Celebrating Women in Film at the Athena Film Festival
It was just over a year ago that the 2018 Golden Globes presented a ceremony attended by hundreds of men and women in film dressed in black. Barbra Streisand and Natalie Portman called for more recognition for female directors and Oprah Winfrey’s inspiring speech basically broke the internet. Although 2018’s ceremony saw a lot of talk about elevating women, the momentum seems to have died down this year, with the 2019 Golden Globes and the Oscars lacking any big statements like those from last year; even though this year’s ceremonies were a far cry from 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite (women of color received more awards this year, albeit in categories where white women had previously been recognized), the last time a woman was awarded Best Director at the Oscars and the Golden Globes was 2010 and 1984, respectively. Those women--Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker and Barbra Streisand for Yentl--are the only women to have won Best Director. In the words of Barbra, “Folks, time’s up!”
Why am I bringing this up now? Barbra and Oprah were two of the women featured in clips before screenings at the Athena Film Festival this year. In Oprah’s iconic acceptance speech during the 2018 Golden Globes, she says to the other women in the room, “Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell.” After all, that’s what a film--any film, whether it’s a short, an animated film, a documentary, a feature--is: a story. For one weekend every spring, Barnard students, alumnae, and film enthusiasts from across the country gather to listen to the stories of inspirational, funny, uplifting, and amazing women. The Athena Film Festival is a four day-long film festival honoring women directors, screenwriters, actresses, cinematographers, and everything in between. If the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press won’t honor women and women of colors at their ceremonies, Barnard certainly will.
My first year at Barnard, I didn’t go to the Athena Film Festival. But I decided that I would this year, especially with my growing interest in film. This interest developed during my first year at Barnard after I took two classes with my pre-major advisor, a professor in the Film Studies Department. I was initially confused to be placed with a pre-major advisor in Film Studies because I was absolutely sure at that point I was going to major in history or psychology. However, I had a lingering interest in writing for film or television, which I indicated on the advising questionnaire Barnard sent me over the summer. I think both my advisor and I were very confused as to why Barnard matched us, but regardless of that fact, I’m extremely grateful to have had her as my advisor. She was a professor and advisor at Barnard, but she also was a film scholar, screenwriter, producer, and director. I don’t know if I remember everything she taught me about Italian Neorealismo or auteurism while I was a student in her class, but the thing I remember most was when she asked a room of about fifty young women, “Many of you are talking about writing for film...but why don’t you want to be the director yourself? We need more women as directors.”
Of the shorts, documentaries, and features shown at the Athena Film Festival, around 70% had at least one woman director. Some of these films had political undertones or focused on gender issues, but all of them had women at the heart of the filmmaking and the plotline. Finally, we’re seeing lots of films for women, by women, about women. I think it’s about time.