This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

It’s the afternoon before the opening of the Nevertheless Film Festival, and festival founder Meredith Finch (A.B. ’13) is sitting at a long, L-shaped table, working and chatting with festival administrators. The table is in a large multipurpose workspace in North Quad. There are red velvet chairs and glossy, hourglass-shaped end tables at one end of the room. The welcome desk where Finch sits is covered with festival paraphernalia, including sponsor material from Zingerman’s and Cherry Republic, festival calendars and flyers, and stacks of stickers — black text on a white background — that say THE FUTURE OF FILM IS FEMALE.

One of the administrators is double-checking ticket return policies while another queues up music. “We went with a playlist of really badass women,” she says, then clicks play on her laptop.

The festival went from July 11-14 and featured 26 films. In order to qualify for entry into the festival, a film’s creative team must include more than 50 percent female-identifying filmmakers in leadership positions. That means not just directors, but producers, directors of photography, composers, and other key creative positions.

The festival, which debuted this year, comes at a time when the film industry is grappling with inclusion and diversity, with public calls for increased diversity behind the camera from actresses Brie Larson and Frances McDormand and by director Ava DuVernay as well as things like the 4% Challenge, which asks people in the industry to commit to working with a female director on a feature film sometime in the next 18 months.

Finch really wanted to stress inclusivity and collaboration both on the screen and for the team running the festival, involving them in every aspect and element of the event so that they could learn by doing.

“Part of what was so appealing about doing the work ourselves was that we could really have full rein over every aspect of putting on the festival,” Finch says, “which none of us had ever experienced before while working at other film festivals like Sundance or Tribeca. I really wanted everyone on the team to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions, especially when they contradicted what I suggested.

“We really wanted the festival to be a true experience,” Finch says. “Going to a film festival is not the same as going to see any old movie, and we really tried to drive that point home by being friendly and helpful from the minute a guest walked into the Michigan Theater lobby to the minute they left. I don’t imagine the average movie-goer always has staff standing and saying, ‘Thank you for coming!’ when they leave the theater, but that’s what we were there to do! We chatted with them while they were in the theater. It was never just a transaction. We really wanted them to feel welcome and excited about what they were experiencing.”

The Perfect Place

Finch majored in the Department of Film, Television, and Media in LSA (then known as Screen Arts and Cultures), and worked for two summers at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival while she was attending U-M, work that she loved. After graduation, she put her enthusiasm for film and event planning together, working for the Sundance Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, and the San Francisco Film Festival. It was while she was working for the last of those that she was inspired to start a new film festival in Ann Arbor — one that would focus on films made by creative teams led by women.

“I was riding the bus,” Finch says. “I thought of the female-identifying theme off the top of my head, and a few days later I thought, where can I do this? Then Ann Arbor entered my mind, and there was no question of doing anything else.”

From there, Finch got to work. She recruited a team of curators and film screeners including fellow U-M alumnae Proma Khosla (A.B. ‘13), Emily Lyon (SMTD A.B. ‘13), and Radhika Menon (A.B. ‘13). The all-women programming team includes filmmakers, writers, designers, and a veteran of the film distribution industry all working to provide a showcase for female-driven films.

Now that the first festival is over, Finch is very happy with the result. Over 230 films applied to be included in the festival, and 26 — nine feature films and 17 shorts — were screened over the festival’s four-day run. The films screened during the festival included dramas taking place in rural Quebec and industrial China, a period piece set in the 1920s, and documentaries about pop stars, competitive organ playing, and the daily lives of Syrian refugees. Ninety-six percent of the directors for the films were female identifying; 50 percent were people of color; and 20 percent identified as LGBTQ+.

Now that it’s over, Finch is taking stock of what she and her team have accomplished.

“On Sunday, after the final festival screening wrapped, I took the team to both Ashley’s and Charley’s — I had to show them how we used to celebrate in college!” Finch said a few days after the festival ended. “Even before the festival had started, I started taking notes in a Google doc called ‘2020’ about what I would do differently if I were to do this again.”

If Nevertheless happens again, Finch says, she’d love it to stay in Ann Arbor.

“My four years in Ann Arbor and my four years studying film in LSA changed my life completely,” Finch says. “Ann Arbor is such the perfect place for people to try new things and take risks, the perfect place to bring a new pair of eyes to arts and culture and film.”