Athena Film Festival Honoring Paul Feig, Mira Nair Amid Increased Talk of Gender Issues in Hollywood

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Mira Nair

"For us it's not only about the movies but it's about how do we make change," co-founder Melissa Silverstein says of the female-focused event. "How do our conversations inspire things to be different?"

Since 2011, Barnard College's Athena Film Festival has celebrated women's leadership.

But this year, the female-focused festival, which kicked off last night with the New York premiere of reproductive-rights documentary Trapped, is taking place after a year in which there has been an increasingly heightened level of discussion about gender equality in Hollywood. With the ACLU pushing for an investigation into potentially discriminatory hiring practices to Jennifer Lawrence's attention-grabbing essay about her reaction to discovering she'd been paid less than her male co-stars, the issue of equal treatment for women behind and in front of the camera has come into focus.

Athena fest co-founder Kathryn Kolbert hopes that this year's event helps educate and foster connections among female filmmakers.

"The role that we see for the festival is to give voice and give a place of needing to the great women filmmakers who are out there and want to tell good stories to come to the festival, meet each other and learn from some of the masters," Kolbert tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Some of that education is likely to take place at panels about unconscious bias against women directing certain films and about barriers for women once they make a short film, fest co-founder Melissa Silverstein notes, highlighting two of the panels particularly germane to the current climate.

"For us it's not only about the movies but it's about how do we make change," says Silverstein. "How do our conversations inspire things to be different?"

But as Kolbert notes, "Discussion alone is not going to make the difference. We've been talking about the lack of diversity of women in leadership across all sectors of society for decades, and it alone is not enough.

"It helps break down the invisibility of the issue, but we need to be sure that the powers that be, the people who are making movies, who are approving budgets, who are picking directors, who are choosing CEOs in all aspects of life, that they have the will to make change," she said, echoing the call by many for those in leadership positions to cultivate more diversity in Hollywood. "So it's not enough just to raise the issue, but we have to see a change in the powers that be and make sure that they understand that this is not just a question of fairness, it's a question of value. When you bring diverse people into an enterprise, whether it's a Fortune 500 company or a movie, the movie is better when you have diverse voices at the table."

That sentiment is echoed by this year's Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Mira Nair, who is happy that the issue of gender equality is being discussed so publicly and prevalently.

"I'm happy to see that the lid has blown and the momentum is with us, focused on this pretty shocking inequity in the employment of women," she tells THR. "The initiative, the spotlight on this inequity is very, very welcome and about time. I think the momentum really also has to start from — as much as it has to start from the groundswell — I think it also has to start from the top, in getting women on the lists of things on which we are often and very easily excluded."

In fact, Nair is one of those female leaders who's been actively trying to create more diversity on film sets.

"Right from the beginning of my 30 years of working in theater and film, it has been very much about not just opening the door to stories from so-called other worlds, because nothing is more powerful than seeing our worlds onscreen, but also to open the door to working women, people of color, people who belong to what my stories actually are, and very often I've had to do that," says Nair. "The mentoring has to continue and happen. And people have to be alive to the fact that the stories we tell and also the people that are with us telling these stories have to reflect the diversity of the story."

The filmmaker recalled how on her 2009 film Amelia she insisted on a more diverse film crew in South Africa, and Nair pointed out that her assistant on that film is now her production coordinator on her upcoming film, Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo.

Nair is being honored alongside director Karyn Kusama, producer Geralyn Dreyfous and composer Jeanine Tesori, who is a Barnard College alumna. The event is also, for the first time, handing out two new awards, to the cast and crew of Suffragette, who will receive the first ensemble award, and to Paul Feig, the first man to be honored by the festival, who will receive the Athena "Leading Man" award, celebrating his long-standing, outspoken support for women in film.

Both have pushed to produce more female-fronted films and Silverstein says she felt it was time that that work was recognized.

"I think Paul Feig is really a natural fit for us because we've always been a film festival that has showcased movies directed by men and written by men and the whole point is what is on screen," she explains. "And Paul, over the last several years, is a person who has been putting forward such amazing female role models, female leaders in different movies. He's also very outspoken about the need for more gender diversity in the business. He's one of the only top-tier [figures] who talks about it regularly, on social media and in other places. And we thought it was time to acknowledge the fact that the only way that all of these things are going to change is if we're all working together."

As for Suffragette, Silverstein says, "There aren't many movies made in the business that really exemplify what Athena stands for. Suffragette, a movie that talks about women fighting for their rights to vote, in a certain time, in a certain place and has such incredible women behind the scenes that have worked to get this movie made, [is] a movie that we wanted to kind of take note of in our festival, because we know how hard it is to get these types of movies made. And we wanted to acknowledge all the people who worked to get it done."

Suffragette is among the films screening at Athena, with many of the other high-profile pics set to play the fest having already spent time in theaters, including Julianne Moore and Ellen Page's Freeheld, Alicia Vikander's Testament of Youth, French Oscar entry Mustang, He Named Me Malala, animated film Oscar nominee Inside Out, Far From the Madding Crowd and Truth.

Still, Silverstein says that Athena offers the opportunity to see things people may have missed and is "a different kind of festival."

"We try to tell a story about women's leadership," she says. "We try to have people imagine what the world would look like if we had more women leaders in all areas."

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