A Bright Legacy

Barnard filmmakers bring stories to light

By Michael Blanding

If ever there were a time to celebrate women in film, it’s now, as the ugliness of Hollywood’s old boy’s network has finally lurched into public view and two of last year’s most popular movies—Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi—featured fierce female leads.

Barnard has been celebrating women leaders on film since 2011 through its Athena Film Festival. “We all know that women in positions of leadership are lacking in all areas and in all industries,” says Festival Operations Manager Kristin Molloy. “The Festival is a way to address that.”

Sponsored by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, the Festival is open to films regardless of their director’s gender. But it’s not surprising that two-thirds of the films it screens have been made by women. This year’s events, to be held February 22-25, will feature Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, about the 1940s actor who also patented a radio system credited as the basis of modern Bluetooth technology; Mankiller, a documentary about Native American activist Wilma Mankiller; and I Am Evidence, about the rape-kit-testing backlog. The Festival also features networking events and panel discussions, many addressing the impediments to women working in film.

Over the years, the Festival has featured films by alumnae. Here is a selection of five recent films by Barnard filmmakers, which will screen at the Festival or elsewhere this year.


Signe Taylor ’87, It’s Criminal

Stills from "It's Criminal"

Early on in Signe Taylor’s documentary It’s Criminal, two women meet each other for the first time: Malika, a thirty-five-year old biracial mother of two, is locked up on drug charges. Georgia, a blond, fresh-faced Dartmouth College student, is part of a class visiting a prison to help inmates write a play about their experiences. All Malika can see are Georgia’s pearl earrings. “I felt like, ‘How dare she wear those here?’ ” Malika says in the film. “I hated her.” The earrings remind her of the gulf of privilege that separated them, and also of the pearl earrings her mother wore—and the way she’d let her parents down.

Taylor first filmed the class as a freelance videographer and immediately realized its potential. “Films about incarceration issues can show things that go wrong in people’s lives. But it’s rare that you also see how privilege and things that go right can put people on a path to success,” Taylor says. In It’s Criminal, both students and prisoners defy easy stereotypes, learning from each other as they work together to create a shared vision. Some of their relationships continue after the film; when Malika got married after her release, Georgia gave her a pair of pearl earrings as a wedding present.


Julia Kennedy ’13, Beads

For such a short film, Beads carries with it an emotional gut-punch, as a young African American girl named Dahlia who wears beads in her hair confronts the prejudices of a white teacher who views them as a distraction and takes dramatic action to remove them. Based on a real incident, the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of the teacher’s actions. But at the heart of the film is a sweet friendship between Dahlia and a white friend, who play superheroes together and support each other through the conflict.

“I thought it could be a great story to help young people,” says Kennedy, who is biracial herself. As producer, Kennedy helped the writers and directors refine the story, and participated in the casting. “I have a slightly different perspective on racial issues than someone who is black or white,” she says. “I am able to go between both worlds.”


Sandra Luckow, Adjunct Assistant Professor, That Way Madness Lies. . .

Sandra Luckow has worked on more than a dozen films. But none is more personal than her latest, financed in large part by Athena Film Festival founder Regina K. Scully; the film will be screened at a special Athena Center event in April.

When Luckow’s brother started developing late-onset paranoid schizophrenia, he began filming himself during episodes of psychosis. He gave the footage to Luckow to prove his persecution, but instead opened a rare window into his madness. She began using the footage, initially with his permission, to create a portrait of mental illness that even most doctors don’t see. At the same time, she began documenting her family’s frustrations in trying to navigate the mental health and criminal justice systems to get him help, systems she describes as “vast and broken.”


Taylor Nagel ’13, There Are No Brothers Here

For most of us in the US, the Syrian civil war emerges as a series of confusing new reports. A new short produced by Taylor Nagel, There Are No Brothers Here, seeks to make the conflict more accessible, with an emotional drama about a captured rebel being interrogated by a secret police agent. “They are both struggling for a Syria that they are imagining and they are both trapped in the roles they are playing,” Nagel says. The result is a tense cat-and-mouse game between two men on opposite sides of a war.

The film was written and directed by Emma LeBlanc, a journalist and anthropologist who worked in Syria. She wove actual stories of detained Syrian protesters into the script. Nagel and LeBlanc also cast Syrian refugees living in the US to play the two roles. “We hear the headlines,” Nagel says. “But we don’t have a lot of human stories or faces to make sense of a lot of these experiences.”


Tiffany Kontoyiannis ’16, A Day on My Wheels

Tiffany Kontoyiannis was impressed by classmate Sarah Kim ’17 even before she made a film with and about her. They had been in a philosophy class together, and despite a speech impediment from cerebral palsy, Kim was one of the most talkative students. “I remember thinking, ‘I love this girl. She is not afraid to speak up. She doesn’t let her disability stop her,’ ” Kontoyiannis says.

Kontoyiannis contacted Kim about making a film about her life, and Kim responded with a passionate letter about the difficulties she faces—not only in navigating the world physically, but also in dealing emotionally with other students’ prejudices. Kontoyiannis was so moved that she used the letter as the voiceover text for the film, A Day on My Wheels, which is intercut with scenes of Kim managing her daily routines—getting out of bed, taking a taxi, getting on the subway. The film, which appeared at last year’s Athena Festival, is ultimately about someone thriving despite adversity. “Her life may be harder,” says Kontoyiannis, “but because of that, she has a perspective many of us will never have.” •

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