Published on February 9, 2012
Got something to say?
Share your comments with other journalists
There are many diverse film festivals in New York City including the star-studded Tribeca Film Festival, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which often makes NYC its home, the African Diaspora International Film Festival and the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival to name a few.
There is a new film festival gaining attention. The Athena Film Festival, now in its second year, is co-produced by the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and Women and Hollywood, a blog run by Melissa Silverstein.
Always outspoken and a champion of equality between the sexes, Silverstein was gracious enough to find time for an interview while running the Festival.
Athena Film Festival 2012, a celebration of women and leadership
What are the criteria for the films being screened at the Athena Film Festival?
The criteria of the Festival are that at each film’s core is a women’s leadership theme. We have films that are directed by men and films that are directed by women. It’s about the content of the film, versus the gender of the filmmaker.
How do you go about programming a festival like this?
We find films in a variety of ways. First of all, I track a lot of films on “Women and Hollywood” so I know what’s coming down the pike. We look at all the film festivals happening throughout the world and look at all the female directed films and also, at all the synopses to see if a particular film could have a potential leadership theme. Then, if we think it could, we ask for a screener. It is really broad at first, in terms of screeners, because we don’t want to limit ourselves; besides that, what a lot of people say are female leadership themes, aren’t ‐ so we have to whittle it down. We also have submissions and colleagues who make recommendations. The Shorts ratio is higher for submissions than with Features.
“Black Butterflies” Trailer
Who is the Athena Festival audience?
I think we provide something for men and women. I don’t think it is only women who are hungry for change in this world but men too. What these stories do is allow people to have this conversation not necessarily in the context of who’s running for President. There are bigger questions, “How do we want our futures to look?” When you see women fighting for basic rights in Africa, for clean water, something we take for granted, or for the right to do the job they want or to live in freedom and safety - these are the kinds of things everyone should believe in.
Can you share some of the films screening at the Festival that reflect the theme of leadership?
One example of this would be the idea one should be free from being trafficked just because you are a girl. We are screening a work - in - progress called “Half the Sky” that is based on Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s work. It is a short preview of what’s going to be a major - mini series on PBS in 2013. One section is about a girl they are worried is going to be sold. Those are the kind of things we don’t think about. They try and save this girl because she has so much potential. She is in school but she is about to go back to her family. It is a fundamental thing that if you can keep these girls out of prostitution they can become leaders. If you can save girls from being married at fourteen, which means they have to drop out of school, it is a huge deal. “Look at the potential being lost here!” - this is what a lot of these African films show you; the loss of these girls not having the opportunities awarded to boys.
We have films that challenge leadership in other ways. “What does it mean to be a girl?” One of the conversations that is so interesting, and one many might not think of as a leadership issue, is the transgender conversation. One of the films, “Tomboy” is about a girl who wants to be a boy. She understands what it means to be a boy and can pass as a boy. When she goes into adolescence, she struggles to keep her identity because it is a very safe identity for her. It is a very beautiful French film. On the other end of the spectrum is a film from the Netherlands called, “I am a Girl!”. This film is about a girl born a boy and the question of what that means. I see these as leadership issues because we need this to be part of the next conversation - accepting them, whether they are boys or girls.
We also have historical documentaries, such as “Daisy Bates, the First Lady of Little Rock” about a woman that people in the civil right’s movement don’t really talk about, but she was one of the forces behind the integration of Little Rock High School. We are partnered with Independent lens and ITVS and are thrilled to show this. There’s also another great documentary called, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes” about a woman, who had she been a man, might have been the next John Glenn and broken the sound barrier or become an astronaut or whatever was possible in her day. Yet, she couldn’t do those things and was scrubbed out because she was a woman.
“The Legend of Pancho Barnes” Documentary Trailer
What are some of the challenges you face programming for a festival with this kind of political, and also say, human theme?
One of the challenges is to not make the program all heavy. We really try and find some lightness and some hope. I think one of the things that happens with these kinds of movies, especially some of the ones about women coming out of Hollywood, is that they can be really intense. Our idea is to frame an issue in movies that are intense and important, but also to let the audience see things that are a little lighter. The Shorts Program has some really cool films including an animation and a dance piece. But it is quite a challenge; I look at all these movies and the theme is intense; that’s just the overview but I don’t want people to feel like this is medicine. We hope people have a good time at the Festival.
When you say the theme is female leadership, I can’t help but think that these films can’t be categorized as “Chick Flicks” which always seems such a trivializing term. What does that say about the film industry or society that the genre “Chick Flick” exists?
Look at “Thelma and Louise”. The term “Chick Flick” didn’t exist when that was made but now people use that term to describe it. There are different ways to look at it. It is positive because it gets people to talk about women’s movies but it’s negative because it puts women in a box. Women should not be in a box. Our movies should be just as important and they shouldn’t have derogatory names attached to them just because women are in them. Our stories are just as important as male stories. Margaret Thatcher’s story is just as important and interesting as Richard Nixon’s story. Women’s stories need to be seen as valid and important.
