The Athena Film Festival 2015: Reimagining Gender Equality in Movies


There is not a lack of talent for women in film, there’s a lack of opportunity.”

 So says Melissa Silverstein, Athena Film Festival co-founder. She, along with co-founder Kathryn Kolbert thought about starting a film festival for and about women a few years ago, they had valid reasons to make it gender specific.  Obviously, they weren’t the only ones aware of the lack of strong female leads in movies, but they felt a need to address a Hollywood disconnect – why were there so few opportunities for women in film when movies with female protagonists gross 20% more than films about men.

The political world isn’t the only arena with a glass ceiling women still need to break though.

But something more was needed than just talk, so Silverstein and Kolbert launched a festival, named after Athena, the Greek mythological goddess of both arts and war, that would not only highlight women who appear on screen, but would also celebrate women and leadership in the filmmaking industry — something we don’t see a lot of, at least at red carpet events. They also wanted to showcase films documenting how women can change lives – their own, the world and their communities.

Why? Silverstein says, “We’re reimagining gender equality.” And then there’s women’s leadership in the movie world. Kolbert, the director of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, told the Wall Street Journal, “My goal from day one was to change the conversation and change how people perceive leadership.”

And that’s how the Athena Film Festival was born. Now in its fifth year, and starting later this week, the festival now attracts groundbreaking women in the industry, like this year’s Lifetime Achievement award recipient Jodie Foster.

We spent some time chatting with Silverstein, who is also editor of Women and Hollywood, who said “It’s our hope that Athena opens up minds and makes it clear that women’s voices and visions count and matter. That’s what women need. There is not a lack of talent for women in film, there’s a lack of opportunity.”

For example, in 2013, the festival lauded Ava DuVernay, not a household name then, but has become one with the release of Selma, the film she directed that tells the story of martin Luther King and the civil rights movement through an African American lens. There’s been a lot of talk about how DuVernay was snubbed by the major film awards for Selma; Silverstein and Kolbert were ahead of the curve when they recognized DuVernay for her work last year.

About her choices to highlight groundbreaking filmmakers, Silverstein said, “It’s important for us to highlight the lack of opportunities for women and the fact that the industry has been so male-centric for so long and the fact that DuVernay made this great movies and we still have these gender-biased issues is mind-boggling. That’s why it’s important to keep these conversations going.”

Athena will open with the New York premiere of Kim Longinotto’s “Dreamcatcher,” a documentary about a former Chicago prostitute who battles to break the cycle of sex abuse and exploitation among young inner-city women, Gillian Robespierre’s subversive abortion movie “Obvious Child” starring comedienne Jenny Slate, Lukas Moodysson’s punk band comedy “We Are the Best!”, Afia Nathaniel’s Pakistani mother-daughter story “Dukhtar”, Doris Dorrie’s “Que Caramba Es La Vida” about women in the male-dominated world of Mariachi music and “Crash Reel” doc director Lucy Walker’s 27-minute short “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” centered on a Scottish actress confronting Huntington’s Disease. Movies you’ve probably not heard of … until now.

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