This past weekend I had the ultimate experience for a female culture vulture like myself at the Athena Film Festival. Several days prior to the festival, I interviewed Melissa Silverstein, editor of Women & Hollywood and co-founder of the festival, about the event. We were talking about why there is a need for a festival for and about women’s equality in 2015 and she told me this:
“There is not a lack of talent for women in film, there’s a lack of opportunity.”
She and her co-founder, Kathryn Kolbert, weren’t the only ones aware of the lack of strong female leads in movies, but they felt a need to address a Hollywood disconnect – why were there so few opportunities for women in film when movies with female protagonists gross 20% more than films about men.
And so the festival was born. Named after Athena, the Greek mythological goddess of both arts and war, it highlights women who appear on screen, but also celebrates women and leadership in the filmmaking industry. This was my first experience attending Athena and I have to say that it was far superior to anything I’d ever imagined. I knew I’d be surrounded by fellow film lovers, feminists, students (it takes place at Barnard, after all), people with similar interests but I don’t think I realized how many people attend or just how amazing the programming would be. As someone who seeks out chances to improve social justice and human rights and tries to make a difference, the line up spoke directly to me.
Here are a few highlights of the festival:
Going in, I needed inspiration and I got it at my first screening of Chicago Girl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator. It’s the true story of a Alaa Basatneh, an American teenage girl who used social media to coordinate the revolution in Syria. Armed with Facebook, Twitter, Skype and camera phones, she helped her social network “on the ground” in Syria brave snipers and shelling in the streets to show the world the human rights atrocities of a dictator. The story is compelling, heart-breaking (as we watch her friends get murdered in Syria for striking back), and most of all, inspiring, as we watch how one young girl used social media for social good and made a major difference in the world.
Dear White People is a modern take on racism, sexuality and gender, written and directed by Out writer Justin Simien. It focuses on four diverse black characters navigating life in a predominantly white university. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, this film comes across like a comedy, but it’s actually a very serious look at racism. Black students, whether they’re politically involved or assimilating, have trouble fitting in and are more vulnerable than ever on college campuses and beyond, and that translates to the reality all over America. The film includes news clippings about real life racist attacks and brings the truth home in a very big way. The cinema was completely packed, largely with students, everyone riveted and glued to the screen. I hope it gets serious distribution in the days to come and you have the opportunity to see Dear White People.
Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up featured Rosie O’Donnell doing a little bit of everything in a “hybrid” standup that talks about her recent heart attack and her experience with heart disease. Presented by Sheila Nevins and her superb documentary team at HBO, the film is an hour long intimate look at Rosie’s family, using humor to bring the conversation to the time she had a massive heart attack. I was lucky enough to hear from the comedienne and three cardiologists about the severity of heart disease and how much more common it is to have heart problems than cancer nowadays. It was the day after her announcement that she is leaving The View and splitting up with her spouse, and she was full of jokes about her next gig and sincere that every loving thing she said about her soon to be ex-wife is true.
I was only able to go to the festival for a day. Next year I plan to go for the festival in its entirety, no question. To stay on top of ticket information and more for next year, sign up for festival announcements here.
Disclosure: I was provided with a press pass to facilitate an article I wrote on The Broad Side, but all opinions expressedare my own.