Max Goes to the Athena Film Festival

Last weekend, several Bitch Flicks writers were lucky enough to attend the Athena Film Festival (AFF) at Barnard College in New York. The festival bills itself as “a celebration of women and leadership,” and it’s a four-day extravaganza of women-centered and women-helmed films. I already wrote about Radical Grace, the terrific documentary about nuns fighting for social justice, and here is a whirlwind tour of some of the other highlights of my AFF weekend.

[caption id="attachment_8707" align="aligncenter" width="500"]SUPER RAD SUPER RAD[/caption]

Maidentrip

You may recall reading a few years ago about Laura Dekker, the then 14-year-old Dutch girl who had to battle the authorities to be permitted to sail solo around the world. Dekker won, and Jillian Schlesinger’s film Maidentrip tells the story of her journey.

Laura Dekker is, as you might expect from someone who sails solo around the world at an age when most of us are primarily concerned with acne and algebra, a fascinating figure. According to Schlesinger, in the course of her two years at sea, Dekker only shot ten hours’ worth of video diary footage, and so much of the film is reconstructed around ex post facto interviews. Dekker is an extraordinarily self-possessed and contemplative young woman. If she were twenty years older and male, somebody would write a film based on her life and it would be hailed as a remarkable character study of an enigmatic figure and win all the Academy Awards. We so rarely see people like Laura Dekker in our popular culture, where teenage girls are portrayed as insecure, frivolous, or catty, that this film is a much-needed counterweight to the bulk of film and TV. Rachel and Megan wrote a detailed review recently, which you should read if you haven’t already.

(Be aware, though, that this film might make you feel terrible about yourself. At 16, Laura Dekker had circumnavigated all 24,000-some miles of this planet. I just turned 25 and I still consider it an accomplishment if I can get out of bed in the morning.)

[caption id="attachment_8703" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Also, it made me kind of seasick. Also, it made me kind of seasick.[/caption]

Short Term 12

As a teenager in the UK, I watched embarrassing amounts of Tracy Beaker, so I have a soft spot for stories about kids in care. For a children’s show, I think Beaker set the bar quite high for realism and heartbreak without dissolving into schmaltz, and Short Term 12 definitely delivered on that front.

The center of the film is Brie Larson’s Grace, a young woman who works at a foster home, but the ensemble is crucial too, from starry-eyed naif Nate to sassy Luis. When difficult 15-year-old Jayden arrives at the home, Grace begins to suspect that the girl’s problems mirror her own painful past, and becomes determined to help her. Is that a cliché? Undeniably, but it’s pulled off with such deftness and sensitivity that I couldn’t help loving the film. Both the humor and the awfulness of daily life in a residential home really shine through, but it’s the crackling chemistry between Grace and Jayden that makes the film for me. Not quite sisters, not quite teacher/student, not quite friends, theirs is a mentor/mentee relationship that showcases female guidance at its best.

One interesting factoid about the film is that it began life as a short in which the Grace character was a man. Not having seen the short, I can’t directly compare the two versions, but there are some aspects that are clearly changes made for a female character. However, they seem reasonably organic, and Grace is such a developed character (and Brie Larson such a wonderful actor) that I mostly set aside my reservations about certain over-employed plot points.

short-term-12-poster

Regina

It’s no secret that awesome religious women are an especial enthusiasm of mine. Since the exclusion of women from the hierarchies of the Abrahamic faiths has been so thorough for so many centuries, the women who have left their mark on the traditions have tended to be particularly strong, determined, and fierce. Kind of like Beyonce, but with God instead of pop music.

Regina Jonas was the first fully ordained female rabbi, and she was certainly a very strong Jewish woman. Regina focuses on her life, from her childhood ambition toward the rabbinate to her untimely death in Auschwitz. Diana Groó’s film is poetic to a fault, offering frustratingly little context or explanation for its monochrome images, but it’s a fascinating story of an intriguing figure. To be honest, the film is more of a starting point for learning about the rabbi than a comprehensive source of information, but luckily there is more information about Regina Jonas on the web, and I am grateful to this film for bringing her to my attention.

[caption id="attachment_8705" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Rabbi Regina Jonas is taking precisely none of your shit. Rabbi Regina Jonas is taking precisely none of your shit.[/caption]

As well as these films, the Athena Film Festival gave me the opportunity to see some rather more film-festival-specific events, including a wonderful program of short films and a panel discussion in which some wonderful women film writers talked about the role of the Bechdel Test today (look out for a detailed write-up from one of my Bitch Flicks colleagues soon). My Athena weekend was terrific, and I can’t wait for AFF 2015.

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Max Thornton blogs at Gay Christian Geek, tumbles as trans substantial, and is slowly learning to twitter at @RainicornMax. He got to meet NPR’s Linda Holmes at AFF, which was very exciting for him.