Championing First-Time Filmmakers

At the upcoming Athena Film Festival, emerging filmmakers tackle huge issues in the film shorts program

By Tom Stoelker

Black man in a grassy yard claps

From its inception, the Athena Film Festival has fostered first-time filmmakers. This year’s edition, which runs in person from March 2 through 5, is no exception. With the shorts program alone, 40% of the directors are first-time or student filmmakers. “We know shorts are an important stepping stone to big-time filmmaking,” says Victoria Lesourd, chief of staff at the Athena Center for Leadership. “It’s through shorts as well as other initiatives — like the new Programming Fellowship — that we are giving Barnard students and burgeoning filmmakers an opportunity to break into the industry.”

In addition, the festival nurtures a diversity of talent that convey stories and perspectives that might not otherwise reach the screen. Of the 15 shorts, 87% were directed by women, and 67% were directed by people of color. “Women, people of color, nonbinary individuals have historically faced incredible barriers in the film and entertainment industry,” says Lesourd. “Given our home at Barnard, we are deeply committed to leadership and talent development, particularly for groups who often get overlooked by the film industry.”

Here are six standouts from the shorts program, highlighting women-centric projects primarily by up-and-coming women and nonbinary filmmakers:

Dorothy Oliver is the definition of Alabama charm. Filmmakers Jeremy S. Levine and Rachael DeCruz capture the convenience shop owner in the documentary The Panola Project (photo, above), in which Oliver goes out of her way to get her neighbors vaccinated for COVID-19 by going door-to-door in her rural Black community. Back at the store under a makeshift vaccination tent, like a loving yet persistent auntie, she cajoles and charms the reluctant residents to get the shot and stay healthy.

Of the many issues raised by the Canadian government’s history of forced assimilation policies toward native peoples, the abuse endured by children at the church-run, government-funded residential schools is perhaps the most unsettling. There’s a scene in the documentary The Road Back to Cowessess in which an alumna of the infamous Marieval Indian Residential School of Saskatchewan stares out at a school-adjacent field of recently discovered unmarked graves of more than 750 people, including many students whose names may never be known. Sobbing, she declares that her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s grandchildren will know about these graves: “They’re not gonna forget this.” Sean Parenteau’s film follows the painful journey of six alumnae survivors as they return to the school grounds to pay their respects.

In Rebecca van der Meulen’s To Wade or Row, the filmmaker deftly portrays the new normal of covert abortions. When Jane visits a small-town motel with her boyfriend, an exchange of coded questions with the receptionist assures Jane that she is not only at the right place but in a safe space — a notion that gets upended when the local sheriff pays an unexpected visit during Jane’s procedure.

Protesters march down a street in CANS Can’t Stand
CANS Can’t Stand

Megan Plotka and Matt Nadel’s CANS Can’t Stand centers on how Black trans activists successfully fought to stop the arrests of women of trans experience under Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) law, which has been used to terrorize their community. The film weaves together historical context with short testimonials given by queer and trans people who have been arrested under the law and subsequently abused by the police. While the film ultimately shows how activists advance trans liberation statewide, it’s their harrowing testimonials that stick. The film’s co-producer, activist Wendi Cooper, speaks of a police officer who misgendered her, laughed at her, hit her with a billy club — knocking out several teeth — and, after she was released, raped her.

2 women's faces, close up, as they look straight up, from Still Waters
Still Waters

Still Waters is a documentary by Aurora Brachman that lives up to its name. This incongruously beautiful film deals with the long-term aftereffects of child abuse. A daughter asks her mother a question about her mother’s childhood. Her answer prompts them to contemplate the rippling effects of abuse throughout their lives.

2 nude cartoon women, one handing an apple to the other
Lilith & Eve

In a lighter vein, the laugh-out-loud animated short Lilith & Eve by Sam de Ceccatty kicks off with that awkward moment when the first woman on earth meets ... the first first woman on earth. In this feminist reimagining of the Adam and Eve myth, Eve accidentally bumps into Lilith, Adam’s first wife and his equal. Needless to say, Lilith has a thing or two to explain to Eve about eating apples and accepting subservience to Adam.


Latest IssueSpring 2023