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Seeing film through a new lens

On the first night of the first ever Athena Film Festival, I was sitting in the dimly lit Diana Oval waiting for the screening of “Desert Flower,” a movie about nomad-turned-supermodel Waris Dirie, to begin. The last flickers of light died down and the screen lit up. Talking ceased as a pre-feature clip sang out: “I will not be afraid of women...”

On the first night of the first ever Athena Film Festival, I was sitting in the dimly lit Diana Oval waiting for the screening of “Desert Flower,” a movie about nomad-turned-supermodel Waris Dirie, to begin. The last flickers of light died down and the screen lit up. Talking ceased as a pre-film video sang out: “I will not be afraid of women...”

The P.S.A by the Women’s Media Center presented some shocking statistics: males constitute 77% of film critics, 86% of films have no female writers, females show five times more skin from G to R rated films, women write fewer than 25% of op-eds, and a mere 8% of film writers are female. After the video ended, the audience’s shift in focus became apparent. I heard the girl on my right whisper to her friend, “That’s crazy. That’s absolutely crazy.”

I couldn’t help but stop and really digest what I had just learned: I ran through a mental list of my favorite movies. How many of them portrayed powerful female leads? How many addressed serious topics? How many of those films only portrayed women in overly sexualized roles? Before the first film of the festival even began, I was beginning to understand the greater implications of the Athena Film Festival hosted at Barnard. I was starting to see the celebratory aspects of the festival were closely intertwined with the critical components. To put it bluntly, the presence of women in film still strongly highlights gender inequality in media, and on a bigger scale, in the world. It became obvious why the Film Festival had grown out of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies.

The line-up of films was meant to challenge the audience and spark discourse. Everyone surrounding me was moved from laughter to tears multiple times during “Desert Flower,” which tackled the topic of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I left feeling empowered; I couldn’t help but talk about the film with my friends who had seen it, too. FGM is something that we all knew existed, but is rarely ever brought to the forefront of our minds. The power of film was striking; within a mere two hours the audience was moved through multiple emotional states of being.

The next day, I attended the Hollywood Conversations discussion featuring a Barnard alumna, Greta Gerwig ’06 and Leslie Bennetts, a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair. I couldn’t help but note the connection I felt with Gerwig as she candidly answered questions ranging from her past challenges to her future aspirations. She exuded an unassuming confidence, and the interview reassured me that Barnard was exactly where I wanted to grow intellectually for the next three years.

By the end of the weekend, I had attended multiple movies and discussions. It was pretty clear that the film festival was meant as more than just a collection of fabulous films that women had helped make. To me, it seemed like the whole overarching point was to say we need to congratulate what has been accomplished, and we need to critically examine women’s underrepresentation in media. I came away from the weekend feeling inspired to learn more, to tell others, and to view films through a new lens.