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Chicago Feminist Film Festival co-founder reflects on her journey from student to professor

Michelle Yates is a creator and associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department at Columbia College Chicago. She has spent her career as an advocate for teaching students to closely analyze and interrogate their work.

Yates grew up in Philadelphia wanting to become a librarian because of her love for books. But when it was time to choose a major at Penn State, things took a turn and she learned about other fields of study.

“They didn’t have environmental science in the 1990s so I ended up in wildlife and fishery, though I wasn’t a huge fan of categorizing fish,” she said. 

Yates went through several different science majors from biology to biobehavioral health before ending up with a degree in women’s studies. After graduating from college and working at Planned Parenthood as a health educator for a year, Yates learned of a cultural studies doctoral program at the University of California, Davis where she could study her original interest in environmental studies through the eyes of gender and humanity.

During her years of graduate school, she worked as a teacher’s assistant. “I loved being in the classroom and learning along with the professors I work with,” she said.

Yates’ interest in working adjacent to film was discovered through an advisor she had who was a film historian. 

“Why film matters is because of how people think about environmental issues like how they vote, how they think about environmental issues in our everyday lives,” she said. “There’s an impact in material reality and how we see things on screen.”

Yates began teaching at Columbia in 2012, and two years into teaching, she reached out to associate professor of Cinema and Television Arts, Susan Kerns, who is also the college’s associate provost for faculty research and development. 

Yates contacted Kerns to share her ideas for a feminist, woman and queer-centered film event. The pair discovered they both had been involved with past film festivals – Yates with a festival at UC Davis and Kerns with the Milwaukee Film Festival.

“We both got along well but [were] coming at it from different models,” Kerns said. “We were able to take the student involvement and programming philosophy from the Davis Film Festival, then make it a more professional experience both for visiting filmmakers and also for our students.”

The goal of the festival was to be able to talk about the world through the lens of women. Yates said she was “invested in how the industry can be transformed as well as the reputation can be transformed for a more equitable and diverse society.”

The film festival was held at Film Row Cinema, a venue on the Columbia campus, from 2017 to 2019. The event did its best to make screening short films accessible by making it free to anyone interested.

“I had a friend who was a very old-school – political, like, been involved with female voters since forever, told me ‘Susan, this has been the best film festival experience I had ever had,’” Kerns said. She felt like the excitement and conversation that was really what made the Feminist Film Festival a success. 

Following the COVID-19 disruptions and the founders experiencing changes in their personal lives and careers, the festival has not been held since. Kerns said that if the opportunity to resume the festival arose, she would do it again.

Currently with her class “Feminism and Film,” Yates said she can connect with individual students about the course topics. Screenwriting student Nick Dempsey has taken a variety of classes on film, but said his time in Yates’ class has made him more analytical about the way gender performs on screen.

Through the class, Dempsey learned about Alice Guy-Blaché, who is known to be the world’s first filmmaker. He said he was surprised that Guy-Blaché was rarely a topic of discussion in his other film classes.

“I was given another class where I was taught about the ‘first movies’ and was never really told about [Guy-Blaché’s] work, so it was surprising when learning she was a big player,” he said. “You’d think you’d hear about that more.” 

Throughout her analysis of various works, Yates has been repeatedly told that she’s “thinking a bit too hard” about the meaning behind the entertainment we consume.

“Why film matters is because of how people think about environmental issues like how they vote, how they think about important environmental issues in everyday lives,” she said. “There’s an impact in material. There is [a] reality [to the] kinds of things we see on screen.”

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