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Through the Gates: Athena Film Festival Showcases Barnard Women

President Debora Spar, Regina K. Scully, CEO and founder, Artemis Rising Foundation, Debra Martin Chase, Martin Chase Productions

 

In addition to screening an array of features, documentaries, and shorts about women and leadership, the fourth annual Athena Film Festival included two special events that focused on Barnard alumnae. The first was the panel Barnard in the Biz, moderated by Dean Avis Hinkson ’84. It featured a current student and two alumnae, all of whom work in the entertainment industry. Each woman represented a different aspect of the business. Naomi Foner ’66 is an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter who recently added the title “director” to her résumé. She is also the mother of internationally renowned actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Nancy Gates ’89 marks her 18th year as an agent at United Talent Agency, with a client list that includes Patrick Dempsey, Elizabeth Hurley, Liv Tyler, Lake Bell, Michael J. Fox, Minnie Driver, and Brooke Shields. After acting professionally in her hometown of St. Louis, Ariane Rinehart ’15 made her television debut last fall as Liesl in NBC’s live telecast of The Sound of Music.

The three shared stories of resilience, perseverance, and determination. Foner described the making of Running on Empty, her 1988 film about an activist couple on the run, for which she received a Golden Globe Award for best original screenplay. After she submitted her script, the studio requested a rewrite inconsistent with her vision for the film. “It was directly contrary to everything I was trying to say,” Foner explained. “It was antithetical to why I wrote the film. It was the first time I said ‘no,’ and I was fired. I was a little heartbroken because this was a script that I cared enormously about, with a subject I cared enormously about, and really wanted to see happen.”

Months later she received a call to meet with Sidney Lumet, who had a deal with the studio that enabled him to read all scripts that had been submitted. He also had the go-ahead to make several pictures exactly as he envisioned them, as long as he stayed within budget. “We made the movie,” said Foner. “About a year and a half later...I met the executive who had fired me in a shoe store. He had just been fired and I had just been nominated for an Academy Award. I realized it’s extremely important to follow your creative and personal instinct.”

Rinehart said being a young actress requires carefully balancing optimism with realism. It is important to have a good support system and people who believe in you. “It’s about trying not to be too optimistic and trying not to be too hard on myself,” she said. “I’m so happy that I’m at Barnard seeing a lot of intelligent women going out into the industry making intelligent choices.” Being a full-time student keeps her engaged in intellectual pursuits, so that the highs and lows of acting don’t become all consuming. Gates made the point that women have to become better at supporting one another. “[Men] are good at advocating for themselves,” Gates said. “They’re good at networking among themselves in an organic way. Women, I’d like to see that more.
“I don’t have the answer,” she added. “To be honest with you, at the end of the day I’d rather go home to see my kid and my husband than go to a Lakers or a Knicks game.”

Foner also discussed what she considers the power of film and television to change people’s perspectives. “If you can tell someone a story about a particular, very specific human being and you can make somebody feel something about that human being and the situation they’re in, [the audience] will inevitably think about it,” Foner said. “You can reach so many people through film, television, and the Internet that it’s actually a political action if you think of it that way.”
Both Foner and Gates talked about the pull between motherhood and career. Gates said that just that morning, her daughter and her husband had both asked whether she’d be home that evening. Work demands sometimes keep her away. Having only one child was a conscious decision: she wanted to give her daughter as much time as possible.

Naomi Foner

Foner suggested women should stop looking at their careers as now or never. Young children can take priority, but eventually they will leave the nest and there will be time to refocus on a career. “Being with children when they’re a certain age is really urgent and important,” said Foner. “I often pursued my career in order to be there for my kids when they came home from school. What I didn’t know when I was doing that was that I would have this huge, wide part of my life [when] I wasn’t with my kids, and I could do all these things without any kind of feeling of being torn to pieces,” she added. “There are ages of your life. You can make choices based on knowing that they’re coming.”

Following the panel was the screening of the film American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs ’35, now 98, attended the screening and spoke before the film was shown and answered audience questions after. The film, which poses as many questions as it answers, captures her life as a writer, activist, and philosopher and explores her connection to the civil rights movement through historic footage and interviews shot over a 10- year period by the filmmaker, who is also named Grace Lee.

“My mother did not know how to read and write because she was born in a little Chinese village where there were no schools for females,” said Boggs. “My father owned a restaurant. I was born on top of the restaurant. When I cried, the waiter said, ‘Leave her on the hillside to die because she’s only a girl baby.’” She added, “I think it’s important to say these things because one of the reasons why I work for change is because I was born female.” Boggs said when she was at Barnard, she was one of only four students of color. Barnard and the world have changed greatly since then, which is both exhilarating and scary. “When one race, which has dominated, feels that it’s lost its supremacy, it feels endangered,” she said. “A lot of things are happening in this country now I think that people do not realize are dangerous.”

Boggs, who earned a PhD in 1940, recently completed her fifth book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, in which she discusses the emergence of urban gardens and farms, and how they not only provide sustenance but also reconnect communities.

When asked how activists can avoid burnout, Boggs, who has lived in Detroit for 60 years, said people have to realize they are part of transformation. She also noted that she chose not to have children because she did not see how she could balance motherhood with the civil rights work to which she was committed. “If you have a sense of history, it will give you strength, give you power, grow your souls,” she said. “We have the opportunity to grow our souls. Not as a thing, but as a capacity to create the world anew. That’s the time in which we’re living. If you have that sense of history, you realize that we can grow.”

(Above, Grace Lee Boggs)

 

—By Lois Elfman '80
—Photographs by Asiya Khaki '09