Following the UrbanWorld Film Festival premiere of Queen of Katwe at Times Squares AMC Empire theater Thursday evening, director Mira Nair and Golden Globe nominee & star of the film David Oyelowo sat for a little Q&A where they discussed the remarkable true story of a little girl Phiona (played by acting newcomer, Madina Nalwanga) whose talent for Chess would unbeknownst to her bring honor to her, her family and the people of Katwe; not to mention, the delicacy and etiquette required in order to produce such a story.
The 2016 Athena Film Festival occurred this past weekend where male and female filmmakers alike came together to showcase their work, all featuring female protagonists. In a world where women tend not to have the same kind of rights that men do, the film festival hopes to awaken women filmmakers to pursue their dreams in Hollywood and in the film industry, which is one of the most male dominated industries that anyone can go into.
Founded six years ago by Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein, the festival has come to feature the films of countless women leaders, and has even started the Leading Man Award, which was given to Paul Feig for his accomplishments in promoting female characters in his films. Not only did the festival screen films, but it also held certain events, like a workshop in collaboration with the Blacklist, in which women screenwriters worked on getting their scripts made.
The festival was a woman-made, women-packed celebration, and to further celebrate that, here are some interviews we’ve had with the founders, as well as honorees Geralyn Dreyfous and Mira Nair.
What was the thinking behind getting the festival started six years ago?
So the Athena Film Festival has one simple goal, which is to change what leadership looks like. So that when you close your eyes and when you think leadership, you’ll conjure up an image of strong, influential, powerful women.
You also are the director of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership, so how was that experience useful in creating this vision?
Clearly our goal at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard is to ensure that more women rise to leadership across all sectors of society and one of the ways that we can cultivate change is to change how culture sees leadership, and that’s the point of the film festival.
And do you believe that the festival has helped women leaders through filmmaking and showing films?
Absolutely, this is our sixth year and we’re showing fabulous films; each one of whom has a woman in a leadership role, is a protagonist in a story. You spend a weekend here with us and you will see leadership in a different way.
This year marks the first ever Athena’s Leading Man award, given to Paul Feig. How did you choose to award him and come up with the award in the first place?
Well Paul Feig is the recipient of our first Leading Man award. We have always believed that men and women need to work together to cultivate change, and so part of the festival we show films that are made by both men and women as long as women are the central aspect of the story. Creating the Leading Man award is part of the continuation of that same theory and we’re thrilled to honor Paul: he is a trailblazer, he has created a whole genre of films in which women are very, very, very funny and we are thrilled to honor him. He will be here at the festival tomorrow with Kate McKinnon from Saturday Night Live and it’ll be a fabulous event and we encourage people to come.
What was the thinking behind founding the festival six years ago?
We just want to show women leaders on screen and work as hard as we can to show as many women as we can behind the scenes. The whole objective is to create inspiration as well as aspiration for young women and men to see the world as it should be: 50/50.
Have you seen women filmmakers rise to the challenge and showcase their work?
I don’t think women have to prove anything. They are competent, they are trained, they are ready to go. I think the world needs to wake up and pay attention to the fact that they are there and to treat them with respect that they deserve. When a man and a woman are trained equally and the man is looked at as more competent than she is, is just unacceptable, it’s just sexism.
How do you see this festival combating that?
Well the festival is like an intervention in a variety of different levels. We have a lab that was started this year in partnership with the Blacklist for screenwriters that are working on a screenplay that has a female protagonist in it and they just completed two days of workshops. And we also have the Athena List, which is two days of scripts that get to be filmed with female protagonists. And everything you see on screen, the whole weekend—it is basically the antithesis to Hollywood, it’s all about women.
Paul Feig is the first recipient of the Athena Leading Man award, so how was it like choosing him?
Well when you look at Paul Feig’s body of work, he highlights and celebrates women. And he has been doing it before it was sexy and cool. And so what he exemplifies is exactly what we want in the world. He recognizes women on screen are funny, are sexy, are awesome.
As a well accomplished producer, how does it feel like attending the festival and offering insight to aspiring female producers and filmmakers?
Well you know it’s thrilling. It’s a great time to be in documentary filmmaking. I also do some feature filmmaking but the non-fiction is the place that I really love the most. And there’s some extraordinary women directors and producers and talent in that field and sort of just to watch that community keep growing and how we really support one another and support each other’s stories; it’s just a great story.
And how do you feel the Athena Film Festival is helping women filmmakers achieve their dreams?
Well I think it’s really cool that a school like Barnard College that was founded with such a deep tradition of supporting women hosts a festival like this and give women a platform that they can be taken seriously and engage with students and next generation leaders but also be in the culture capital of the world and the media capital of the world in New York City so it’s great a combination. I just think that stories really matter and telling them is the way we crack the world open and reinvent it and just to have people to support these films as audience members and philanthropy. Just supporting it by connecting to the stories and having conversations about it.
How is it like to be honored by the festival?
They’re killing me softly baby. No I’m really happy to be here and honored to be part of a festival that promotes leadership in women because that’s what we are. And what I do is speak softly and carry a big stick, so I’m very happy to be part of a festival that honors that.
And what are your thoughts on the festival promoting women leaders and filmmakers?
There is nothing greater inspired than someone before you who has sweated the struggle and seen the life of the other side and that’s what festivals like this do. They bring us people who have done this and we celebrate their work and we can hopefully see ourselves in them to do that kind of thing—or more. So that’s why
Your career spans combining South East Asian culture with American filmmaking, so have you found any overlap with the cultures?
Well I have always made my own films whether they are independently made or studio, but they are always with my voice. And my voice is distinctly Indian/African: a world view that is not primarily within America but outside America as well. So it’s a unique to be, to be at home here and to be able to tell American stories but also what really inspires me are stories of people like us who are rarely on screen but have universal stories to tell. So Monsoon Wedding is a story about the madness around my own dining table at home in New Delhi but it became a massive worldwide hit because everybody saw their own selves and their families in it. So that kind of idea of making work that is specifically local and truthful but because of its specificity and its treatment, becomes universal, is what I love to do.
You also have a bridge program for Ugandan students, Maisha, to learn about filmmaking.
Yes, Maisha: it’s a film school now for 11 years that works in the four countries of Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and we have now trained more than 650 filmmakers. And that is the point because the slogan of Maisha is one of my great philosophies which is “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.” So this is a way for Africans to tell their stories and in the process of it, I have made my own stories there, the Queen of Katwe, which is a new film.
Oh! Tell us more.
It’s a Disney film, there will be a clip of it tonight, and it’s with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo and it’s releasing all over the world in September.