Barnard's eighth annual Athena Film Festival brought together more than 6,000 filmmakers, like J.J. Abrams and Barbara Kopple, and film lovers, 2,000 of whom were Barnard students, faculty, staff, alumnae or family members, to enjoy a range of films that elevated the power of women. The festival, which ran from February 22 to 25, honored “courageous and audacious” women depicted in recent films and the women who made them.
Demme Durrett ’19, who was one of more than 200 Barnard volunteers, said, “I am so proud of what the Athena Film Festival represents: lifting the voices of underrepresented women and ensuring that meaningful stories get told. As a Barnard junior, it's an incredible opportunity to have women that I've admired for my whole life, like Gloria Steinem, come to campus to celebrate women and the unique narratives being represented at this pivotal moment in the entertainment industry.”
The Opening Ceremony
The festival opened on Thursday evening with a standing room–only screening of Battle of the Sexes, which told the story of tennis legend Billie Jean King’s famous 1973 match against Bobby Riggs. King hosted a Q & A session following the film, and together with six-time national champion fencer Margaret Lu CC’17 discussed the impact of Title IX, the importance of representation and equality in sports, and King’s hopes for a new generation of activists.
President Sian Leah Beilock hosted a reception prior to the film, where she thanked Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and festival co-founder Kathryn Kolbert, who will retire in June, for her years of inspirational leadership. Festival co-founder and Artistic Director Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, also surprised Kolbert with an award recognizing her service during Friday’s awards gala.
The Athena Awards Gala
On Friday, the awards gala provided an opportunity to honor women’s accomplishments in the film industry and the men who champion them. Kopple, the director and producer of festival favorite Miss Sharon Jones!, received the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award. Kopple’s accomplishments include the Academy Award-winning documentaries Harlan County USA and American Dream, profiles of cultural icons, and projects focused on human rights issues: homeless veterans, U.S. gun culture, union strikes, the plight of women in the Middle East, and immigration law.
Amma Asante received this year’s Athena Award, presented by Barnard Center for Research on Women Director and Clare Tow and Ann Whitney Olin Professor Tina Campt, who worked with Asante on a film about the experiences of black German citizens during World War II. In 2004, Asante became the first black woman director to win a BAFTA Film Award, for her first film A Way of Life, and is best-known for her 2016 film A United Kingdom, starring Rosamund Pike and 2017 Athena Leading Man Award-winner David Oyelowo. Last year, she was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her services to film as a writer and director.
Cabaret artist and comedian Bridget Everett received the inaugural Athena Breakthrough Award, honoring her rise to fame after star turns in Sundance favorite Patti Cake$—which also played at this year’s festival—and a hit special on Comedy Central. She also headlined a U.S. tour and regularly appears at major comedy festivals. And J.J. Abrams, writer, director, and producer, received the Athena Leading Man Award for his advocacy and championing of women in the entertainment industry. Abrams’ career includes blockbuster films Armageddon, Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and popular television shows that featured strong female characters: Felicity, Alias, and Lost.
View a video of the awardees and other luminaries who attended the gala:
The Films | Lady Bird, Moana, 9 to 5
Film highlights included a sold-out screening of Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig ’06, and the documentary I Am Evidence, in which actress and activist Mariska Hargitay, who co-hosted a Q & A session, investigated the backlog of untested rape kits around the U.S. It’s Criminal, by Signe Taylor ’87, told the story of how incarcerated women partnered with Dartmouth undergrads in an exercise of expressing their feelings through creating and performing an original play. And there were two fascinating shorts programs comprised of 16 films—including Beads by Julia Kennedy ’15—on a wide variety of topics from Guatemalan midwives to a quadruple amputee who became a world fencing champion.
For a number of Barnard professors, the films shown at the festival were an extension of the classroom. Prof. Alexandra Horowitz, who runs the Dog Cognition Lab, took her class to a screening of Meagan Leavey, about a U.S. Marine corporal who adopted her military working dog. Prof. Maria Lozano also took from her language courses to view a documentary about Latin American singer Chavela Vargas with students. Prof. Skye Cleary, who teaches Women and Leadership, designed an assignment around the festival: “Students are given free tickets to whichever film they are most interested in, and afterwards they write a reflective essay about the issues raised in the film, exploring what it means for women leaders—including themselves. I find that the Film Festival is a powerful way to engage the students intellectually, emotionally, and concretely with ideas that matter—not only to womankind, but to humanity. It’s also my favorite assignment to read.”
The Power of Women
The festival also featured several panels focused on women’s empowerment. Three award-winning filmmakers spoke about increasing the number of women storytellers by developing a more representative and inclusive female narrative—the “female gaze,” in contrast to the “male gaze.” Another panel, “Revising the Canon,” explored similar themes, emphasizing the importance of uplifting stories by and about women of color. Some workshops were also practical: Alexa Yunge ’85, who won an Emmy for her work on Friends and has contributed to many other shows as well as Disney films and plays, gave a master class about what it takes to forge a successful career as a television writer and producer; and new media experts taught filmmakers strategies for effective social media campaigns and branding.
On Sunday afternoon, festival attendees gathered in The Diana Center Event Oval for a special town hall on sexual harassment and the next steps for the #MeToo movement. Women for Women International founder and 2017 Barnard Medalist Zainab Salbi moderated the session, which centered on being an ally and staying accountable on important issues across all industries, especially low-paying, entry-level, and service jobs that are typically staffed by marginalized and vulnerable populations. Salbi noted that while the #MeToo movement has seen many men removed from their positions of power, the culture that enables harassment and assault remains, and as Barnard Athena Distinguished Fellow and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United Saru Jayaraman pointed out, only a grassroots re-shifting of the balance of power can effect lasting change.
“We saw record crowds—and record numbers of Barnard students, faculty, alumnae and parents—who were more engaged, enthusiastic and committed to women’s leadership than ever. It was extremely gratifying to see as the Festival closed its eighth year," Kolbert said.