Interview with Athena Film Festival Co-Founders Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein


Co-Founders of the Athena Film Festival, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein [Photo by: Kristina Bumphrey/Starpix]

Co-Founders of the Athena Film Festival, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein [Photo by: Kristina Bumphrey/Starpix]

The Athena Film Festival “is an engaging weekend of feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women’s leadership in real life and the fictional world.” I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Athena Film Festival co-foundersKathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams Director, Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, and Melissa Silverstein, Founder and Editor, Women and Hollywood. We discussed the upcoming festival, creating opportunities for female filmmakers, and the importance of seeing women leaders on-screen.

1. Megan Kearns: Why did you both start the Athena Film Festival?

Kathryn Kolbert: The festival started after an event at Gloria’s Steinem house that Melissa had organized to honor Jane Campion. Both of us were very struck by hearing the same thing from all the filmmakers who were there about the difficulty of having movies with strong female courageous women characters in their films. I had just started at Barnard at the Athena Leadership Center and really felt like we needed to focus some of our attention on changing what I call the “blink” — what do you think of, what do you see when you think leader or when you’re asked what does a leader look like. Most people respond to that by thinking of a white man with gray hair at the temples. I think our view was we need to change that in the wider culture. And we need to level the playing field for women or men who want to tell stories about great women leaders. From there, the festival was born.

2. Megan Kearns : I’m sure you both love all of the films showing at Athena Film Fest? Which films or panels are you the most excited about? If people can only see one or two, which are must-see?

Melissa Silverstein: Firstly, we are very excited for three films that would highlight our opening film, our centerpiece film and our closing film. They’re all really different.

Belle directed by Amma Asante, tells the true story of a woman from history who helped basically bring down the slave trade in England. Decoding Annie Parker, also based on true events about two women, not connected to each other but separately, who came up with the idea that breast cancer is passed down from person to person. And then lastly, the documentary on Geraldine Ferraro [Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way]. Those are the pieces that we’re holding up as our “tent poles,” as they say. And Megan, you write about Hollywood, you know those “tent poles” are never about women, right? So all of our “tent poles” are about women at the Athena Film Festival.

And then there are amazing nuggets and conversations going on here that I don’t want people to miss. I want people to get a film, and then a panel, and then a film and then a panel. Some of those highlights are, especially for your audience, the “Bechdel Test 2.0,” which is really asking people to look beyond just the Bechdel Test and beyond representation to how do we create more substantive leading roles for women. Amplifying women’s voices — we’ll talk about and feature people working behind the scenes to get more women-friendly and women-centric content out there. Also, some leaders who are leading that charge.

[Filmmaker] Lexi Alexander is coming. She made a big hoopla with her piece on what it’s like to be a woman director. The woman is just like raw energy rolled up into…I don’t even know what she would be rolled up into. She’s going to explode like a cannon, I have a feeling. She’s got a lot of things to say and she’s not afraid to say it. And in a business where people are afraid to say the truth, I think this could be a very revealing conversation.

Kathryn Kolbert: I would highlight that I’m going to be talking with Leymah Gbowee who is the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner from Liberia. A woman whose story was told in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. And I think that helped to internationalize the unbelievable work that she did to create peace in a country that had been at war for many, many decades. If you’ve never had the opportunity to hear her, she’s just extraordinarily charismatic and interesting because she’s had a chance to visit with women all across the globe who are working for peace.

The second thing I think is really interesting across the festival is we have everything from a teenager sailing across the ocean alone [Maidentrip] to an animated film [Frozen], to women from all different countries around the world do many different kinds of things. I encourage people to go see more than one film, to come in and see 3 or 4, because that’s the story, that’s the subtext of what we’re doing that doesn’t get noticed until you’re seeing lots of things. The shorts are a really good example of that. Both shorts programs are great.

Melissa Silverstein: We curate a program that allows you to see all different kinds of women doing all different kinds of leadership. You have an opportunity to put together for yourself a vision of what you think films could be like and leadership could be like. I know the readers of Bitch Flicks like that vision and believe in that vision. By coming in and just sampling one or two things you get a little bit of it. But if you feel the breadth of it, you can understand the potential if we have more women’s stories in our culture.

3. Megan Kearns : How important do you think it is for people to see women in leadership roles on-screen?

Kathryn Kolbert: It’s incredibly important. Let me give you one piece of research that I think is extremely useful and telling in terms of what we’re trying to do here. A number of years ago in India, they passed what’s known as a reservations law which reserved a third of all town heads, the equivalent of mayors, around the country for women. They did that on a randomized basis so you could study what happened when women became mayors. Therefore, it couldn’t be attributed to something other than the gender of the women who ascended to these roles. Two things happened. One, the agendas of the women were different than the agendas of the men because they were listening more closely to both the men and women in the villages. The men’s agendas seemed to reflect the male leadership in the village. The women’s leadership reflected both the attitudes of male and female constituents. So the agendas changed.

But here’s the interesting piece that applies to our festival. What also changed was the aspirations of girls. When you had two women in a row who became mayors in their village, they believed and understood they could be a mayor themselves. That’s what this festival is all about. It’s how you inspire the next generation or the generation after that to ascend to leadership in whatever capacity they aspire to. Until they see people who are like them, in those roles, they won’t be able to do that as effectively.

