On Sunday, March 3, Barnard's Athena Film Festival capped its ninth annual celebration of fierce and fearless women leaders in film by welcoming U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who attended as a panelist to support the New York premiere of Knock Down the House. The documentary, recently acquired by Netflix for a record-breaking $10 million after it won this year’s Festival Favorite Award at Sundance, was written, directed, and produced by women and follows four women political hopefuls, including Ocasio-Cortez, as they build a movement to unseat powerful Congressional incumbents.
Director Rachel Lears introduced the film as being about power, personally and politically. In a panel discussion afterward, Lears advised Barnard students that the film, the Festival, and attending a women’s college are also about “believing that you deserve to have power.”
Likewise, Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the importance of “having a sisterhood...because it's what allows you to keep going.” She also emphasized the power of believing that you belong, while pushing aside doubts and imposter syndrome as a person from outside of the establishment. “It's too much work to not be yourself,” she explained to an applauding, sold-out audience in the Diana Center’s Event Oval. It was the first time Ocasio-Cortez had seen the film with an audience — a notable experience among many for the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress.
“At Athena, you’re not just seeing a movie,” said Veronica Suchodolski ’19. “So much of the Festival is about the energy of the room, about this audience that’s invested in women’s stories told by women. Even if you’ve seen one of the films elsewhere, it’s worth going to see it again at the Festival to experience this magical environment.”
The Festival opened on Thursday, February 28, with the New York premiere of Fast Color, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a superhero on the run, followed by a Q & A session with the film’s director/writer Julia Hart and star Lorraine Toussaint.
Prior to Fast Color’s screening, President Sian Leah Beilock hosted a reception where she thanked Festival co-founder Kathryn Kolbert, who will receive the Frederick A.P. Barnard Award this spring at the annual Gala for her years of inspirational leadership. Kolbert retired last June from her post as the former Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. President Beilock also thanked Festival co-founder and artistic director Melissa Silverstein, the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, an organization that educates, advocates, and agitates for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry.
“I co-founded the Festival ten years ago with Kathryn Kolbert,” Silverstein told the press. “It was created because at that time, women were really struggling to get their stories and their voices heard. We partnered with the Athena Center at Barnard College, and we created this Festival to put together a weekend of films that focused on women’s leadership. It’s really all about how we look at the world, how women leaders can effect change, and how women’s leadership needs to be integrated into the fabric of all of our society.”
On Friday evening, the Athena Awards Gala, sponsored by Amazon Studios, honored Nina Shaw ’76, Marielle Heller, Desiree Akhavan, and Cameron Bailey for their leadership and accomplishments. President Beilock presented Shaw, a prominent entertainment attorney and advocate, with the Athena Award for her pioneering work as a founder of the social organization Time’s Up, which fights to empower women against sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace. Shaw spoke of the need to find the courage to disrupt everyday acts of misogyny. “I was able to stand up” to sexism in law school, she said, “because I had just spent four years at Barnard, where I was heard.”
On the red carpet, Shaw shared some advice for Barnard students who want to create change: “Remember that you came from a place where you had a woman president...a woman dean of students. You know that women can be leaders, that they can run things, that they can be in charge and that should be your expectation. You won't start out being in charge, but there is no reason why you shouldn't end up there.”
“At Barnard, we prepare women to take the lead so they can create change in the areas that they care about the most," explained associate professor of psychology Tara Well, who attended with some of her students. Well was among more than a dozen other Barnard professors at the Festival to view various films connected to curriculum with students. "In my psychology of women’s leadership seminar,” Well continued, “we discuss women who become leaders because they are inspired to make social change. This year, we saw...that being clear about your values and genuinely concerned about the welfare of others can be the impetus for women to step in and play key leadership roles.”
Heller, director of Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy, also received an Athena Award; her debut film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, explored what it means to be a sexually confident young woman. The Breakthrough Award was presented to Akhavan, whose coming-of-age story, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about an LGBTQ youth, which she also wrote and directed — won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2018. Bailey, Toronto Film Festival’s co-head, received the Leading Man Award for having brought countless female filmmakers into the spotlight.
