The Huddle: Susan Sullivan & The Women’s Sports Film Festival
Why this matters
Far too often, the respective worlds of film and sports fail to represent women and tell their stories. Susan Sullivan, founder of the Women Sports Film Festival, joins the Huddle to discuss how cultural and societal change is possible when women elevate one another with the power of filmmaking.
Inspired by Olympic hype and documentaries including Strong!, Light Fly, Fly High, and T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold, Susan Sullivan made it her mission to create a film festival unlike any other.
She says, “To see a female director telling the story of a female athlete through her lens - literally her gaze and perspective - was just transformative.”
She began to curate films that told the stories of female athletes and that were made by female directors. This resulted in the establishment of the Women Sports Film Festival. Since 2016, the festival has celebrated and amplified the experiences of these athletes and filmmakers.
The documentaries presented at the festival challenge the narratives created and maintained by the predominantly male-led fields of mainstream films and sports media. For example, in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only five women have been nominated for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman to win this award for The Hurt Locker (2009).
In sports, over 40% of athletes are women but only 4% of sports media coverage is dedicated to them. There is also a glaring pay gap between men's and women's professional teams which is a symptom of disproportionate media coverage and systemic sexism.
Sullivan stresses that the male-centered culture of sports and film industries has restricted opportunities for women athletes and filmmakers. She says, “It’s about access. It’s about funding. It’s about who gets to tell who’s stories. It’s gatekeeping.” These barriers prevent women’s stories from being told and perpetuates disparities in media coverage, professional recognition, and income.
The Women Sport Film Festival demonstrates that representation is essential in advancing all women’s rights across the world and in the fields of sports, film and beyond. “We use sport as the entry point to the conversation,” Sullivan says. “Once you’re there, you’re looking at the other issues happening in girls’ and women’s lives.”
Sullivan states, “Now more than ever, we need the stories that sports stories offer. We need stories of resilience, of courage, of feeling like you can’t go on and that you need to find within yourself a way to move forward. I think sports documentaries offer the hero’s journey that we need at this time.”
Despite being unable to conduct an in-person festival this summer, the Women’s Sport Film Festival will continue to provide access to these inspiring journeys. The WSFF REWIND is an innovative virtual film festival that is available from July 16 to July 25. The series will feature documentaries from previous festivals and will include Q & As with athletes and filmmakers.
The series includes:
Futbolistas 4 Life, a film about young Latinx soccer players from immigrant families who are trying to navigate federal immigration policy.
Keepers of the Game, a documentary about a high school girls' lacrosse team in the Akewesasne Mohawk Territory.
T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold, the story of Claressa "T-Rex" Shields, an Olympic gold medalist boxer from Flint, Michigan.
During these uncertain times, people need sports and film not just for the sake of entertainment, but for empowerment. Sports and film are inherently communal experiences that can transcend physical and cultural barriers. The combination of the two is incredibly powerful, unifying, and essential for ensuring the representation of women and their successes, failures, and humanity.