The Athena Film Festival, running at Barnard from February 7th to 10th, celebrates films that deal with women and leadership. This year’s lineup includes everything from recent hits (Brave, Beasts of the Southern Wild) to festival favorites (Middle of Nowhere, Ginger and Rosa), as well as conversations and workshops. Lizzie Rodgers spoke to festival co-founders Kathryn Kolbert (director of the Athena Center for leadership studies at Barnard) and Melissa Silverstein (artistic director and editor of the blog Women and Hollywood) about their experiences running the festival, now in its third year.
Double Exposure: How did the idea of the Athena Film Festival come about?
Kathryn Kolbert: The festival started in 2010, Melissa was organizing an event for Jane Campion, the filmmaker, at Gloria Steinem’s house. I had just started at Barnard, went to the event, and together we met a number of filmmakers who all complained about the fact that stories about courageous women leaders were not making it to the big screen. So we decided to do something about it, and the Athena Film Festival was launched from there.
DE: How many submissions do you usually get for the film festival?
Melissa Silverstein: We pick our films in a variety of different ways. One way is that we scour film festivals from around the world. We also see what’s going on with things that are being released and things that are coming up. We also have a submission process where we ask people to send those in, and that lasts from June to September. Between all the different processes we’ve looked at about 200 movies.
DE: So how do you narrow it down to the few films we see at the Athena Film Festival?
MS: Well the goal is to have a holistic program that focuses on women’s leadership, so we look for a variety of different films that touch on leadership in different ways. We’ve had political films, we’ve had women leaders in their communities, we’ve had girl leaders, and this year is another sampling of all those types of movies. For example, we’re gonna show Beats of the Southern Wild which has a strong, girl character. Band of Sisters is a documentary about nuns working for social justice. We have a documentary on wonder woman and the impact of superheroes and the lack of female superheroes in our world and on and on. Fast Girls is an English feature about girls competing in the world championships [for track].
KK: Our films are directed by both women and men, but they key ingredient is that they are all stories about women in leadership roles. And if you take a look at the films we’ve shown over the last three years, you’ll see an amazing array of women playing leadership roles in just about every context you can imagine. And that’s an important goal that we have.
DE: What is the most important thing you’ve learned over the past three years doing this festival about women in film?
MS: Women in film or women in leadership?
MS: Well what I’ve learned about women in film is that there are just a wide variety of movies out there and that there are women and men making great films about this issue. And, in general, some of these films, people might not necessarily go see them when they’re out in the theater, but when you have them all in a curated program that focuses on leadership, people look at them a bit differently. So creating this kind of conversations helps them look at these movies in a new light.
KK: From my perspective, one of the important parts of the Athena Center is to help women excel and advance to leadership, so changing how our culture views leadership is really extraordinarily important. Today, when you get that blink if someone says what does a leader look like, most people, in the United States at least, will think of white men who are in their late 50s or early 60s. We want to change that. We want people to understand, to think about women in leadership roles, really, as often as they do men.
DE: Speaking of how people view films, do either of you use the Bechdel test while you’re watching films?
MS: We don’t necessarily have the Bechdel test as a part of the overview for the Athena Film Festival because, for example, there’s a film that has a woman political leader. We’re okay with that, even if it doesn’t pass that test because the vision is that each film in the festival has to have women’s leadership as a theme. I support the Bechdel test, because we need more women leads and speaking roles in films, and so any movie that passes the Bechdel test we’re very happy about, but there are movies that pass the Bechdel test that are not necessarily feminist or pro-women.
DE: Have you seen progress in the way women are portrayed in films and women working behind the camera since you’ve both been involved in film?
MS: There was a study released at Sundance looking at films that have been playing there for the last decade, and 30% of the filmmakers (the writers, the directors, the cinematographers, etc.) and about 25% of the directors are women. You can also look at the top grossing films; only 9% of them are directed by women. I’m happy to share the statistics but what both these things say, and show, is that progress is stagnant. Things have not changed over the last decade.
DE: And my last question is what do you see for the future of the festival?
KK: Well, it’s already big. Last year we had over 3,000 people here, this year we expect many more than that. We’ve had great award winners. On Thursday night we do the Athena Film Festival award ceremony. This year we’re honoring Gale Ann Hurd who’s an extraordinary producer with the lifetime achievement award. We are growing every year, adding new features. This year, in addition to the film festival, we have launched the Athena Global Shorts program with UN Women and we’re distributing shorts from the festival to women’s committees in at least 18 countries around the world in collaboration with the UN. We’re growing faster than we could have ever imagined, and we hope you come!
MS: And I want to add one more thing to that: this year one of the things that we are starting is the Works in Progress program. We’ll be featuring 6 films, 10 minutes from each of those films, and those directors will be able to put those films up in front of an audience to see what works, to ask questions, and to get inspiration. We’ve also been a partner in the creation of the International Women’s film festival network, and we are convening a meeting at the Berlin Film Festival to discuss the status of women directors, and that’s the first time that this conversation has happened on an international level.