In many ways, the last couple of months have bittersweet for women in film. On the one hand, female-led projects have had a banner year: the top three highest-grossing domestic films of 2017 had women protagonists. Just one year ago, we didn't yet have Wonder Woman, or Valkyrie, or Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri. We couldn't have imagined Lady Bird, let alone dreamt that it would be earn Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director — the first nod to a woman in that category in eight years. And the proper way to pronounce Saoirse Ronan's name was still a mystery.
But on the other hand, women continue to lag behind when it comes to opportunities behind the camera. Only 4% of the top-grossing films between 2007 and 2017 were directed by women, a ratio of 22 to 1. What's more, while the current reckoning around issues of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood has helped highlight the power imbalances that allowed this behavior to go unchecked for so long, probing the depths of the chasm makes one realize how far we still have to go to climb out of it.
There is an appetite for female-focused cinema. Just look at this year's Sundance Film Festival winners, dominated by women in a year with a record 37% of female directors. And so, until Hollywood gets its act together and realizes that the future is female, we need a place for projects or artists that aren't getting the attention they deserve to get their chance to shine.
Enter the Athena Film Festival, which seeks to highlight women's achievements in film and TV. Now in its eighth year, and the result of a collaboration between Kathryn Kolbert, director of Barnard College's Athena Center for Leadership Studies, and Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, it's an example of how we can promote an important social mission combined with entertainment.
"Watching films that promote women in influential and powerful roles, among an audience that cares deeply about advancing women, is a unique experience," Kolbert and Silverstein wrote in an email statement to Refinery29. "To see so many of these great movies over the course of one weekend enhances the experience."
The goal? To change the conversation by changing the culture. If the success of Wonder Woman and Black Panther have proved anything, it's that films have the power to inspire real social progress. Movies and television influence how we perceive ourselves and shape our cultural norms. If all we see are movies by white men that relegate women and people of color to the sidelines, then that's all we'll have to aspire to.
Perhaps one day, we won't need to hold a separate festival to celebrate women's contributions to film. And in fact, both Silverstein and Kolbert acknowledge that as the eventual desired outcome. But, as Kolbert pointed out, if we judge Hollywood by the same standards as we do Congress, we could be waiting another 100 years for gender parity. "I'm fairly confident we'll be here for a while," she said.
This year's event, which held its opening night on Thursday and will run through February 25, includes screenings of Wonder Woman, Battle of The Sexes, Lady Bird, The Zookeeper's Wife, Moana, Megan Leavey, and The Breadwinner. According to Silverstein, the idea is to have a mix of films depicting female stories, and films written, produced, or directed by women.
On February 21, the festival screened the premiere episode of UnReal's landmark third season, which will star a female suitor, followed by a Q&A with star Shiri Appleby, producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and showrunner Stacey Rukeyser. "We are thrilled to be included in a festival that celebrates stories about women—real, complicated, flawed women who also happen to be powerful and ambitious," Rukeyser told Refinery29. "We’re also thrilled that television is being honored alongside film and believe that this inclusion recognizes the power of our medium."
As far as documentaries go, the lineup is just as satisfying: Gale Ann Hurd's Mankiller is the festival's centerpiece film, and will screen alongside Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Gaylene Preston's My Year With Helen, Signe Taylor's It's Criminal, and the Mariska Hargitay-produced I Am Evidence.
Among those to be honored over the course of the weekend are J.J. Abrams, recipient of the Athena Film Festival Leading Man Award, writer and director Amma Asante, documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, and actress and comedian Bridget Everett.
But the festival isn't just limited to viewing film onscreen. A number of panels are scheduled to discuss movie-related topics like the female gaze, and how to revise our accepted canon to include more work by and starring women and people of color. Likewise, workshops are planned to help aspiring filmmakers devise and promote their brands, as well as experiential virtual reality events.
Although Kolbert and Silverstein have been pursuing their mission for almost a decade, the timing of this particular festival isn't lost on them. "As a result of the Women's March, #MeToo, and #Times Up, women are organizing for change in every aspect of our society," they wrote. "Changing how Hollywood depicts women and involves them in leadership is a key component of this movement. Athena has had this as our goal since day one, and we are thrilled to see the effort become part of a wider movement."
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