Women account for half of all movie audiences, yet men still make most films: In 2017, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women directed only 11 percent of the year’s top 250 films.
Kate (Mather) Herrmann ’88 aims to change that.
Herrmann is executive director of the High Falls Women’s Film Festival, which has celebrated and advanced the work of women in film for 18 years—long before Hollywood A-list women protested disparity at the 2018 Golden Globes with black dresses on the red carpet as part of the Time’s Up movement.
“The festival has been doing this since 2001 for the same reasons that the Time’s Up movement exists and why it has gained so much prominence,” she says. “We like to say that our films are made by women but for everyone.”
Over the years, the festival has screened more than 700 films, including features, documentaries, and shorts, as well as children’s and young adult programs. Past films have gone on to win at the Oscars and Golden Globes, and the likes of Candice Bergen, Kerry Washington, and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all appeared on stage at the annual event. The festival also offers screenings of short films made by female students at the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as training and networking opportunities for female filmmakers.
Herrmann, a finance major at Notre Dame who started her career in management consulting, says she often found herself outnumbered by men—whether it was as the younger sister of five brothers or in the male-dominated finance industry. It’s part of what inspires her work with the festival today.
“As a woman who worked in a culture dominated by men in the late 80s, I saw the white male power structure in evidence in corporate America—and it still is in place. And being the mother of a daughter and wanting everything possible for her, when I see these environments that women still have to deal with in the 21st century, that makes me passionate about wanting to change that,” she says. “I believe in equality for all—that’s what drives me.”
Herrmann started working with the High Falls Women’s Film Festival in 2015, as director of development, and then took over as executive director in 2017. After spending a decade as a community volunteer while raising her two children—Alex Herrmann ’15 and Liv Herrmann ’19—she worked at health care and arts and culture nonprofits. She says joining the festival in 2015 was a natural fit with her love of film and passion for women’s empowerment.
The festival’s Rochester location gives it unique ties to both the birth of film and the women’s movement, Herrmann notes. George Eastman founded the Kodak film company in Rochester in 1888, and the city was also home to legendary women’s voting rights advocate Susan B. Anthony. The festival theater is just a few miles from where Anthony was arrested for trying to vote.
In an era where movie attendance is down because of at-home streaming services, Herrmann says that one of the best parts of the festival is that the experience goes beyond watching a film. After screenings, there are Q&As with directors and panel discussions with Rochester-area experts on topics related to the films—something viewers won’t get if they watch from their couch.
Planning the annual event is a yearlong process that begins with fundraising and establishing partnerships with film distribution companies. The festival also accepts submissions from individual filmmakers from April through August. Summer is dedicated to promoting and advertising, while organizers finalize the lineup and events in the fall.
Herrmann, who is also treasurer of her local Notre Dame club, says, “I’ve been asked whether our festival will be necessary in the future, if we reach gender parity in the film industry. And while we hope gender parity is achieved, the festival will still be relevant, because women make films from a different perspective than men. Whether we’re telling a woman’s story or a man’s story, having a female director, producer, writer or cinematographer brings a different shade to the work.”