The Austin Chronicle

The Medium Mash

MALI Women's Film & Performance Arts Festival

By Cindy Widner, May 15, 2009, Screens

An incorrect film title in this piece was corrected here; the error appeared in the printed issue.

If you look in the dictionary under "defies categorization," you might find the logo of the Media Arts & Literacy Institute's Women's Film & Performance Arts Festival. Now in its ninth year, the four-day music, film, poetry, and performance party has long heralded the inevitable rise of the shape-shifting artist. Crossing disciplines and mashing media are logical responses to the always-accelerating call-and-response of contemporary culture, and that approach reads like second nature for more and more of the festival's players. Take, for instance, 87 Dance Production, a troupe consisting of twins Cara and Mackenzie Hagan. They will present two stage pieces – a short dance to Wynton Marsalis' music and one about what happens "when all the men leave and the women are left to their own devices," according to Cara – along with "Folding Over Twice," a film about girls' un-self-conscious movements becoming dance steps. Slippery.

Or, for that matter, look at DJ POW, aka Poet on Watch, the festival's artistic director. A filmmaker, writer, music producer, and performer, she's been on the interdisciplinary beat for years. Fed up with her early-Eighties experience at NBC as the only black woman shooting news in Texas, she left to focus on "the stories the news wouldn't and didn't cover," she says, and started exploring ways to connect with other women. Her first foray resulted in the Blowin' Up a Spot! Film Festival, originally held in Houston in 1999, with the help of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Southwest Alternate Media Project; and connections made possible by the burgeoning Internet.

"'Blowin' up a spot' was a hip-hop term I used," she says, "but after 9/11 it wasn't really a term anyone wanted to be hearing." She moved the festival to Austin under the auspices of MALI (the festival helps fund the group's summer media literacy camp). The mission of the festival, she says, is to "join communities and cultivate expression through different forms of media."

The year's theme is sustainability; like most everyone, artists are trying to see their way through hard times, and POW hopes to suss out "how we can sustain ourselves as creative-industry people." Another theme of the times – war – seems to have emerged in this year's work as well, something that makes sense to POW. "[Women] are the aftermath of war," she explains, "be it domestic war or a physical war or a war we don't know we're in."

The most literal example of that theme is probably "Armed Defense," Irina Patkanian's short about a man who barricades himself against a nonexistent enemy, playing out the idea that constant vigilance, contrary to popular belief, can make us only "more and more afraid," says the director. War takes many forms, of course, and can mean anything from the war on women's bodies – see "Fry Bread Babes," which director Steffany Suttle says is the first film about body image issues and Native American women – to the war on the "other," explored in Maru Buendia Senties' "Entre Líneas," about friends on opposite sides of the Mexican-American border.

It's the kind of festival you have to give yourself over to: Films, music, and performances are scheduled in blocks rather than very specific times, and the events are scattered about town, though anchored at Hostelling International – Austin. Immersion seems appropriate for maximum satisfaction.  

MALI Women's Film & Performance Arts Festival takes place May 28-31 at the Austin hostel, the Long Center, Hot Mama's Espresso Bar, and Cafe Mundi. The festival is produced in partnership with ALLGO and the city of Austin and is co-sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts, KOOP 91.7FM, and The Austin Chronicle. For MALI Fest-related news, reviews, and interviews, check For more information and ticket prices, visit

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