March 12th’s screening did not disappoint.

Barnard College hosted the Athena Festival’s first of three short films screenings this past Saturday, as plenty of students packed their bags to leave campus. I decided to delay my journey home for break for one more day so that I could take advantage of the festival and report back.

The thread connecting all of the shorts, it was explained, was their depiction of strong, multifaceted women and girls taking center stage in the films’ narratives. This promise held true. While gender and womanhood was not necessarily the defining theme of every film, women and gender-diverse people undoubtedly pushed each story forward. 

Starting off the collection of shorts was The Shaman’s Apprentice (Angakusajaujuq), a stunning twenty minute stop-motion film by Zacharias Kunuk. It follows the journey of a girl and her grandmother, a shaman, who are called to help a sick man in a nearby village. Their task leads them to the underworld, where they must find out why the man is suffering. Behind a stoic and calm demeanor, we watch the apprentice face the challenge of controlling her fear in the face of spirits, gods, and the threat of not returning home. 

The use of light in the film is gorgeous; the tundra is blinding, dazzling, and harsh, and you can practically feel the still, dim warmth of the lamp-lit homes by comparison (the qulliq, a lamp which maintains fire in a horizontal line, is a recurring image). The soundtrack is brilliantly crafted as well, with throat singing and drumming underscoring dramatic or transitional moments. 

The film is entirely in Inuktitut (English subtitles were provided), including the language’s nonverbal facial gestures which denote “yes” or “no.” It was a privilege to be able to watch a film that so intricately makes visible aspects of Inuit traditional religion, communication, and cultural practices. 

Militant Mother, created by Carmen Pollard, was the next film presented. The brief documentary recounts the protests of a group of mothers who raised their children in the projects of Vancouver, and fought against a railroad company whose train schedules endangered their children on the walking route to school. 

The film centers on one mother’s recollection of those days; it cuts between interview footage, original film of the protests from the 70’s, and shots of children today safely crossing the tracks via an overpass to create a refreshing and inspiring homage to the political power of mothers. 

Girlsboysmix, produced and directed by Lara Aerts, followed Militant Mother. Through the short, playful documentary, we become acquainted with one young intersex adoptee named Wen Long as she romps around nature and narrates her life to us. Wen Long is energetic and positive, confident in feeling like a “mix” of boy and girl. She explains the discrimination she encounters in the classroom, and how many people don’t understand children like her. The film provides a lighthearted approach to the topic of identity, as its protagonist interacts with gendered toy shops, difficult memories, friends, animals, and the earth.

Little Sparks, directed by Denali Tiller, was presented next. This is a heartwarming documentary following three elementary school students attending a charter school in the Bronx (two remotely, one in person) in the midst of the pandemic. Much of the footage consists of the kids being their naturally entertaining selves – making quips in the tone of their parents, or climbing on stairway railings while they should be paying attention in class. The film also focuses on the labor of their parents; one mother speaks compellingly about the demands of balancing working in a hospital with running a homeschooling operation, all while maintaining a positive demeanor in front of her children.

Moments of frustration, exhaustion, and burnout are captured; the kids have a hard time making it through the day from home, and both parents and teachers work to motivate them to continue. Watching a virtual parent-teacher conference between a mother and her child’s teacher, the two women expressing mutual respect and admiration for the work each put into facilitating the child’s education, was especially touching. The film is an intimate portrait of the resilience children have been forced to develop under difficult circumstances, and the adults who pour energy, love, and support into the task of their education. 

Me and You (Ana Wa Enti) follows a 33-year-old Arab woman named Amira as she navigates attempting to live true to herself and her needs while residing with her mother, Nahla. The two women love each other deeply, but Nahla frequently attempts to make Amira live by more traditional values, and is often in need of support from her daughter. We witness their relationship move through moments of sweetness and gratitude, as well as stressful fights about Amira’s choices. The film captures the power of nonverbal gestures of forgiveness, and the difficult nuances of mother-daughter relationships.

Alexandra Muhawi-Ho and Polina Buchak, the director and producer of Me and You, participated in a Q&A session after the screening. Muhawi-Ho explained that the film was based on her own experiences as a “third culture kid,” growing up Palestinian and Chinese in America and navigating multiple worlds and sets of values while growing into herself. Amira, she said, will likely need to work through similar fights with her mother over their values for the rest of their lives, just like she herself will. She explained that because Arab women are so often vilified in media, she wanted to create a film of them “just existing.” 

Presented last was a fictional Korean film titled God’s Daughter Dances, by Byun Sung-Bin. It follows a sweet and talented transgender woman named Shin-mi who is forced to take a medical examination for military service. Shin-mi finds solace in her career as a professional dancer at a gay bar, but experiences unsettling transphobia as she experiences the examination process. We watch her defend her selfhood and navigate a range of invasive, hurtful, degrading interactions with grace and resilience. At the climax of the film she faces a situation which there is no polite way out of; what follows is an artistic display of defiance as beautiful as it is crude and hilarious. 

Every film shone, and I left the theater feeling enriched by all that I saw. The Shaman’s Apprentice and Little Sparks, in particular, will stay with me for a long time: the former for its masterful, gorgeous stop-motion, and gripping storyline shaped by Inuit religion; the latter for its ability to capture so many genuine moments between family members, and highlight the love and resilience needed to teach children in a world undergoing collective trauma. 

If given a chance to view any one of these incredible shorts, I highly recommend you grab it. Spanning diverse genres, mediums, languages, and cultures, each is a compelling tribute to the power of tapping into one’s inner strength.

Athena Film Festival banner via Bwog Archives