Athena Film Festival Goes Virtual

This year, the festival transformed its signature event into a virtual program, streaming a record number of films about women leaders directly to viewers’ devices

By Lauren Mahncke

A woman shouts into a megaphone

The 11th annual Athena Film Festival — co-founded by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership and Women and Hollywood — might not have welcomed the usual crowds to its annual celebration this year, but it did break new barriers, reaching a global audience with its robust programming. Streaming over 75 films directly into viewers’ living rooms, this first-ever virtual festival responded to the past year’s unique challenges while celebrating women’s efforts to solve them.

The festival — held throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month — celebrated fearless women in leadership roles, with over 89% of the films directed by people who identify as women or nonbinary and over 50% of directors identifying as people of color. The virtual format provided audiences with the opportunity to watch shorts and feature-length films anywhere in the United States, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, in addition to viewing prerecorded panels and conversations.

“I am so proud of how the festival team pivoted our operations and programming to be responsive to this moment and to leverage the opportunities that emerged from a virtual format,” says Umbreen Bhatti ’00, Constance Hess Williams ’66 Director of the Athena Center. “Year-over-year, this signature event continues to grow, connect with new audiences, engage more filmmakers, and advance the conversation around gender equity.”

The festival kicked off on March 1 with the U.S. premiere of Tracey Deer’s Beans, a coming-of-age story that highlighted often-marginalized Indigenous voices by exploring the 1990 Oka Crisis. And there was plenty more to see, with a curated lineup that offered nine shorts programs, more than 20 panels and Q&As, and a slate of documentary and narrative features. 

As we’ve grappled with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, resiliency has become all the more important. The festival shined a spotlight on this very topic through their program area Resilience Through Uncertainty, showcasing films about women leading with compassion and perseverance through the most difficult circumstances. Julia Scotti: Funny That Way tackles the complexities of gender dysphoria, identity, and healing with the story of comedian Rick Scotti, whose gender awakening at age 47 led to hormonal treatments, surgery, and a new identity as Julia Scotti — and the loss of her family, friends, and career. Susan Sandler’s documentary tracks Julia’s comedic comeback, life on the road, and reunion with her children, bringing a bit of laughter and relief to a year that has challenged us all.

For far too long, women have been sidelined or underrepresented in the sciences. The Making It Happen: Women in STEM program area, supported by the festival’s partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helps right this wrong with films like Picture a Scientist. Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney’s documentary features scientific luminaries that overcame sexism, institutionalized discrimination, and more to help make science more diverse and equitable. 

Unapologetic, directed by Ashley O’Shay, bravely tackles another epidemic that continues to plague America: institutionalized racism and police brutality. The documentary, which follows abolitionists Janaé and Bella as they work within the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago, received this year’s Breakthrough Award. The $25,000 award, sponsored by Netflix, recognizes first- and second-time filmmakers whose film hasn’t received U.S. distribution. 

While this year’s virtual festival may have come to a close, the program lives on as a year-round educational platform, advancing women in film. The Parity Pipeline Program provides opportunities to help women storytellers hone their craft and promote their projects by offering screenwriting labs, the Athena List annual script competition, and unique funding opportunities, such as the Alfred P. Sloan Athena List Development Grant for a woman pursuing a science-themed working project.

“In a year that has been so difficult for the world — and the arts community — I am deeply grateful to our network of loyal sponsors who came together in support of Athena this year,” says Victoria Lesourd, the Athena Center’s chief of staff. “Women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19, and I am so glad that through our festival we are creating a space for women to come together, share their stories, and be in community.” 

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