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How Women Make Movies helps diverse filmmakers ‘tell their own stories’

NYC-based nonprofit has helped guide multiple films to Academy Award nominations.

Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies,

Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, teaches a workshop to female filmmakers in an undated photo. Photo Credit: Women Make Movies

An independent media arts nonprofit has been charting a path to success for unknown NYC-based female filmmakers for more than four decades — all the way to the Oscars.

Independent films that Women Make Movies (WMM) has supported have found their way to a nomination or a win in 13 of the past 15 Academy Awards, boasting a roster of 14 documentaries, according to Executive Director Debra Zimmerman. These include an investigation by Yance Ford, the first openly transgender Oscar nominee, into his brother’s death, which was detailed in the best documentary-nominated “Strong Island.”

“Yance’s project is so powerful, and we had never seen anything like that before,” said Zimmerman, who provided financial and advisory support to the film. “I’m very aware of the segregation on Long Island, and I was so pleased that Yance thought to cover that.”

WMM has backed diverse projects, including a Pakistani documentary about acid attack survivors titled “Saving Face,” a film about a Sunni doctor’s campaign to run in Iraq’s first democratic election called “My Country, My Country” and a story of a New Jersey cop’s attempt to transfer her pension to her partner after she gets diagnosed with cancer titled “Freeheld” — all of which garnered Oscar attention.

Being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might be an amazing reward, but that is not the ultimate goal, Zimmerman said.

“We want to support films that are being made that represent different kinds of perspectives,” Zimmerman said, adding that a primary goal of the organization is to give a voice to women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women and older filmmakers. “They don’t have the resources others would normally start out with.”

Michelle Memran, 43, whose first film, “The Rest I Make Up,” about a Cuban-American playwright, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 16, considers WMM headquarters located at 115 W. 29th St. her home base.

“I wouldn’t have a film if it weren’t for Women Make Movies,” the Williamsburg-based filmmaker said.

WMM helps filmmakers in two ways — first, it acts as a distributor of films made by diverse women and promotes them, for example, to film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes. Second, it serves as a middleman of sorts for individual filmmakers to receive grants from government agencies and foundations such as the New York State Council on the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation under its fiscal sponsorship program.

Memran, who took advantage of the program, also benefited from a series of technical workshops hosted under the umbrella of the nonprofit’s Production Assistance Program, which focused on fundraising, distribution and legal techniques that accompany the making of a film.

“You need a really strong support network, especially for first-time filmmakers. I had no clue just how much goes into making a documentary,” Memran said. “We are dealing with equity and parity and a lack of female voices in cinema and really reckoning with that now. It’s hard to get those stories out there.”

For a filmmaker to be accepted by WMM, they need to send an application to the organization, which includes a proposal and a short sample of their work.

“We are looking for projects that are high quality, have a good chance of actually being completed, the filmmakers’ knowledge of fundraising, their originality and creativity,” Zimmerman said. “Once accepted, we’ll look at rough cuts and give them feedback, and really anything it takes to bring the project to completion.”

Forty films channeling WMM support get completed every year, Zimmerman said. Currently, there are 250 projects in different stages of production, she added.

Several WMM-supported movies will be screened at multiple locations in New York City throughout March.

Two films — “Saving Face” and “Sin by Silence” — will be played on loop at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery inside the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as part of a month-long exhibition highlighting violence against women, according to co-curator Kyunghee Pyun. On March 21, two films highlighting the lives and contributions of Latina activists — “Crushing Love” and “Chicana” — by WMM member Sylvia Morales will be screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their “¡Sí Se Puede! Pioneers of Chicano Cinema” series.

“It’s very important for women to tell their own stories,” Zimmerman said. “We are supporting women by making sure that movies look at women’s lives better than the way mainstream media looks at them.”

Correction: The National Endowment for the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs were previously listed as financial backers of individual filmmakers. They support WMM as whole.

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