Activism in Action
On The Basis of Sex, the 2014 Athena List screenplay and 2019 Sundance Film Festival Favorite Award-winner about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years, brought renewed attention to the importance of women’s rights for a packed theater on Friday evening. “Today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still fighting for women’s rights,” said Jane Ginsburg, Ginsburg’s daughter and the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law at Columbia Law School, to panel attendees. “And we may need a sequel as that story is not fully told.”
“While it is important to address social justice issues in a rigorous academic manner, it is also important to draw inspiration from the stories of individuals, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who have made the world a better place through a lifetime of committed work,” said J.C. Salyer, assistant professor of practice, anthropology and human rights, who teaches a seminar for students doing internships with human rights or social justice organizations and watched On The Basis of Sex with 19 of his students.
On Saturday afternoon, the Festival hosted a panel discussion, “Times Upx2,” about its first-year accomplishments and future. Moderated by CNN’s entertainment reporter Chloe Melas, it featured founding member of Times Up Nina Shaw '76; executive director Nithya Raman; actress Amber Tamblyn; and actress Alysia Reiner.
“Sometimes our activism and our personal work do not have to be much more than showing up for each other,” said Tamblyn about her Dec. 2018 court appearance in solidarity with victims of Harvey Weinstein. “Sometimes it’s just about us standing there together and saying I see you, I see what’s happened to you, it’s not acceptable, and I am here for you today.”
Other stories about women pushing political boundaries and ideas about what leadership looks like at this year’s Festival came from two Barnard alumnae: the documentary centerpiece, This is Personal, produced by Joy Gorman ’96; and Ask for Jane, co-written by and starring Cait Cortelyou ’09.
View a slideshow of Athena Film Festival highlights:
Panels and Programs
Also on Saturday, the Festival featured women-led panels and workshops on myriad facets of filmmaking. Ligiah Villalobos — a writer, producer, consultant, educator, and lecturer — ran a master class on writing for the big screen, and Julia Hart (Fast Color) shared her filmmaking expertise.
"I want to major in English with a concentration in film, so I feel like this is a good exposure to the film industry and film festivals,” explained Kena Chavva ’22. “It's been really great; I'm really happy that I'm in a place that goes out of their way to support female filmmakers, especially at this time in the film industry."
The Festival also offered panels on the history of women in horror, different ways to tell stories about women in STEM, and how various kinds of technology are used to create films. With 35 percent of Barnard’s 2,500+ students majoring in the sciences and mathematics, President Beilock expressed enthusiasm for the Festival’s “Spotlight on STEM” shorts program on Sunday and the “Storytelling: Women and STEM” panel that followed, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
“We’ve made progress with recent films like Hidden Figures, but women are still outnumbered two-to-one by men in media portrayals of STEM professionals,” said President Beilock. “There are many more untold stories of women whose advancements would help inspire the next generation of women scientists, so it’s important that we tell them.”
The weekend’s special programs included two virtual-reality sessions sponsored by Google that highlighted the nation’s military in unique ways with the projects “She Flies By Her Own Wings,” about a transgender veteran seeking justice for vets who championed equality before her, and “Sun Ladies,” the story of a female-only fighting unit that risks everything to protect the Yazidi community from violent ISIS attacks.
Initiatives such as the Activism Booth, sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights, reinforced the Festival’s theme of amplifying women’s voices. Organized by Phanesia Pharel '21, the booth offered information on how to support local associations working for gender equality. It was a theme that resonated with the thousands of Festival-goers in attendance.
“This is my fourth year coming to the Festival,” said Shruti Varadarajan ’19. “It’s just as exciting every time, and it’s my favorite event on campus.”
For more highlights, read media coverage of the Festival in The Hollywood Reporter (additional articles available here and here), Newsweek, The New York Times, IndieWire, The Daily Mail, and Honeysuckle Magazine (article by Eden Arielle Gordon ’19)
The Athena Film Festival would like to thank its founding sponsor, Artemis Rising Foundation, and its CEO and Founder, Regina K. Scully, alongside a broad network of others sponsors, honorary host committee members, co-chairs, friends of the festival, volunteers, and staff, who make this festival possible. Please save the date for the tenth anniversary of the Festival: February 27 - March 1, 2020.