine that tells would-be filmmakers where to take classes, rent or buy equipment, find and process film, and submit films to festivals.

Even if you’ve never thought about making a film, you shouldn’t pass up the festival’s smorgasbord of short films (only one out of about 20 films selected is longer than 15 minutes). Culled from more than 60 submissions from women across the United States and Canada, the films selected reflect a tremendous diversity of interests and genres. Sherri Mullis’ Fall, a two-minute cut-out animation film offers a charming blend of simplicity and sophistication. Its precise synchronization of image and music belies the childlike sensibility of the drawings. Canadian filmmaker Helen Zeda Spitzer’s aural fixation is a beautiful experimental work that combines eclectic sounds from radio, television and films with haunting black and white images.

A particularly strong piece is Kmart Confidential, an 11-minute personal essay by Elena Oxman, who recently moved to Carrboro. The film blends Oxman’s personal responses to Kmart, with wry observations about the symbolism and Americanness of big box stores and strip malls. Oxman’s relentlessly roving camera takes a fresh look at images that might become clichéd in the hands of a less sensitive filmmaker. She sweeps through highways littered with the detritus of urban sprawl, and carries viewers along as a shopping cart navigates a discount department store late at night. Oxman frames the images with a lyrical, but never indulgent, voice over.

It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive or accessible event for anyone interested in filmmaking. And Arbabi and Ventimiglia have already achieved one of their goals–to encourage collaboration among Triangle filmmakers. The organizers of “Hi Mom!” in Chapel Hill and the Wilmington-based Cucalorus festival, have been tremendously supportive, Arbabi reports, with obvious enthusiasm for the welcoming character of the North Carolina film scene. One of the films selected for Saturday’s screening embodies the festival’s philosophy. Kara Herold’s grrlyshow depicts the world of alternative women’s media (including Bust, Bitch, Bamboo Girl and Hues). Zine founder Pagan Kennedy comments on the process of creating alternative art and media: “There’s a sense of creating an alternative world that other people could enter and want to help you build.” Arbabi and Ventimiglia are betting that Ms. Films can create just such a world in Triangle filmmaking.

Complementing the Ms. Films festival’s interest in energizing the local filmmaking community, is the sixth annual MadCat Women’s International Film Festival at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, on Friday, Feb. 7. Founder and curator Ariella Ben-Dov travels with the festival, which is based in San Francisco. “MadCat’s only parameter is that the film or video is directed by a woman,” says Ben-Dov. “We give no priority to pieces about women or with female protagonists.”

Drawn from more than five hundred submissions, MadCat’s program of 15 films has been shaped by two themes. New York, Just As I Pictured It at 7 p.m. offers a historical view of New York City and films made by celebrated women artists, including Abigail Child, Shirley Clarke, Johanna Hibbard, Helen Levitt, Marie Mencken, and Joyce Wieland. Anyone with an interest in avant garde filmmaking, or in the genre of the city film shouldn’t miss this event.

Ben-Dov describes the second program, Truth Seekers, as a collection of contemporary films that focuses on the experiences of “men who have gone to war and return to peace-time looking for answers.” The program includes narrative, documentary and experimental films, and spans a number of military conflicts and war torn regions, including World War II, Vietnam, Korea, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Lebanon. Ben-Dov will introduce the films and lead discussions following the screenings.

If you’re interested in film, then these two festivals are sure to whet your appetite for well-made short films–a woefully underappreciated form. And if you’re already passionate about film–and there are a lot of us in the Triangle that are–then Ms. Films and MadCat will not only satisfy your craving for innovative work, but also provide a venue for moving from film enthusiast to filmmaker. EndBlock

For more information on the Ms. Films Festival, visit, call the Durham Arts Council at (919) 560-2787, or e-mail Tickets for workshops and screenings are $12; individual workshops or screenings are $5. MadCat Film Festival screenings are $3 each; for more information visit or contact Dawn Dreyer at the Center for Documentary Studies at (919) 660-3680.