DOWNTOWN — When director, producer and writer Patricia DiSalvo Viayra began working on her first film, she sent out an advertisement searching for a cinematographer. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of people she contacted, only one woman responded amid scores of men.

“I just thought it was unusual that there were no other women applying for the job,” Viayra, who lives in Beverly Hills, said.

One film and several festivals later, that sole female cinematographer has become one of Viayra’s good friends and a panelist for the Lady Filmmakers Film Festival that will be held at the Aero Theatre this weekend. Once Viayra discovered how rare it was for female directors and cinematographers to work together, she knew she had to create an event to celebrate their work.

“I really have to do this to empower women to pursue their dreams and inspiration and to provide these opportunities for myself as well as other people,” Viayra, the festival’s director, said.

Viayra, who with her husband co-founded the distribution company Lucky Bag Films, gathered her close friends and designed the premise for the festival; three different categories would honor the work of women in the roles of writer, director, producer or cinematographer. One of these categories, entitled “Ladies First,” would be solely for films that would premiere at the festival.

“I’m really excited at the caliber of films that we received this year,” Viayra said. “I was not expecting to get so many.”

The panel of jurors will be looking for films with good technical execution, but that also entertain. During the selection process, Viayra said they considered the ones that had exceptional, but also compelling stories.

Five screening programs will be exhibiting 23 films over the course of the weekend. The filmmakers themselves range from famous names to virtual unknowns and are a sampling of veterans and newcomers alike.

One writer and producer, Gayla Kraetsch Hartsough, made her first film just two years ago.

“I’ve been a management consultant,” Hartsough said. “Later in my career, I decided I wanted to just find out what this business of making films was about.”

Since taking film courses at UCLA just a few years ago, Hartsough has produced three short films and exhibited her work at over 15 different festivals. Hartsough, a Midwesterner currently living in Sherman Oaks, is looking forward to seeing the audience’s reaction to her short film “Slap,” an American political satire. It will be shown in the “Ladies Kick Butt” category where Viayra herself will also be exhibiting a film. The category is designed for films with intrinsic entertainment value or strong female leads.

“You never know when you go to a festival what you’re going to get,” Hartsough said. “Generally the most wonderful part is getting to meet other filmmakers and see great films.”

Exhibiting every genre from animation to mystery, a number of these other filmmakers hail from across the globe.

Australian writer and director Sarah Spillane who currently lives in West Hollywood has entered two films. “This Life,” a film featuring Danny Glover, will also be in the Ladies Kick Butt category, while “The Manual” will be a part of “Ladies Illuminate,” a category specifically for films that bring awareness to social issues affecting women and families. “This Life” is loosely based on the Virginia Tech shooting, while “The Manual” deals with the experiences of a 6-year-old boy who is institutionalized for potential homosexuality. The films address the issues of alienation, tragedy and conformity in society.

“For me, I think that it’s more about that women can make films of any kind of genre with many, many subjects that don’t have to be specific to being female,” Spillane said.

“My two films are probably more male-oriented in terms of characters, but the issues, they affect everyone,” she added.

Both Hartsough and Spillane support Viayra’s vision of giving women in film a voice, but love that the festival will support females in other fields. Half of the net proceeds from the event’s ticket sales will benefit the Mary Magdalene Project. The 30-year-old nonprofit organization is based in Van Nuys and provides support for women in the world’s oldest profession — prostitution.

“The charity aspect is unique,” Hartsough said. “It’s very refreshing, and prostitution was a very appropriate [cause] to pick.”

MMP works with women both currently involved in and emerging from prostitution. With a long-term residence shelter and a drop in center, the organization helps anywhere from 300 to 500 women a year. They offer programs such as medical services, alternative job training, family reunification and parenting classes. One of their most important services is psychotherapy.

“They tend to have really abusive pasts,” Dr. Martin McCombs, MMP’s executive director, said of the women. “About 85 percent of them deal with the trauma of childhood sexual molestation, which begins a cycle in their lives.”

As the program depends entirely on donations to keep its programs afloat, McCombs said MMP is especially looking forward to Lady Filmmakers.

“Anything that celebrates women in leadership and expressing the strength of women and recognizes that women are an important part of our culture is an important part of our message,” McCombs said.

Viayra hopes that through her festival, the issue of prostitution will lose a little of its Hollywood glamour and gain the real world recognition it deserves.

“I think it’s miraculous work that they do,” Viayra said. “It’s pretty remarkable how they change people’s lives.”

In the future, Viayra hopes that the festival will continue to support MMP, but expand to help other women’s organizations as well. She also hopes the filmmakers themselves will be inspired by Santa Monica and see it as a great destination for them to showcase their work.

“We wanted to pick an area that was very classy,” Viayra said. “American Cinematheque has a great history here … . I thought it would be a great honor to start off at a place like that. We’ve got big shoes to fill, but looking ahead to the future, we’ll pack the houses some day.”

The festival begins with a private cocktail reception tonight, followed by the first round of the Ladies Illuminate screenings on Saturday morning. Awards for the three categories, as well as for “Audience Choice,” will be awarded throughout the weekend.

For a full list of screening times and films, as well as to purchase tickets, visit www.ladyfilmmakers.com or call (310) 601-7956. For more information on the Mary Magdalene Project, visit www.mmp.org.

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