Athena rising: Film fest at Barnard College celebrates achievements of women


As much inspiration as snow was in the wintry air at the just-wrapped Fourth Annual Athena Film Festival at Manhattan’s prestigious Barnard College. With film festivals now seeming to sprout on every corner around the globe, how fitting to have such an event on a college campus where cine-clubs and film societies have been so long a cherished tradition. And how even more fitting to have such a fest in what is arguably the capital of IndieWood and what’s poised to become the content capital of the world.

The Festival was four days of features, documentaries, shorts, talks, post-screening Q&As and other events focusing on women and leadership. Co-founders Kathryn Kolbert, of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, and Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood describe the mission of the Athena Film Festival as a celebration of women and leadership in all aspects by showing films featuring courageous women as protagonists and leaders who will inspire the next generation of trailblazers.

Most of the action took place in three buildings little more than a stone’s throw apart on Barnard’s Upper West Side campus across the street from Columbia University, with which Barnard is affiliated. Packed audiences in the large auditoriums were testimony to the fact that the Fest’s 11 features were the main attraction. That all screenings ran smoothly and all seats provided excellent viewing were testimony to a respect for detail, for audiences and for the medium itself.

The event and attendees were the lucky benefactors of Fox Searchlight’s Belle, which made its New York premiere in the opening-night slot. This gorgeous period drama from the U.K. tells the unlikely but fact-based story of a mixed-race, illegitimate woman raised in an aristocratic family who becomes instrumental in the country’s movement to abolish slavery. Additionally, a nice romance and an important courtroom drama run through it. And, oh what a cast: Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, “Downton Abbey”’s Penelope Wilton, and newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw starring.

Enthusiasm for the film was palpable and Fox Searchlight, which has already cut its teeth on 12 Years a Slave, should achieve similar success (if not attract entirely similar audiences) with this lighter, more elegant and female-focused take on a difficult subject. Fox appropriately releases the film on May 2, Mother’s Day.

Disney’s never-melting surprise blockbuster Frozen was another Fest highlight, and Barnard’s snowy campus provided attendees with the perfect white carpet to the festivities. No matter that Frozen still sizzles in theatres; the Athena turnout, including a large contingent of very well-behaved and engaged kids, was huge. The film, with its dazzling frozen world, underscored the importance of an original setting that befits the characters but allows audiences to lose themselves. The Arendelle sisters, were, of course, quite at home at a snow-shrouded festival celebrating women and leadership, but it was Olaf the funny, resilient snowman who, based on audience reaction, sparked the idea that he might very well be a good bet for a spinoff.

Also very well-received was Lake Bell’s art-house surprise In a World…, her hilarious, insider look into the niche world of Hollywood’s voiceover actors whose booming voices work so hard to summon consumers to buy tickets or take to their remotes.

Susan Seidelman’s recent comedy The Hot Flashes, which was actually written by a gay and proud male (her description), was an oft-amusing but familiar “tweener” that barely breathed on the big screen but is deservedly catching some breath on smaller screens. High in concept, middle as in middle-of-the-road, and low as in lowbrow small-town humor, the film (set in Texas, shot in New Orleans) stars Brooke Shields as a working-class wife who pulls together a middle-aged basketball team of women to raise money to save a much-needed mammogram mobile. Thanks to the lively direction and charming/sassy performances from Shields, Wanda Sykes, Daryl Hannah, Virginia Madsen and Camryn Manheim, the film has some charged moments.

Other notable female-skewed features in the lineup, which already had their theatrical runs but nevertheless packed the Athena auditoriums, included the Geoffrey Rush-starrer The Book Thief and Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto’s lesbian drama about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop’s love affair with a Brazilian architect.

Any festival worth its salt (even as strewn on some snowy campus paths) delivers revelations. At the Athena event these came by way of several docs that were stunning introductions (for many) to some exceptional, trailblazing women.

Most prominent were two extraordinarily inspiring portraits: American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, about the famed Chinese-American activist, brilliant scholar and Barnard grad (class of 1939) known for her unflagging work on behalf of civil rights and workers, and Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, about the late politician who, as an articulate speaker and effective champion of reforms and liberal causes, became the country’s first Vice-Presidential candidate when she ran alongside Fritz Mondale.

Boggs, in a wheelchair, took part in a memorable, even startling post-screening Q&A that revealed that her mind was as alive and acute as her belief in the importance of change (of society, of individuals) and the exchange of ideas.

Among the other noteworthy docs screened were Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, PBS’s portrait of the acclaimed writer which aired the preceding day, and Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, another must-see from cable.

