The Athena Film Festival: Pushing the Conversation Forward


This is a guest post by Josh Ralske.

The Athena Film Festival has grown more ambitious with each passing year, and this year, its fifth, is no different. The festival’s co-founders, Kathryn Kolbert of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, and Artistic Director Melissa Silverstein of Indiewire‘s Women and Hollywood, spoke with us about this year’s festival and the scant progress women filmmakers have made in Hollywood in recent years.

This year’s festival has gotten unprecedented media attention for its premiere of Dan Chaykin’s Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up and for Lifetime Achievement honoree Jodie Foster. The opening night film, Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher, is a documentary about Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute from Chicago who has turned her life around and devoted herself to helping other women and girls break free of the cycle of abuse and exploitation.

[caption id="attachment_18273" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Rosie O’Donnell Rosie O’Donnell[/caption]


“Once I saw Dreamcatcher and I saw this amazing woman, Brenda, I just knew that it was our movie,” Silverstein tells me. “It’s just one of these stories of people that are doing amazing work in their communities that you would never see. We’re thrilled to be able to share the story at its New York premiere.”

“We’re looking for films that are inspiring and that can demonstrate positive social change in ways that demonstrate women’s agency, their ability to make a difference,” Kolbert explains, “and I think Dreamcatcher really fulfills all of those goals. It’s a particularly inspiring film, and one in which individual women have worked together to make a difference in the lives of women who have lived as prostitutes and wanted to come out of that world.”

[caption id="attachment_18274" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Still from Dreamcatcher Still from Dreamcatcher[/caption]


Dreamcatcher‘s themes fit perfectly with the festival’s unique goals and mission. “We’re a unique festival in that we tell the stories of women in leadership roles,” Kolbert says. “We show films that are made by both men and women, as long as women are the protagonists of the story.”

As the festival’s main programmer, Silverstein works at finding a balance between “movies that have been overlooked,” and “great stuff that might have been playing at their multiplex that they missed.”

[caption id="attachment_18277" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Co-Founders of the Athena Film Festival, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein Co-Founders of the Athena Film Festival, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein[/caption]


“What I try to do is curate a conversation,” she explains. “So I want to be able to have foreign movies, movies about women leaders in all different areas: in music, in science, in sports. It just shows the breadth and the depth of what women’s experiences are, and that’s what I try to do.”

While Silverstein is often frustrated by what studios will send to the small but steadily growing festival, sometimes she sees a film that she knows immediately they need to show. That was the case at the Berlinale last year, where she saw Athena’s Closing Night film, Difret, Ethiopian-born filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s drama of a teenage girl who responds violently when she’s abducted into marriage, and the bold young lawyer who takes her case. “The second I saw that movie, I knew that it had to play Athena,” Silverstein states, “and I have been like a rabid dog trying to get that movie.”

[caption id="attachment_18275" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Difret Difret[/caption]


This year’s festival also includes some higher profile films, including the Centerpiece, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s underseen backstage drama, Beyond the Lights, featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver, screening Saturday with the filmmaker, who’s receiving an award from the festival, in attendance. Filmmaker Gillian Robespierre will also be on hand for Satuday’s screening of her bluntly funny Obvious Child. The racially charged indie comedy Dear White People and Lukas Moodysson’s buoyant punk rock coming-of-age film We Are the Best! will also screen this weekend.

Then there’s actor-director-producer Foster’s well-deserved honor, the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award. “Foster has been a quiet leader,” Silverstein says. “She’s been pushing the boundaries. She started to direct, as an actress before other actresses did that.” As an actor, Foster’s career highlights expanded Hollywood’s vision of the type of roles women could play. “The roles that she won the Academy Award for … The Accused was about gang rape, and that was in the late ’80s. That wasn’t a subject matter that was discussed at that time, and she really took that on,” Silverstein points out, “and then with Silence of the Lambs, she was really ahead of the curve. I think that’s what the Athena Film Festival wants to be, and Jodie embodies that.”

[caption id="attachment_18276" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Beyond the Lights Beyond the Lights[/caption]


As a director, Foster hasn’t made a feature since 2011’s The Beaver, starring her embattled friend Mel Gibson. Like many talented women directors, she’s turned to the small screen, directing episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. She has a new feature in pre-production, Money Monster, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

I asked both Kolbert and Silverstein if 2015’s successful films directed by women, including Obvious Child, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and Amma Asante’s Belle, which opened the festival last year, offer cause for optimism. I pointed out that Michelle MacLaren had been hired to direct the upcoming DC Comics adaptation of Wonder Woman for Warner Bros., based on the strength of her television work, including several outstanding episodes of Breaking Bad. Neither was particularly sanguine about what these milestones mean for women in Hollywood as a whole.

[caption id="attachment_18279" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Jodie Foster Jodie Foster[/caption]


“In the film industry, I don’t see a lot of progress,” Kolbert states, “except for the fact that now the paucity of women in film has become an issue that’s discussed.”

“The numbers have been really static for the last decade,” Silverstein points out. “We did a survey at Women and Hollywood from 2009 to 2013, and 5 percent of all the studio films were directed by women and only 10 percent of the indie films were directed by women.” She doesn’t mince words about the backward attitude those numbers reflect. “That’s just abysmal. We’re half the world. And we don’t get the opportunities. It’s not a lack of talent; it’s a lack of opportunities.”

[caption id="attachment_18278" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Gina Prince-Bythewood Gina Prince-Bythewood[/caption]


Silverstein agrees with Kolbert that at least people are talking about the issues involved, as in the Academy’s recent snub of DuVernay, which Kolbert bluntly calls “a travesty.” As Silverstein sees it, “The progress has been in this robust, wonderful, inquisitive, and actually angry conversation about the lack of opportunities for women. I will be very happy when the numbers move to where the conversation is.”

The Athena Film Festival is playing a part in moving things along. That’s why it also includes a practical element, with Seed & Spark’s Emily Best giving a workshop on crowdfunding, and industry leaders Prince-Bythewood, Cathy Schulman, and Stephanie Laing providing Master Classes in their respective fields. “We’ve been very lucky,” Silverstein says. “People have given their time to come in and share and teach, because we want to inspire people. The goal, really, is to just allow girls to dream and to believe that they could be directors and producers and writers, and for boys to see women can do this, too.” Silverstein hopes the message they take away is, “Everybody can be successful. It’s about talent. It shouldn’t be about your gender.”

Kolbert makes a similar point. “My goal for the festival is that over the long term, when you think of leadership, you’re going to picture women,” she says, rejecting the traditional image of “a white guy with a little gray hair at his temples.” She sums up the Athena Film Festival’s mission nicely, quoting Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”


Josh Ralske is a freelance film writer based in New York. He has written for MovieMaker Magazine and All Movie Guide.