‘The Founders,’ doc on female golfers, premieres at Atlanta Film Fest

“The Founders,” a documentary on women’s golf, includes a scene that speaks volumes about the changing role of women in athletics and in American public life.

Premiering at the Atlanta Film Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary April 1-10, “The Founders” captures the moment when aging Atlanta native Louise Suggs, who helped create the Ladies Professional Golf Association, is wheeled into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., and sees a 6-foot photograph of herself in the museum’s first-ever exhibit on great women of golf.

Tears fill her eyes. “You know, it’s the first time I’ve ever been up there with the big boys,” she says.

This is the Louise Suggs described by her biographers as “hard as nails,” a woman tough enough to deal with the daily slights aimed at female athletes. (While on tour, the LPGA players had to stage “fashion shows” during their tournaments to keep interest going.)

During that movie scene, which was among the last interviews that Suggs would give before she died last year, the frustrations of the past, the happiness of being recognized, all came together. “We had no idea that was going to happen,” said filmmaker Charlene “Charlie” Fisk.

Fisk’s co-director, Carrie Schrader, said the moment was also moving for her. “I felt grateful, grateful that she felt thanked, that she was appreciated after all the sacrifices that she made.”

The movie premieres at 9:15 p.m. April 4 at Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta.

Schrader also saw a mirror of her own life as a female filmmaker. “What women in the film industry are doing now is what ‘the founders’ did back then,” Schrader said. “While making this film, we felt like the founders in a whole different way, with the obstacles we faced in getting this film off the ground.”

Like the women in their documentary, Schrader and Fisk, both Atlantans, banded together with their colleagues to strengthen their cause, helping found an Atlanta chapter of the worldwide group Film Fatales.

And they’ve had an impact. Female filmmakers now have a significant presence at the Atlanta Film Festival.

The New Mavericks section of the 2013 festival (created to honor female filmmakers) grew to include feature films in 2014, and then expanded last year to include a summer film series.

This year, Atlantan Sara Blakely, creator of the Spanx line of shapewear, has funded a $5,000 prize for the best feature film in the New Mavericks block, which, together with the 25 short films from women, comprises more than three dozen movies.

Schrader stresses that the reason they make movies is not to even things up for the female gender, but to tell great stories. “We have a passion for great stories, heroes and heroines, and these women, the founders, are heroines.”

Yet they were delighted to find not just one, but 13 strong female protagonists among “The Founders.” The movie was born at a wedding. Fisk, who also served as director of photography and editor, was at her own wedding reception four years ago, when her new father-in-law whispered in her ear, “I’ve got a good idea for a story.”

The idea: tell about the 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. Fisk began tracking them down, and when she contacted one of the youngest founders, Marlene Bauer Vossler, the golfer told her, “Well, y’all better hurry, ‘cause there are only four of us left.”

Eventually Fisk and Schrader and their collaborators spoke with all four survivors and uncovered boxes of films from the old days, including wonderful images of the multisport champion Babe Zaharias working out on a speed bag before one of her boxing competitions.

Looking at Zaharias’ muscular legs and arms as she punches away, one sees a premonition of the Venus Williamses and Florence Joyners of the future, and every other female athlete who is as ripped as any male athlete and is still a woman. This wasn’t considered proper in 1950, despite Zaharias’ many accomplishments.

“She may be one of the best female athletes in that century,” said Fisk. “She might be one of the best athletes, period, male or female,” said Schrader.

Louise Suggs was frequently in Zaharias’ shadow, and part of the drama in the documentary is the rivalry between the two. Comedian Bob Hope called Suggs “Miss Sluggs,” a clue to her no-nonsense persona. “There’s always somebody not in the limelight, behind the scenes, making things happen,” Schrader said of Suggs. “She was that person.”

The liveliest of the four survivors may have been Detroit native Shirley Spork, who gave long, chatty interviews, then took the filmmakers out on the golf course to play a few rounds. “Shirley Spork, still at age of 89, will play nine holes,” said Fisk, “and will school you, too, will teach you all along the way.”

Fisk said making the movie was an enlightening experience, but it hasn’t lowered her score. “I wish I could say it’s improving my golf game,” she said, “but I spent too much time making the film and not enough time on the golf course.”

The Atlanta Film Festival offers 200 films, including shorts, features and documentaries, 37 educational conferences and more than a dozen special events and presentations.

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