And what’s a festival without an oddity or two? The doc Regina, which has a little narration but not enough explanation from backer Rachel Weisz, fits the bill. Aiming for a kind of cinematic poetry, the film is about the first fully ordained female rabbi, a Berlin woman who achieved renown during the Nazi era and who died at Auschwitz. The doc is a pile-up of rarely identified, random archival footage and voiceovers showing Berlin in the ’30s. Apparently there was only a single photograph of Regina extant, but the filmmakers, with so much anonymous found footage, do evoke the city and its Jewish community. (The footage of Nazis is more familiar, especially to doc fans.)

Like Boggs, many other women in post-screening conversations or giving event talks about their work in film shared interesting insights, ideas and reminders. In a pep talk, Walt Disney/ABC producer Debra Chase Martin (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Princess Diaries) touted chutzpah (at least the ability to approach people), studying (Harvard Law School served her well), finding good professional partners, and just plain good luck (meeting Denzel Washington and Frank Price paid off big-time). TV rather than film, she advised, is best for women because women, writing and creativity are more valued. Citing Fruitvale Station and its director Ryan Coogler who’s “now on everyone’s list,” she encouraged the film stalwarts to just make their movies.

Screenwriter Callie Khouri, who proved with Thelma & Louise, the first film she wrote and completed, that a movie about two women on a crime spree could work, advised attendees to begin with a good idea. And “watch, learn and pay attention.” Being in the right place and where films are being made paid off. (Her work at an L.A. production company got her to the film’s director, Ridley Scott.) And her strategy of writing only what she wants to see on the screen works. (She created and is currently producing TVs “Nashville” series.) Having written only a few features since her 1991 T&L breakout, Khouri owned up to her “low output” and that “nobody likes to write.” She also told FJI that a day doesn’t go by when she doesn’t think of writing another theatrical feature, even going the indie route.

Actress, director and writer honoree Kasi Lemmons (director of Eve’s Bayou and the more recent Black Nativity from Fox Searchlight) told FJI she believes the mid-range for indie movies these days—where her films fall—is especially challenging, as the better climate now is for the big and small films at the outer stretches. “It’s not terrible, but independent film is in a tricky place. More of the really small films can get made, but the new distribution models make the theatrical release really tough.”
The bad weather kept former Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing at home. She was to appear in person to receive Athena’s Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award but delivered an eloquent acceptance speech via video citing the late producer and Fox 2000 president Ziskin for making films not just about women but about women who inspire.

Sharing with FJI her experience with The Hot Flashes, Seidelman said that she and her screenwriter (brought together through an agent) pitched the studios, “but they weren’t interested unless a Meryl Streep were in the picture.” Financing finally began with a Silicon Valley woman with an interest in the film’s breast cancer subject. The movie’s brief flirtation with a few theatres “was really to sell DVDs.”
Athena honoree Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, told FJI that while the Institute has long supported feature filmmakers with fiction narratives and docs through its labs and film festival, Sundance has expanded its efforts on behalf of “storytellers,” those making short films and other short forms (even gaming), especially through its New Frontier Labs initiative. “It’s a matter of expansion. We’re now doing both old forms and new media but have not diminished our focus on features.”

Beyond its honorees, screenings and other events, Athena also flexed its advocacy muscles with pre-show slides like the four or five that conveyed woeful statistics like “In 2013, only 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors in the 250 top-grossing films were women” and “Among all the films shown at Sundance in 2013, 29% of the filmmakers were women and 71% were men.” Not a pretty picture among so many pretty pictures shown.

Inspiration at the event even came from live “shows” beyond the Athena program: There was an unexpected demonstration by local union members outside an event to celebrate leadership and the Fest’s honorees. These activists chanted and carried signs (“Sherry: Low-wage workers aren’t second class!”). Actually, the outburst, although disruptive, was inspiring because the demonstrators were well-behaved and mercifully brief and their plea for better wages for low earners is worthy.

A different kind of unexpected live show over the four-day event was provided by a large cast of unknowing extras: the many poised, gracious, friendly, bright and buoyant Barnard students, especially the many Athena volunteers and audience members, seen around campus. Their communal vibe was certainly inspiring, especially to older women who might have strolled grayer groves of “Seven Sister” academe decades ago.

Thus, (cue booming voiceover) “in a world” of so much disruption, how wonderful to be interrupted by an inspiring, entertaining and well-run festival event that celebrates women and leadership. And that can even boast the elasticity to include a restrained, if unanticipated, demonstration.