Athena Film Festival 2014: Lady Leaders and Progressive Storytelling

athena festival

For the past four years the annual Athena Film Festival, founded by Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood and Kathryn Kolbert of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, has provided a jam-packed weekend showcase for films about women and girls.  Not only are these films about women and girls, the women and girls portrayed are leaders and take charge agents of their own lives.  This shouldn’t be so radical, but of course it is.  This year’s program included documentaries, feature films, shorts, works in progress, as well as panels and workshops.  It would be well worth the effort to check all of the films, if you can find them near you.  The only way to make an immediate difference for women-led films is to go see them, and then tell all of your friends to do the same.

My experience at this year’s festival, and being surrounded by people who demanded better, more varied stories representing women and girls, was inspiring and thought provoking to say the least.  It was also powerful to hear from some of the producers and directors for Q&A’s after their films.  I didn’t see nearly enough, and my favorites were two very different independent films, Maidentrip and Farah Goes Bang.  The films I saw definitely gave me hope for the future of representations of women and girl’s stories.

Directed by Jillian Schlesinger, Maidentrip is the documentary of the youngest person to sail solo around the entire world.  Laura Dekker, the incredibly brave 15 year-old, was met with challenges even before she set out, as Dutch authorities pulled her through media firestorms and court hearings over whether she should be allowed to choose to do the journey at her age.  Once Laura battles that first rather small hurdle in comparison to the huge waves and other dangers she faces in her journey, she’s just so free.  Actually she was free the whole time, as she seemed to never waiver in her resolve to chase her adventure dreams and continue onward no matter what.  What a powerful message from the get-go and a beautiful film.

The cinematography of the film was stunning; both the home video moments filmed by Laura at sea and the more professional looking shots the documentary crew captured at the various islands Laura stops on her way.  It was empowerment on an introvert’s terms, as Laura took her alone time at sea to grow, fuel her soul, and all the while reflect deeply on her life.  She finds that she craves the alone time at sea often more than her selective social interactions on land, and it was refreshing to see this presented without judgment.  It really seemed like she knew who she was and what she wanted out of life during those two years of her adventure.  I thought that was especially powerful.  Seriously, go see this film if you can and bring someone who’s always on their phone and/or the Internet 24/7.

Another film I really enjoyed was Farah Goes Bang, from writer/ producer Laura Goode and writer/ director Meera Menon.  When I think of the road trip movie genre, the only other film about women that comes to mind is Thelma and Louise, which this was nothing like but fantastic in a different way.  It’s important to see what happens when girls go on the road, and it’s of course also about the apt metaphor of the road to self-discovery.  The film takes place in 2004 and follows three close friends, Farah, KJ, and Roopa as they canvass for John Kerry through the battleground states. The ladies’ conversations were very real, unapologetic, and hilarious on topics ranging from politics, to body hair removal, to sex.  What I loved most about this film was that it also showed ladies not taking shit from people, and going after what they wanted.  They confront racists, conservatives, and more varieties of strangers on their trip and never let themselves be doormats.  A film with many subplots, it’s also about how Farah wants to lose her virginity on the trip.  It’s always nice to see a narrative about a woman wanting sex that doesn’t have her also feel ashamed for it.  There was a little bit of jokey-shaming of Farah for still being a virgin at the top of the film, but the very sex positive way the story unfolds by the end, as well as the depictions of women as initiators of sex, made me forgive it.

I also really appreciated how many times the film showed the ritual of repeatedly putting on makeup, removing unwanted body hair, and doing hair.  It really raised the veil of the effortless perfect made up women of most movies, and made things more realistic.  I also found it somewhat ridiculous to see, which felt like a little critique of our beauty culture.  Overall the film depicted a strong friendship between three ladies I felt I knew and it was a lot of fun.  It was great to hear from Laura Goode and Meera Menon after the film saying that the three actresses also formed a real friendship on set, and are now their go-to supportive phone calls after auditions for each other.  Women’s friendships are important on and off screen, how wonderful!

Leaving the festival, I didn’t feel any better about the status of women’s representation in Hollywood mainstream films.  We’re still nowhere near equality when it comes to gender and racial diversity in film and TV, just look at UCLA’s annual “Hollywood Diversity Report,” which found that women had the lead in only 25.6% of the films, 14% of writers, and 4.1% of directors.  A recent article by director Lexi Alexander proclaimed, “There is no lack of female directors...  But there is a huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities.”  It will continue to be an uphill battle.  However if the festival showed me nothing else, there was this glimmer of hope that at least there isn’t actually a dearth of lady-lead films made and waiting to be made that Hollywood would have you believe, many of these films are also independent films.

It seems that independent films are already out there telling many diverse, progressive, women-centric stories that most mainstream films are leaving out.  I want to do my part to support these films, because the gender and racial media visibility revolution will only happen when feminists make our own media or support those who do.  Of course, it’s still important to call out Hollywood stereotypes and fight for representation in the films that are already going to be shown to wider audiences.  I just think it’s equally important to support and create more platforms for independent films, and the Athena Film Festival made me feel more passionately about that.

Photo Credit Athena Festival Facebook Page


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