The seventh annual Athena Film Festival held its award ceremony Friday night at Barnard College.
The four-day festival, which celebrates women’s leadership both in real life and on screen, includes screenings of feature films, shorts, and documentaries, as well as conversations and workshops with filmmakers. I was fortunate enough to speak to Athena co-founder Melissa Silverstein, and honorees Regina K. Scully, Eve Ensler, David Oyelowo, and Patricia Riggen on the red carpet.
Melissa Silverstein is the co-founder and the artistic director of the Athena Film Festival.
What sets Athena apart from other film festivals?
MS: The mission of Athena is to put forward women’s leadership.
What is the importance of that mission given our current political climate?
MS: It’s even more important now. We need to see a diversity of voices all across our screens, everywhere. We are half the world; we count, we matter. Our voices matter. I think it’s even more crucial now because films give people the ability to dream and to be inspired and to have aspirations. When we live in a world where we don’t see ourselves in leadership positions, we are bereft. What we need to do is use film to show us how this world could be.
What is a film that has inspired you?
MS: I see so many movies; I’m the programmer of the festival. But I think our closing film about Dolores Huerta is really inspirational. People don’t necessarily know Dolores’s name, but she was involved from day one with all the work that happened with the United Farm Workers, and I’m super excited to be sharing her story. As they say with ‘Hidden Figures,’ hidden figures no more. And ‘Hidden Figures’ is also a hugely inspirational movie. We added it to the program, and it sold out really quickly. I think that having the opportunity to see people you don’t usually see on screen is vital.
Regina K. Scully is an Athena awardee and producer of such films as ‘The Hunting Ground’ and ‘The Invisible War.’
As a producer, what interests you in pursuing a particular project?
RS: The issue. I always look for the issue at hand: How will the issue affect our culture, how will it help transform our culture, how will it affect our civil society. Then I look to see what is the best way to tell the story so that people can actually open their hearts and their minds to hear it, and so that they can be activated to do something about it.
Do you have any advice for women who want to break into the film industry?
RS: Don’t be afraid to find your voice, share your voice, help support other women to tell their stories, and find what you’re fiercely compassionate about. Identify what you care most deeply about on a cellular level, stick with it, and step up. Do what needs to be done.
Can you tell me about the Artemis Rising Foundation?
RS: Artemis Rising is a foundation I started to look for some of the best story tellers in the field and in the media—whether it’s television, film, online, social media. We want to help women find their voice, and tell their stories.
Eve Ensler is an Athena awardee, women’s activist, and playwright best know for ‘The Vagina Monologues.’
Do you think ‘The Vagina Monologues’ has reached an even higher level of relevance in the age of Donald Trump?
EE: It’s a very good question, and sadly the answer is yes. We are seeing an insane number of productions happening around the world, and particularly in this country—it’s like every minute they’re coming in. We know what that’s telling us, that the predator-in-chief has ushered in a rape culture unlike any rape culture we’ve ever known. And as a predatory country, it’s impacting every direction, whether it’s immigrants, or deportations, or the devastation of the earth through pipelines, or the devastation of economic rights, or reproductive rights, or gay rights, or trans rights. There isn’t one direction you look in that you don’t see predation. So I’m really thrilled to see women who have taken up the play this year, and I’m very happy to say that it’s being done a lot in the red states. Women are finding each other in those productions, and coming together to really resist.
Can you tell me about V-Day?
EE: We’ll have our twentieth anniversary next year. It grew out of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ because, as I toured, so many women were lining up to talk to me at the end of each show, and 90% of them were telling me that they had been raped or battered. I was having a breakdown. I thought either I’m going to do something, or I’m going to stop doing the show. So in ‘98 we got a group of women together in my living room, and we asked how we could use the play to end violence against women—because back in those days I actually thought we were going to end it, right, that was 20 years ago. We did one evening at the Hammerstein Ballroom with Whoopi Goldberg and Susan Sarandon and Glenn Close and Rosie Perez and Lily Tomlin, and it blew the roof off the theater; we knew we were on to something. After that night, it was like these seeds were spewed into the air, and some women took it to colleges, some women did vagina pajamas, some women brought it to Pakistan. It really launched this movement. That lead into one billion rising, which started five years ago and is the biggest mass action against violence against women. I was just looking at the map, and 131 cities in Germany are rising, 22 states in India, 90 cities in Poland. It is off the charts because we’re seeing the same, racist, fascist, patriarchal rising across this planet. I think women are really coming together, and we saw it in the women’s march and we’ve seen it in one billion rising over the last five years. As we’re seeing this horrible fascism, we’re seeing this resistance rising simultaneously.
I read that you had consulted on ‘Mad Max.’
EE: It was a wonderful experience. George Miller had heard me speak in Sydney at a human rights conference, and he called me up and asked if I wanted to come and consult and help the actors and the crew look at the politics surrounding that world, and look at sex trafficking—what women who had been held as sex slaves would undergo. I gave them the historic information and taught them about what they would be feeling because of my experience traveling the world. I also really worked with the crew to give them a much more political vision of where that dystopia would actually lie.
David Oyelowo is an Athena awardee and actor know for such films as ‘Selma’ and ‘Queen of Katwe.’
What does it mean to you to receive Athena’s leading man award?
DO: It’s a huge honor for me. I sort of feel mixed about it in a sense because the reasons for which I’m getting it shouldn’t be unusual; I’ve worked with a lot of female directors, but I’ve worked with a lot of male directors. There are a lot of women in the world, 51% is the representation here in America, so what I’m doing shouldn’t be abnormal. But I guess because it is, I’ll take the recognition.
What do you think we can do to help correct the gender imbalance in filmmaking?
DO: I think to be very intentional about it; it’s not just going to happen by accident. There are very real systems and biases in place that mean we’ve been talking about this for a long time and it’s just not improving. A concerted effort is what is needed to go and seek out those women who are doing great work and give them the opportunities. Studio heads, agents, actors, should all be very intentional about the fact that this just has to change.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
DO: ‘A United Kingdom’ comes out today and was directed by a phenomenal female director, Amma Asante. It opens here in New York and in L.A. today, and it goes wide through February and March.
Patricia Riggen is an Athena awardee, producer, and director of such films as ‘The 33’ and ‘Miracles from Heaven.’
How does it feel to be back in Columbia?
PR: Awesome! It’s my home; this is where I started. I love coming to Columbia, I became a director here, I learned how to be a director here. So I’m very grateful. It changed my life.
What should the industry be doing differently to support women?
PR: They need to stop being the equivalent of racist, whatever that’s called. They need to recognize it so that they can stop it, and that’s why we need to talk about it. They don’t do it on purpose; it’s just the culture on this planet.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
PR: I am attached to a beautiful movie that is called ‘Life and Other Near Death Experiences’ that Laura Terruso is writing and Jessica Chastain is staring in and Maven Pictures is producing.
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