On Wednesday, March 10th, the Athena Film Festival hosted a discussion entitled “Emerging at Your Own Pace: Different Pathways In Film.” Staff Writer Eleanor Babwin was able to attend a recording of the event in the days that followed.

“Too often we associate emerging with being young, and lord knows Hollywood already has an ageism problem,” Melissa Silverstein began “Emerging At Your Own Pace,” an Athena Film Festival event which discussed breaking the narrative of success that too often negatively affects women and people of color.

The conversation was led by Silverstein, the co-founder and artistic director of the 2021 Athena Film Festival who spoke with Tanya Selvaratnam and Kenyetta Raelyn in a Zoom panel.

Selvaratnam is a producer who has worked with the Justice Project, Aubin Pictures, and Planned Parenthood, to name a few. She has published essays in the New York Times and Vogue, and is the author of Big Lie and Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence, which is being released in April. 

Raelyn is an award winning screenwriter and filmmaker who participated in Writers Lab NYC. She won numerous awards for her 2019 comedy script “Day Shift,” and is a director on the second season of The Chi as well as of an episode of Adversity. It should be noted that Raelyn was present for the first half of the conversation, but exited because of technical difficulties. 

The discussion began with Raelyn, Silverstein, and Selvaratnam rejecting the notion that emerging must be synonymous with being young. They made the point that emerging is a continual state of being. There is not an age limit on when a person can emerge just as much as there is no reason people cannot continue to emerge. To the panelists, emerging is about reinvention. Raelyn commented that people are “always emerging in new phases of our lives” and that “the more risks you take the more times you’re going to have to get in that emerging zone.” She also said that she has hope for the future of her career when she sees people older than her continue to reinvent themselves, and thus continuing to emerge. 

After the panelists discussed the definition of emerging within the context of their own careers and mindsets, they turned to the Hollywood definition of emerging. The panelists shifted the conversation to focus on the point that even more so than being tied with age, the idea of emerging is about opportunity. 

While ageism is certainly a pressing issue in Hollywood, the idea that emerging is just associated with being young shifts the focus away from the fact that to emerge means someone is given the opportunity to do so, and that opportunity is much more difficult for women and people of color of all ages. 

Selvaratnam added this issue is perpetuated by the false narrative that women and people of color’s stories “[cater] to niche audiences.” This prevents those stories from being lifted off the group because they are not perceived as universal and therefore not able to make a lot of money. How can artists emerge if they are not given the opportunity to do so? 

The panelists acknowledged that more opportunities are being given to women and people of color because their authentic stories are being told more, that shift cannot undermine the awareness that Hollywood is still suffering from major systemic issues. Part of this issue is what Selvaratnam refers to as “the pipeline problem,” and that in order to address this issue, that would “involve an audit,” which Silverstein quickly responded would not happen. 

Money plays a major role in determining what projects get greenlit and thus which narratives are centered. Selvaratnam contended that in order for Hollywood to put more women and people of color in focus, there would have to be a large number of people ceding power, which she is not confident will happen. She noted that when certain Hollywood players lost power was in times of major uprisings like over the summer with Black Lives Matter protests and during the #MeToo movement. 

“People in power [were] dethroned because they were perpetrators… and exhibited racist behavior. It shouldn’t take that to have people cede power.” She calls for a reflection in Hollywood about who is sitting at the table in order to greenlight projects and see if there are enough women and people of color playing major roles in determining which projects get invested in. 

Another key facet in making sure a diverse group of stories get told is spreading the wealth. Silverstein talked about how for years she has seen a group of up and coming artists with vast potential, but only a handful of them get deals. After those first deals are made, the same people continue to get deals. There has to be “more people emerging than just those three people who are getting all the deals.” She added that Hollywood companies have adopted a mindset of “we found our person… instead of doing the work.” 

Already women and people of color are given fewer opportunities to get their stories and careers off the ground, but Hollywood has maintained the idea that there is only so much room for those stories. People do not emerge out of nowhere, they are allowed the opportunity to do so, and right now, those opportunities come few and far between for marginalized artists. 

Although the discussion was centered around the film industry, the conversations about supporting marginalized people, redefining success, and spreading the wealth are relevant to every industry. Towards the end of the discussion, Selvaratnam was asked to speak on the meaning and importance of art, to which she responded, “art can change the world with the right allies engaging in that art.” Although this discussion may be beginning in Hollywood, it should be listened to everywhere.

A recording of the discussion is available to stream through the Athena Film Festival YouTube Page.

The Panelists from the event via the Athena Film Festival YouTube Page.