Athena Film Festival Honors the Contributions of Women in Film

Image from the Athena Film Festival’s website

By Olivia Hull

Comic writer Alison Bechdel invented the “Bechdel test” in a comic strip published in 1985 to determine which movies were worth watching. The movie in question must pass the test by satisfying the following rules:

1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.

All the movies at the upcoming Athena Film Festival, Feb. 10-12, satisfy the above requirements. Unfortunately, they represent a minority among new movies—especially those produced in Hollywood, which tend to favor white male leads and oversimplified female characters. Not only are actresses marginalized, but women are underrepresented in all major leadership positions of film production. In fact, in all 83 years of Academy Award history, only one woman has won “Best Director,” and that was only last year (Kathryn Bigelow for the Hurt Locker). For this reason, the Barnard College-based festival aims to pay tribute to women leaders in all areas of film.

Barnard alumna Greta Gerwig, class of 2006 and co-star of the feature film Greenberg (2010) as well as the current wide-release No Strings Attached will speak about her acting and writing careers on February 12 at 1pm in the Diana Event Oval. Most of the films being shown are newly released. An older favorite Real Women Have Curves starring America Ferrera will be shown as well and director Patricia Cardoso will discuss the film afterwards. The line-up includes documentaries as well as narrative films and short films, and all are followed by a discussion with directors, actors and other members of its production team. In addition, several panels throughout the weekend will raise issues surrounding the role of women in film. On Friday night, actors, producers, directors and distributors will receive awards.

The film festival’s co-founder Kathryn “Kitty” Kolbert says the idea was born at an event at well-known feminist activist and magazine maven Gloria Steinem’s house. “It was a room full of directors and distributors and we all started talking about the lack of women in leadership roles and the portrayal of women in film,” Kolbert recalls. The original idea was to showcase women filmmakers, but later they expanded it to instead focus more broadly on stories of women leaders. The roster includes films by both male and female filmmakers. “The theme of women’s leadership ties them together,” she says.

The festival is the first major public event borne out of the Athena Center for Leadership studies at Barnard College, whose aim is to “advance women’s leadership…in the world, with primary concentration on Barnard,” in the words of its director, Kathryn Kolbert. The center was established in the fall of 2009, and has 92 scholars in the Athena Scholars Program, a pseudo-major involving coursework, internships and a senior project. The senior “social action scholarship project” requires students to “jump into something they know nothing about and figure out how to make a difference,” Kolbert noted. The Athena leadership lab, inaugurated in the fall of this year is open to the public and offers seminars in several areas including financial planning, communications and entrepreneurship. The festival has experienced an extraordinary reception so far. “It is hard to break in as a new festival but we’ve gotten a lot of coverage. A Hollywood blog even picked up the story.” When asked whether the festival will be repeated next year, Kolbert says, “It is a tremendous amount of work. I am hopeful that it will [be feasible] to repeat in the future… [but] I won’t make any promises. I am still deeply committed to bringing the portrait of women’s leaders to Barnard. As with every new venture, you have to weigh in at the end.”

Barnard is a fitting place for a film festival, according to Kolbert. There are a number of places to screen the films, including Held Auditorium, Altschul lecture hall 202, the Diana Event Oval, and the James Room on the fourth floor of Barnard Hall. “There are also great places to hang out,” where Kolbert hopes the attendees will have the opportunity to discuss women’s leadership and women in film between events.

“Marie Wilson of the White House project always says ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ The whole goal [of the festival and of the Athena Center in general] is to help us picture what dynamic women look like. We don’t have a hidden agenda, no. We hope to inspire Barnard students to be what they want to be, not what their parents, professors, or friends want them to be,” Kolbert says. Co-founder of the festival, blogger Melissa Silverstein, writes on December 16, 2010: “Think about it. The world will now have a film festival that is focused on women’s leadership. How cool is that?”

We salute you, Barnard, for working ceaselessly towards the advancement of women in all fields.

Olivia is a sophomore at Barnard College and is a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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