Now in its seventh year, the Athena Film Festival continues to be a venue for films featuring female leaders. To think, it’s an idea so unheard of there needs to be an entire festival donated to more than half the population. Nonetheless, the festival continues in its pursuit of featuring the female protagonist.
It screens films about female movers and shakers as well as fostering growth in holding panels and discussions with current leaders. Founded by Kathryn Kolbert, of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, and Melissa Silverstein, the Artistic Director of Women and Hollywood, the four-day festival has grown exponentially each year and continues to premiere films and events in emphasis to the modern-day female.
The Knockturnal asked Kolbert how it felt to have such a big turn out this year, especially with adverse snow conditions. “Well, first of all, it’s a blizzard, so it’s hard to stress how wonderful it is to see a crowd in the middle of a blizzard. So that’s a big difference. We’re much better known now than we were in the past.” She continued, talking about one of the festival’s most appreciated aspects, the Athena List, a list of screenplays akin to Hollywood’s Black List, but all featuring female protagonists. “We’re thrilled tonight to premiere a film that won the Athena List a couple of years ago so we’ve seen screenplays that we’ve honored become real films so it’s terrific. The best is we’re bigger and broader and just more interesting than we’ve ever been.”
But just how did she and Silverstein get the idea to make the festival in the first place? “We started with the idea that we wanted to see more women portrayed in film as leaders, making a difference for the world. So we show films that are made by both men and women. But our goal here is to have the women be protagonists to the story, making a difference in their lives and for the lives of their communities. That’s really the heart of the festival.”
Little Pink House saw its New York premiere at the Athena Film Festival on Thursday. The film follows the real-life story of Suzette Kelo, a woman in Connecticut who brought a case against the Supreme Court after a drug conglomerate had used eminent domain to seize her property and promptly destroy her home. Kolbert had this to say of the film, “It’s a great story of a women who took a case all the way to the Supreme Court to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, she lost but she was a terrific advocate and made a difference and the issue of eminent domain became an issue across the nation as a result.”
Little Pink House won the Athena Film Festival’s Athena List for best screenplay, and Kolbert stressed what an honor it was to feature a previously honored film. Courtney Balaker, the film’s director and writer, wrote the screenplay after Jeff Benedict’s novel of the same name. She said “It was an honor to make a film about a woman who stood up to the powerful power brokers that try to take our rights away from us. I was so happy to have the experience to do it. Suzette Kelo is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known and met, and she should be an example for all of us who feel like we’re getting our rights taken away from us.”
We asked Balakar about the message in the film, she said “I hope the film sheds a light on the problem of cronyism. I think cronyism is a bad thing. This film is about insiders versus outsiders, people who have the power and leverage that power and rig the system to hurt the people who fought the power. I think that’s an important story that’s still going on today.” She continued, on Kelo. “Suzette Kelo was one of the few people who had the balls, if I may say so, that said ‘no, you can’t do that to me.’ And that’s why this story needs to be told and this woman is one of the most courageous women I’ve ever met. And I hope people watch the film and see that what that courage requires and can be thankful to the sacrifices that she made. And she’s not looking for it and she’s so humble and this isn’t about her being the star of it– she just did what she thought was right.”
After the film, there was a Q&A section between Silverstein, Balakar and Kelo herself. Here are some highlights.
Silverstein: What was the reasoning behind the last scene, with Kelo over the plot of vacant land?
Balakar: The end of the film was so important to me and Suzette was so kind to do it. It was not easy for her to stand on the plot of land where her home was but she generously did it to show that these types of imminent domain– everyone promises economic development and tax revenue– they usually don’t end up being that at all. They usually end up being wastes of time, and nothing ends up happening. And I wanted that to be shown visually.
Silverstein: How did your role in the fight develop?
Kelo: I didn’t ask to do this; I didn’t want to do this the way it was done. I simply wanted to keep my home and that’s how it started for me, trying to keep my little pink house. It grew into something far bigger and as everybody knows, I was asked to take the lead and I did and here I am.
Silverstein: Has the reception of the film been different with the new president?
Balakar: When my husband and producing partner Ted Balakar and I started this process of making this film three years ago, we had no idea that Suzette’s famous opponent would be the president of the United States. He actually really liked the decision, it’s just been a really weird thing to see how things have progressed but I think looking at it through the lens of partisan politics is not the right way to look at the story because you’re going to find villains on both sides. This is a story about insiders versus outsiders, and insiders rigging the system so that the little guy loses. So it’s really important to me as the filmmaker to make this film about the horrors of cronyism. When the people are on the inside and they have the power, the little guy loses. That’s bad for all of us.