Melissa Silverstein: So bringing in a person like Lexi Alexander, who has taken on — she doesn’t always think this is the thing she needs to do but she understands by putting this out there — she has taken on a responsibility. She wants this business to change. Not just for herself but for other women, the women who can’t get jobs and for the girls who want to see — as Kitty always says, “What do you think a leader looks like? The guy with gray hair at his temples.” When you ask girls, “What does a director look like?” They describe Steven Spielberg-like. We want girls to be able to dream, to see themselves as potential directors. That way we’ll have more stories about women, because we know the research shows that when you have more women behind the scenes, you have more stories about women.

4. Megan Kearns: There’s a panel on the Bechdel Test at Athena and last year 4 Swedish cinemas employed a Bechdel Test rating to indicate gender bias. How important do you think the Bechdel Test is?

Melissa Silverstein: I’m going to push back on you on the Bechdel Test. It’s not the beginning and it’s not the end. We get stuck in the fact that two women talking to each other about a man. Two women talking to each other about something other than a man is not enough. And should not be enough.

Kathryn Kolbert: If we put this in another context, it would be like saying because one Fortune 500 company has one woman on their board of directors, that the fight is over. It’s just beginning. It’s not really a fight. It’s an effort to bring parity in the world in a whole range of arenas. From my perspective, in terms of leadership, you only can change the world if women get beyond their gender and can contribute equally within any kind of organization or entity. And as long as they’re a minority, in any respect — whether it’s on-screen, behind the screen, directors, whatever role they’re playing — as long as they’re a minority, their gender is the only issue people are looking at them for, rather than the huge contributions they bring to the table. We believe in parity because it makes the product better.

5. Megan Kearns: Filmmaker Lexi Alexander wrote a stunning article at Women & Hollywood where she stated, “There is no lack of female directors…But there is a huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities.” How do you think the Athena Film Festival might help women directors obtain more opportunities?

Melissa Silverstein: What we’re trying to do with the Athena Film Festival is give women directors the opportunity to have their films at a first-class event and create conversations that show people — basically what we want to say is, it shouldn’t be a big deal to have six movies directed by women in a film festival. Yet, at all the film festivals I go to, it is always a big deal to see six movies by women. We want to create opportunities for them out there, they just don’t have the opportunity to be seen at this level. We want people to take them more seriously and we want people to understand that their work stands on its own. People in the film business need to look at this work a bit differently and to redefine what success is.

Kathryn Kolbert: We want to remember that men are allies in this as well. One thing that the Athena Film Festival has always stood for is it’s important what the story is, not necessarily the gender of the person who directed the film. While we do believe women directors need more opportunities, there’s no question about that, we also show movies by male directors who are telling stories of interesting, creative, courageous women because that needs to be part of the norm as well. The issue is not who made the film so much as what the film is contributing to the cultural conversation. From my perspective, in terms of how you change leadership, men and women need to work together to change what leadership looks like.

6. Megan Kearns: What are your thoughts on the Celluloid Ceiling’s Report that there hasn’t been progress for women in film in 16 years. How can we move past the “gender inertia” of film that Dr. Martha Lauzen talks about and achieve more diverse female representation in film?

Kathryn Kolbert: It’s not much different than any other major institutions in the country. Hollywood has despicable numbers but so do Fortune 500 companies, so do non-profits, so does the education sphere. All over the world, this is a problem, in terms of women and leadership roles. I think that the solutions are more complicated than any of us would like. It would be really nice if we could say there’s one thing that could be done and the problem is solved. It’s not that simple, nor do we believe that to be the case.

But I do think for Hollywood, there are two things that can make a significant difference. One is this myth that the major audience are 18- to 25-year-old guys. The blockbuster films are kind of geared toward that audience. In fact, women go to the movies, women are more likely to go to the movies when they’re not seeing blockbuster films for 18-year-old guys. That’s one really significant thing: the industry has to catch up to their own data.

Melissa Silverstein: It has to catch up to the rest of the country.

Kathryn Kolbert: The second thing is they have got to say this, they have got to admit that there is a problem. Until they do, it’s not going to change. To me, we need to call upon the leaders of the big studios to say openly that this is a problem, we’re going to address the problem, we’re going to work on the problem, and we’re going to quit ignoring it.

Melissa Silverstein: I agree. There has to be the will. Now there is no will. Now, Dr. Lauzen’s statistics, she’s been counting this for 16 years. I would venture to say that it’s been that bad for many more years than that. We just have those statistics for 16 years. This has been going on for decades.

But Hollywood is a business. These people’s jobs are to make money and the inertia comes from the fact that they continue to make money and they don’t see how bringing women into it will improve on their bottom line. They don’t see the need because their bottom line continues to grow. They’re contracting the amount of movies they’re releasing at the studios. As they contract, they make bigger “tent poles,” more boy-centric, more superhero-centric, more action-centric, more internationally-centric. All those issues lead into less and less opportunities for women.

Until somebody says, “I’m going to hire a woman to direct the next Marvel movie or the next Avengers movie, we’re going to have this conversation until we break through that glass ceiling. It’s got to happen at the top level.

7. Megan Kearns: Who are your favorite female filmmakers?

Melissa Silverstein: I’m a huge Lynn Shelton fan. I also feel like I’ve seen Nicole Holofcener’s body of work. There are many men you can say, “I’ve seen that person’s body of work.” There are not that many women where you can have the body of work and you can feel really connected to it. For me, I have that connection to Nicole Holofcener’s work. And I think one of my favorite movies of all time is Whale Rider. And Bend It Like Beckham.

The 4th Annual Athena Film Festival takes place February 6-9, 2014 at Barnard College in New York, NY. Learn more about this year’s lineup and buy tickets.

This interview was cross-posted here with permission from BTCH FLICKS

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