Women Astronauts: Leaders and Puppy-Lovers

Screenings at the second annual Athena Film Festival begin tonight at 6 pm in Miller Theatre. Student priced tickets are available for $7. Alexandra Svokos sat down with festival founders Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein.

Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein (a 30 Rock fan!) come from different professional worlds but have the same goal: to raise the status and image of women. Kolbert is the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard while Silverstein is the renowned blogger behind Women and Hollywood. The two met at an event at Gloria Steinem’s house organized by Silverstein in honor of filmmaker Jane Campion. After a conversation about the difficulties of getting “stories of courageous women to the big screen,” the two decided to create the Athena Film Festival.

Before the Athena Festival, there was no large-scale festival for women’s film in New York City. Kolbert and Silverstein took a different approach to the idea of a women’s festival than others do – rather than focusing on women directors or producers, they chose to focus on films that show women as leaders. “We think it’s very important that our culture reflect women in leadership roles and that young women in particular be able to see the actions and activities and courage and commitment of women,” Kolbert explained. The award winners are all women.

Last year, the festival’s first, exceeded all expectations, bringing about 2500 people to Barnard, most of whom were not Barnard-affiliated. This year they hope to at least match that number. Student groups have also become more active in the festival.

Silverstein pointed out the anomalies in the industry – despite what people say about women’s progress in film, only 5% of Hollywood film directors this year were women. This means, “basically all of the films that you see are from a white male vision.” Most of the films that have big budgets are both made by men and about men. There is a bias against putting women in leadership roles – in front of or behind the camera. Silverstein pointed out that only one woman (our very own Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for Best Director, and her film (The Hurt Locker) was all about men.

“When I see a woman win [for] a movie directing about women, I think that’s when I’ll have my cup of tea,” Silverstein said.

“Actually,” Kolbert interrupted, “I will have the party when the second woman wins the Oscar for directing a movie about women … Real change comes when things become commonplace, not when we do things for the first time.”

Silverstein explained that getting women into leadership roles in films (both on- and off-screen) involves the audience’s efforts, too. When picking movies to see, she said, people should do some research and see who worked on the film and if there were any women involved. Additionally, attention should be paid to how women are represented in the film – and especially in marketing. Here, she mentioned ads for Journey 2, featuring Vanessa Hudgens in short shorts and a tank top while then men are covered up. If female-centric films are able to make an impact in the box office, like Bridesmaids did last year, opportunities will open up. For example, Kristen Wiig now has many writing and acting deals while Melissa McCarthy is getting acting gigs despite not being a hot 20-year-old girl.

The festival directors looked at approximately 250 films in choosing the selection. They researched films from festivals and requested screeners of related films in addition to accepting submissions. The festival features fiction films, documentaries, and shorts in addition to workshops and special events.

In picking films, the first and most important criteria was that a woman be active within the first 20 minutes. Other criteria included choosing only well-made films. Because Athena is not a competitive festival they can show films that have already premiered. This gives certain movies, such as Oranges and Sunshine, a second life after being overlooked in the last year. Kolbert asserted that her criteria was to have films that are inspirational. She did not want too many that are violent and dark but rather upbeat and moving.

The premiere film is The Whistleblower, tonight at 6 pm, which was directed and written by a School of the Arts graduate and stars Rachel Weisz. The movie is based on a true story about a female journalist in Bosnia who unearthed a female trafficking scheme. After the screening there will be a Q&A session – as there will be for most of the screenings – with the producer, Columbia professor Annette Insdorf, and the journalist that the film is based on, herself a SIPA teacher.

Later tonight will be a screening of Who Took The Bomp, a film about riot grrrls and Le Tigre’s tour. “I feel like it’s really important to have music be a part of [this],” Silverstein said, “because as they say you have no revolution unless there’s dancing.” The director and Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front will be doing a Q&A.

Directors are coming to the festival on their own volition. The festival did not request they be there or bring them in. This is a testament to the importance of the Athena Film Festival and its message of showcasing women as leaders.

The Athena Center and the festival are dedicated to supporting women and showing them that they can grow to be active leaders in their communities. As Kolbert said, “Leadership is not something that is hereditary, it’s not something that is genetic in origin, it’s not something that is bestowed upon anyone … Leadership is an understanding of oneself, understanding one’s strength, understanding one’s capabilities, understanding one’s effect and ability to change the world.”


Puppy Rescue Force via Wikimedia Commons