Athena Film Festival Aims to Inspire Amid Current Political Climate, Troubling Stats for Female Directors

Patricia Riggen - H Getty 2016
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The annual Barnard College celebration of women's leadership, which kicked off Thursday night, seems particularly timely this year.

The seventh Athena Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with a screening of the first completed film from its female-focused version of the Black List, the Athena List. Little Pink House, starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn, is based on the true story behind the Supreme Court eminent domain case of Kelo v. City of New London and follows the Susette Kelo-led working-class homeowners trying to save their land from Pfizer.

The film was a fitting choice to open the festival, co-founder Melissa Silverstein says, not only because it was a finalist on the Athena List of unproduced screenplays with strong female protagonists. But also, Silverstein argues, it features a more nuanced portrayal of women's issues.

"It speaks so much to what we're trying to do at Athena in terms of how leadership and women's leadership appears in so many different ways and so many different places," Silverstein tells The Hollywood Reporter. "[Susette Kelo] is just one of these unsung heroes, and the film is really a lovely testament to what people can do in individual lives to fight back and for their rights."

She adds, "It's not about women's rights in particular. It's about the right to own your own home and not have it taken away by the government. I think it crosses a lot of boundaries that we don't always get to cross when we're talking about women's leadership."

And while the film was made a year ago, it, along with the rest of the Barnard College-based festival's annual celebration of female leadership, seems particularly timely this year in light of the current U.S. political climate.

"Athena feels a little more important this year in terms of what's going on in the world and that there are so few women's voices out there," Silverstein says. "We will continue to amplify women's voices wherever we can and show a whole weekend of women onscreen."

Silverstein and co-founder Kathryn Kolbert said that political developments didn't really affect which films they chose to screen at the festival, with Silverstein noting that they start looking so far in advance. But both women hope that this year's slate offers encouraging escapism.

"People who've been watching what's been going on in the last couple of months since the election need to be inspired about a world that's different than the world we're confronting. The nice part about the Athena Film Festival is it's four days of total distraction," Kolbert says. "You can come and be inspired seeing women making a difference in the world and hopefully that gives you an opportunity not only for some inspiration but for some recharging. Second, to me leadership is all about making a difference in your community, whether it be a very local one or on a global scale. So the stories we feature are all about making change, and making change which supports a diverse view of the world and which supports the ability of women to have agency over their own lives. And that is what we're all fighting for now and what I'll continue to do both at the festival and later on."

The festival's closing night screening, Dolores, a documentary about feminist union organizer and Cesar Chavez cohort Dolores Huerta, will also offer a venue for Athena attendees interested in activism to organize, in the form of a town hall set to take place beforehand.

The festival will also honor David Oyelowo, writer-director Patricia Riggen, Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler and Artemis Rising CEO Regina K. Scully.

"David articulates better than most people I know why it's important to have women directors, and he actually cares about it and he actually works with women directors," Silverstein says of why the festival wanted to honor the United Kingdom star. "We need to find as many allies as we possibly can to help us move the dial. He's a perfect example of the fact that you can do great work and work with women and be successful."

Riggen, Silverstein says, "had several movies released by studios, and her work is stellar, and she is a Latina woman who is operating at the top of Hollywood, and everyone should know her name." Riggen is also responsible for the highest-grossing live-action film at the domestic box office from a female director in 2016, Miracles From Heaven.

While Riggen humbly admits that whether or not movies make money is in some ways out of her hands, she's pleased by Miracles' success. "I'm happy that it's up there with making money, because it just helps all of the other women around. The statistics are still really sad, I must say, for such a progressive industry like Hollywood."

Indeed, the past month has seen the release of some troubling statistics about female directors. San Diego State University's annual Celluloid Ceiling report found that women accounted for just 7 percent of the directors working on the top 250 highest-grossing films at the domestic box office last year, a decline of two percentage points from 2015 and from 1998, the first year of the study. And USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative recently reported that, analyzing the directors of the 1,000 highest-grossing films from the past 10 years, 80 percent of the female helmers made only one movie from 2007 to 2016.

"There's still unfortunately an unconscious bias in people, men and women, that don't trust," Riggen argues. "Being a director is a job of trust. It's like being a surgeon. You want to put yourself in the hands of somebody you trust. You want to put your millions in the hands of someone you trust. And unfortunately how we look still determines how people see us and whether they trust us or not."

Both she and Silverstein say it's important to continue the conversation about gender equality and hire more women. Kolbert also hopes that Hollywood will offer positive gender portrayals at a time when the political world might not.

"When you have a political race in the country when the leadership is discussing gender in a way that affords or gives a green light to be sexist then I think that unfortunately trickles down to all sorts of institutions throughout society," Kolbert says. "And I worry that an administration in DC that permits treating women as objects, treating women as sexual beings as opposed to their contributions to the world will reinforce that view within institutions and society, Hollywood being a big reflection of that. … I think what we all understand is Hollywood can either reinforce bad behavior or it can be a leader here, and I think we really have an opportunity for Hollywood to begin to push back, and our view of the world is more diverse than that of the current administration."

The Athena Film Festival runs through Sunday (Feb. 12).