So speaking of women’s stories, lets discuss what’s up with women in Hollywood. I know you always have your finger on the pulse. Are you seeing a shift in how women are portrayed in Hollywood films? Or recognized for that matter?
I don’t see any shift. I think it is a very, very hard nut to crack to do a drama about women in Hollywood. I did a post on top box office grossing movies that have women as protagonists and “The Help” was thirteenth of the year and “Bridesmaids” was number fourteen. Now, neither one of those are directed by women but “The Help” that completely unexpectedly grossed 169 million dollars, tells a really good story and people enjoyed that movie. So in the end, you have to learn how to make an enjoyable movie that people want to see.
One of the points I’ve been trying to make throughout this award season is about “The Whistleblower”, which we are showing on Friday evening. It never got any award attention. Rachel Weisz gives a fantastic performance. She’s been giving strong female lead performances for the last five years. She was recognized for “The Constant Gardener” but “Agora”, which no one even saw, is a fantastic movie about a woman leader. These films easily get ignored in award season because they are about women. “The Whistleblower” is a good movie and I’m not saying that because it is directed by women and about women, other people are saying that; so why is it ignored unlike the boys’ stuff at the end of the year? It’s all about money and it’s about the people who have the gravitas to make these Oscar campaigns happen. It’s certainly not always about the movie.
“The Whistleblower” Trailer
Can you be more specific on that topic? And this goes for women behind the lens as well?
Let’s talk about Angelina Jolie’s movie “Land of Blood and Honey”. It’s fantastic. It’s a great movie and… Nothing. I think she chose a difficult subject matter but I think men choose difficult subject matters and they get treated differently. “War Horse” is about a war. I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it’s lovely but it’s about war, a tough subject. Why is that a tougher subject than Bosnian war material?
The issue of women and Hollywood is still a very major work in progress; there is much work to be done. People who say that things are hunky dory, are lying.
Because it is Hollywood and we do want to be entertained, I get it, but the only way the culture is going to change in every day life is for people to start thinking of women in different ways and that starts in the entertainment that gets projected. It starts in the movies that get sent to other countries where they only see women in these big movies wearing no clothes. It is a bigger issue. Some days I think “It’s just a movie. It really doesn’t matter” but then some days it really hits me that it’s important we remember entertainment is a reflection of the culture; sometimes it’s ahead of the culture, sometimes it’s behind, but it is part of the culture. When women are not visible and counted in the same way men are, we are all suffer for it.
Do you see this as being different outside the Hollywood bubble?
Absolutely. They have a different system of making movies. They are smaller and not so focused on effects. Since the growth of big budget, effects kind of movies, which is how Hollywood works nowadays, women have just gone more and more by the wayside. We are seen as a niche. Women should not be “a niche”. We are the majority of the population. We buy equal tickets. My whole line is that male stories are seen as the norm and women’s stories are seen as “the other”. We continue to perpetuate that as men and women when men do not want to go see stories about women, because they think they are stupid, boring and pink, and women have no problem going to see stories about men because they are seen as universal. That’s the bottom line: Male vision universal. Women’s vision, women’s experience, niche or other. It’s just not right; fundamentally not right.
The Athena Film Festival is going on February 9th through the 12th in New York City. Interviews with women behind as well as in front of the camera can be found on Melissa Silverstein’s blog, Women and Hollywood.
Tags: athena film festival, chick flicks, documentary, film, hollywood, leadership, melissa silverstein, nicholas d. kristof, sheryl wudunn, women,
- Covering the Arab world: A masterclass with Al Jazeera
- Women ‘significantly underrepresented’ in the media, survey suggests
- Women want to help shape Bahrain’s future
- Story Hack: Beta – entertaining and engaging, the transmedia way
- Swiss TV bites back at vampire Sarkozy
- Sister: 15 years of searching for truth
- Prison Valley: Breakaway web documentary
- Current trends in US documentary filmmaking
- 18DaysInEgypt: a pioneering storytelling platform to document Egypt’s revolution
Subscribe to our monthly newsletter
Call for Writers
We’re looking for journalists from around the world to report on journalism and media trends and issues. Bring us original insights into innovations or challenges related to print, online, television, copyright, video and mobile journalism. Queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Can a citizen’s initiative force the EU to formally protect media pluralism?
- A hacker considers one Saudi Arabia telecom’s surveillance pitch
- Last of the hot metal men
- Will Japan’s Fallen New Media Playboy Make a Comeback?
- Journalists Shrug Off President’s Inaugural Insults
- In the Netherlands, Subscribers Pay Per Journalist
- Instagramming the EU
- Dutch App Enables Context Curation
- Something Wiki This Way Comes
- Pope Francis, Shine the Light of Transparency on the Holy See
- Really, simple syndication
- Wikileaks report reveals corruption in Lithuanian newspapers
- Japan earthquake shakes Italian media
- Books that journalists should read: Edwin Black
- Blogskeptics ponder regulation in Europe
- Seven simple writing tips for social news
- Magazine layouts gain popularity with blogs
- New media and social change in the Arab and Muslim world
- Separating journalism and the media
- The public broadcasting license fee and public value