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A Wide World Of Women / Cinema Arts shows a side of the 'global village'

Would you elect a transsexual ex-prostitute to Congress?

That, in essence, is what the good people of Wairarapa district, New

Zealand, did. In 1999 they sent Georgina (born George) Beyer to Parliament,

where she quickly became known for her witty, no-holds-barred oratory and

accessibility to her constituents. Just how a conservative and largely white

electorate came to support an outspoken transgendered woman - of Maori (that

is, indigenous non-white) descent, no less - is the story behind the remarkably

engaging documentary "Georgie Girl."

One of 14 offerings of the 2003 International Women's Film Festival, which

runs today through Sunday at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, "Georgie

Girl" will be screened tomorrow at 9:15 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Given the

extraordinary personality at its core, this should prove to be a festival

highlight, no matter what your taste in movies.

With its theme of "celebrating women in the global village," the festival

has a certain New Age-y sound to it. Once past that dewy sobriquet, though, one

finds a thoughtful and often tough-minded array of feature films and

documentaries (heavy on the latter), covering everything from a young girl's

rise to the leadership of her foundering community to female circumcision in

Kenya. (We said it was tough-minded.)

And, if it doesn't quite encompass the entire "global village," it does

include films - all directed or co-directed by women - from a wide range of

countries: New Zealand, of course, as well as France, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam,

the United Kingdom, the United States and, in one case, a filmmaking

triumvirate of Austria-Switzerland-Germany.

The almost-annual festival (it debuted in 1975; this is its 26th edition)

was curated by Cinema Arts co-director Charlotte Sky. This year's organizing

principle, Sky said, was to emphasize women who "were making changes

individually," rather than "because they were part of, let's say, a larger

situation or organization." Women acting without a safety net, in other words.

Certainly George Beyer had no safety net when he undertook his long and

often agonizing journey from misfit boyhood through a sometimes seamy young

adulthood as a transvestite and "sex worker" to, finally, a woman. Following a

sex-change operation in 1984 at age 25, Beyer was able to move beyond sexuality

as the central issue of his - now her - life, and slowly enter the political

sphere. (Asked initially to be a candidate for the district council, Beyer

replied "absolutely not," then agreed because it would "be a bit of fun, if

nothing else." With that, she was off and running in a career that would

eventually see her become the first transsexual elected to national office in

the world.)

Drawing on old photographs and films - Beyer performed in cabaret, theater

and television for more than a decade, providing some rich footage - and

interviews, filmmakers Annie Goldson and Peter Wells were able to capture a

transformation that was far more than skin deep.

"Georgie Girl" isn't the only New Zealand release to be shown. "Whale

Rider," directed by Niki Caro, is a fable-like feature set in a contemporary

Maori village where the ancient traditions of pride and physical prowess are

fighting a losing battle against sloth and cultural crisis. When a 12-year-old

girl (the enchanting Keisha Castle-Hughes) breaks taboos by attempting to

become the village's first female tribal leader, she not only brings down the

wrath of her rule-bound grandfather; she stirs reactions that change the fate

of the village itself.

"Whale Rider" will be screened tomorrow at 7:15 p.m. "We were only allowed

to show it once, because it's going to open in New York" in June, Sky said.

Still, even a single showing offers a worthwhile glimpse of Maori life. "It

really gets into a culture that very few people know or understand," Sky said.

"And in a very personal way. It's not just Sociology 101; you really get to

know a family."

If "Whale Rider" uses fiction to open a window onto a little-known world,

"Hidden Warriors: Women on the Ho Chi Minh Trail" employs archival footage and

present-day interviews to shed light on an amazing and largely unheralded

undertaking of the Vietnam War - or the "American War," as it's known in

Vietnam.

Between 1965 and 1974, at least 140,000 young North Vietnamese women, some

still in their teens, helped create the strategically important Ho Chi Minh

Trail, hacking it out of jungle terrain and maintaining it under horrific

conditions and frequent bombardment.

"Hidden Warriors" (to be screened Sunday at 4:15 p.m.) focuses on one unit,

Volunteer Youth Company 814. Directed by Karen Turner, a professor of history

with a specialty in Vietnam at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts,

the film is based in part on a book written by Turner with the help of a

Hanoi-based journalist, Phan Thanh Hao. ("Hidden Warriors" is a U.S.-Vietnamese

co-production.)

We catch up with the women of Company 814 at a modest reunion marking the

35th anniversary of their departure for war. Far from being celebrated heroines

in their country, many are both obscure and lonely (having spent their most

marriageable years in the jungle); often they also are penurious (since, as

volunteers, they haven't qualified for veterans' pensions). At the time of the

filming, the cash-strapped Vietnamese government is finally recognizing their

feats by preparing to give them a onetime payment worth about $100.

For a completely different take on the subject of patriotism, as well as

tragedy and trauma, check out "Reno: Rebel Without a Pause" (Sunday at 5:30).

Reno, here, is not a place but a person - the often outrageous but hilarious

and thought-provoking downtown New York monologist. Filmed by director Nancy

Savoca during a live performance at Manhattan's La MaMa Experimental Theatre in

December 2001, "Rebel" is an extended riff on the events of 9/11, which

unfolded just blocks from Reno's apartment.

Reno describes her own chaotic emotions of that day, from her initial,

desperate disbelief ("Oh, it's just a stunt - it's David Copperfield!") to her

eventual relief at sitting on a chaise longue in front of a police station,

chatting with the cops. She hurls her barbs at a certain kind of cant and spin

that emerged from the catastrophe, somehow making us laugh while never

diminishing the events or demeaning its victims. (Some festival screenings

feature guests for question-and-answer sessions; Reno and Savoca will appear

for Sunday's viewing of "Rebel.")

What else is on tap? There's "Cet Amour-La," a feature about French sexual

iconoclast and writer Marguerite Duras, portrayed by her longtime friend the

celebrated Jeanne Moreau (today at 2 and 9:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11 a.m.); and the

New York area premiere of "Bollywood/Hollywood," a takeoff on the all-singing,

all-dancing romantic features churned out by Bombay's movie industry (tonight

at 7:15; Sunday, 9 p.m.).

Documentaries include "The Day I Will Never Forget" (tomorrow, 11:05 a.m.)

about the tradition of female circumcision in Kenya and the efforts of some

African women to end the practice; and "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the

House," about two Brooklyn housewives who met in 1959 and found lasting love

with each other in 1974. (They later won domestic partner benefits for all New

York City employees.) Still together after all these years, Ruthie Berman and

Connie Kurtz will be on hand for the screening of their story, tomorrow at 5:10

p.m.

WHERE&WHEN 2003 International Women's Film Festival, today through Sunday

at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington. For complete film

listings and information on festival guests and events, log on to

www.cinemaarts centre.org; for tickets, call 631-423-7610 or 631-423-7611.

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