Athena Film Festival Honors 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Director Marielle Heller, Time's Up Organization

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Marielle Heller (left) and Melissa McCarthy filming 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

The ninth annual festival screened films centered on women leaders, awarded trailblazers making their mark in their respective fields, hosted panels like "Time's Upx2" and more.

For nine years, the Athena Film Festival — co-founded by the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and Women and Hollywood — has worked to spotlight women leaders across different industries.

"Initially, the idea was to give a place to showcase great women’s stories that were being made into films and to give women an opportunity to have those films made," festival co-founder Kathryn Kolbert told The Hollywood Reporter at Friday's awards ceremony. "We're just celebrating fierce and fearless women."

This year's slate of award winners included Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller and Time's Up founding member and lawyer Nina Shaw, while multihyphenate Desiree Akhavan took home the breakthrough prize.

"There’s something really exciting about being the first to do something. As much as it sucks to feel like there’s not enough opportunities out there, and that you’re alone in that struggle, it’s also really exciting to say, 'I get to break that barrier.' I get to be the person who says something that hasn’t been said before," Akhavan told THR. "Like, how many times have you seen movies about some straight white guy who’s single and some straight white girl who’s single, really like each other, want to get together, and how the fuck are they going to make it happen? That story is boring. I’d like to tell a different one."

For Akhavan and other women filmmakers to be able to tell their stories, she says network studios and production companies need to "put their money where their mouth is."

Toronto International Film Festival co-head Cameron Bailey seems to be doing so, as he won this year's Athena leading man award. 

"It’s very important that men are recognized because they’re half, if not more, of the battle," Kolbert said. "One of the reasons we started the leading man award is to recognize the contributions of great men who are willing to be advocates for women, and we’d like to see many, many more of them."

Bailey told THR that at TIFF, they're doing everything they can in terms of programming. Going forward, he said it's important to "listen to what women filmmakers need, and give them opportunities wherever we can."

Throughout the weekend at the Athena Film Fest, films such as Ask for JaneFast Color and I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story are being screened. Overall, 70 percent of the movies are female-directed, and 25 percent were helmed by women of color. 

The festival also hosted a number of panels, including one dedicated to Time's Up and its mission to double the number of women in leadership and across other spaces where they're underrepresented.

Award-winner Shaw, her fellow founding member Amber Tamblyn, the organization's entertainment executive director Nithya Raman and actress and activist Alysia Reiner discussed everything from the search for a new CEO to the trial of Harvey Weinstein.

Tamblyn herself attended a hearing to determine whether or not Weinstein's rape case would move forward to trial back in December.

"I think what was so profound about it, and probably even more profound to the other women that were there, who work with Time's Up, and who themselves are survivors — whether they're survivors of Weinstein or survivors of Bill Cosby or other problematic men — [was] to be able to stand in a room together like that, in a court, where justice is presumably served," she said. "And to just witness someone like Harvey Weinstein in the flesh and blood, who has caused so much pain and suffering for people, who has created and is very symbolic of the many problems [of people] that are in positions of power and systems that are held in place to oppress other people — most predominately women, but also people from the LGBTQ community, trans community, across genders and binaries — but to be seated in that room, silently, to just watch what unfolds and watch what is given to him through justice in a court of law was really profound."

Tamblyn added that the experience was a reminder that "sometimes our activism and our personal work does not have to be much more than showing up for each other. Sometimes it's just literally about us standing there together and saying, 'I see you. I see what's happened to you. It's unacceptable, and I'm here for you today. There's nothing I can do to fix it, but I'm here for you today.'"

Throughout the panel, the women discussed a number of high-profile names, such as John Lasseter. The former creative chief of Pixar and Disney Animation was named head of Skydance Animation in January after taking a leave of absence from Disney in November 2017 following what was described as him committing "missteps" that left some employees feeling "disrespected or uncomfortable."

Just last week, Emma Thompson wrote a letter about her exit from the film Luck, which was a result of Lasseter's hiring at Skydance.

"To have her come out and put that letter out there and say, 'I'm going to not be in that movie and make that money. I'm going to step down because I don't want to work with him,' — I feel like I have not seen that really before on that level," Tamblyn said, adding that the act was "incredibly brave." 

At various points throughout the discussion, Tamblyn and others made it clear that people who aren't in entertainment can still work toward the goals of Time's Up. 

"I think being involved is really about a state of mind. If you believe in the values that Time's Up upholds, then you're a part of Time's Up," Raman said. "So that's step one. Step two is, we're organizing across different industries."

For example, last Thursday, Time's Up announced that it is launching a healthcare initiative to tackle issues like harassment and inequity in the workplace. Tamblyn said the offshoot was formed by a group of women doctors themselves. "They just said, 'We're going to create this,' and Time's Up said, 'Great. We're with you,'" she said. "And that's part of the great joy of getting to work together, is working with women and men and non-binary people across all industries."

Reiner also mentioned Time's Up Tech and a potential Time's Up Wall Street. "I know a lot of people in that world, and there's men that are pulling back from mentoring women in that world because they're afraid of how things will be seen," Reiner said. "That scares me."

She continued, "I think more than ever, it's so deeply important to have conversations with men about, 'Don't be afraid of this.' This is not a bad thing. It's change. It's uncomfortable. It's not meant to be comfortable ... but that's how we grow."