After viewing the Academy Awards as a nine-year old girl, Yvonne McCormack-Lyons dreamed of becoming an actress, and finding herself in the midst of glitz and glamour.
Fast forward a few decades, and her desire to be in the midst of glitz and glamour is shaping up nicely in her role as founder and executive director of the Women’s International Film and Arts Festival.
Launched in 2006, the festival will mark its fifth anniversary in March. The London-born Canadian began planning the festival when she was a marketing representative for Miami-Dade County’s parks and recreation department.
“I remember when it really hit me that this was it,’’ she said. “The epiphany came. I remember feeling it, like wow, it was something that hit me deep in my soul, that this is the right thing to do.”
After a low-key first year in which she was able to test the waters, the festival exploded between the first and second years, surprising even McCormack-Lyons.
“We had maybe a dozen films the first year,” she explained.
“That number grew to 173 films (representing 14 countries) when the call for entries was sounded in year two,’’ the “40-something” McCormack-Lyons said. “It was, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’”
She continued: “We were very, very fortunate that we were able to bring in Ruby Dee.”
The legendary actress and wife of the late Ossie Davis served as the festival’s inaugural chairperson. Dee continues to serve as the festival’s honorary chair; a role she shares with the festival’s 2010 honorary chairperson, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
McCormack-Lyons attributes the second year’s growth to invaluable media exposure from The Associated Press and the distinction of being rated the best local film festival of 2007 by the Miami New Times.
The festival’s growth continues each year. For 2008 and 2009, more than 300 films were submitted each year. For this year’s festival, WIFF has received close to 400 entries.
“We’re in the process of screening them now, going through and selecting the best ones,” said McCormack-Lyons, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from York University in Toronto and a master’s in broadcast journalism from Howard University.
Andrea Shaw has been a member of the WIFF board of directors for three years. The associate professor of English at Nova Southeastern University said she is pleased with the festival’s progress and is thrilled with its leader.
“Yvonne is unbelievable. She has enough energy for ten of us,” Shaw said of the woman whom she also calls enthusiastic, passionate and a visionary.
Shaw said an important aspect of the festival is its inclusion of women filmmakers from around the globe. In addition to the festival’s international reach, McCormack-Lyons said, the selection process for the festival specifically searches for films by and about black women.
“My intention with the film festival was obviously to have a section that deals specifically with Africa and the Diaspora,” said McCormack-Lyons, a wife and mother of a nine-year old son. “And the reason it was important is not only because I’m a woman of African descent, but also because as I looked at film festivals from other parts of the country. They did not even have films by black women.”
McCormack-Lyons said she is determined that all women are represented in the festival.
“And if it meant taking that extra time to look for films from different races, then that was important,” she explained.
The film festival’s mission is to become the premiere festival for all women involved in the industry by screening a diverse sampling of movies by and about women from around the globe, providing access to invaluable networking opportunities and informative workshops, and the chance to simply have fun in the name of films.
“We’re doing, which turned out to be very popular last year, a film pool pajama party. We do short films for the night. We’re out by the pool area and people come in their pajamas. Some people do, anyway. We start off with a little bit of music. We have a party atmosphere going and then we settle down and watch some short films,” McCormack-Lyons said of the event held at the Mayfair Hotel in Coconut Grove.
On a more serious note, McCormack-Lyons said another key focus for WIFF is to address the unacceptably low number of women in the filmmaking industry’s leadership roles.
“We’re such a small number in the film and broadcast industry, particularly in film. We’re between five and seven percent as directors,” she said.
McCormack-Lyons said the power of film to impact issues of all kinds makes it imperative that women participate in shaping its messages.
“It can make us feel negative about something or it can make us feel positive about something, depending on how it’s presented. And with women not being in control of those imageries, then most of our perceptions of what is is through a man’s eyes. It’s his perspective, and not ours.”
Shaw said she has high expectations for the festival’s future.
“I don’t see why it cannot become the Cannes of women’s film festivals,” she said.
Photo: Yvonne McCormack-Lyons