Star-Studded Athena Film Festival Hopes to Highlight Diverse Forms of Female Leadership

Courtesy of Robin Marchant
Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert at last year's Athena Film Festival.

"When they close their eyes and they think leadership, they're going to see a multiple array of people, over half of which are women, in strong and courageous roles," Kolbert says of her goal for the festival's audience.

The 2015 Athena Film Festival kicks off Thursday night honoring Jodie Foster at the New York premiere of its opening night documentary Dreamcatcher.

The evening illustrates how the Barnard College-based festival, now in its fifth year, mixes celebrating well-known individuals and movies along with lesser-known but significant films about women's leadership it its various forms.

"I want to bring in movies that are never going to be seen here unless there was an Athena Film Festival, but I also want to balance films that have been released but didn't get such a big release and people might've missed," Athena co-founder and artistic director Melissa Silverstein tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Indeed, the festival's slate of narrative, documentary and short films from around the world only includes a handful of widely-recognized titles, with the previously released Obvious Child and Beyond the Lights arguably the best-known narrative films. And even the well-received Beyond the Lights, hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves, Silverstein argues.

"It should be a much bigger movie than it is," the festival co-founder says, praising lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance. "I just don't understand — me, personally, as a woman in this business, as a woman looking for stories that resonate with people — [how] that didn't resonate more with people."

Silverstein says that female-focused films often "don't get the attention that they need and deserve."

"These stories about women, they just get dismissed so quickly. That's what happened with Wild this year," Silverstein says of the film, which landed two Oscar nominations but was notably snubbed in other categories.

But Silverstein stressed that some of the lesser-known titles contain equally if not more significant portrayals of women's leadership.

Difret, for instance, which the festival just recently secured as its closing night film, Silverstein says she fought for months to have in Athena's slate. She saw the movie — about a girl in Ethiopia who fights against being abducted into marriage and ends up killing her would-be husband, with another woman defending her — at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014 and knew she had to have it for Athena.

"This is like the best movie ever on women's leadership," Silverstein recalls thinking.

Similarly, Silverstein says she and her colleagues were impressed by the documentary Sepideh, about an Iranian girl who fights to achieve her dream of being an astronomer.

Such titles reflect Athena co-founder Kathryn Kolbert's goal "to paint a broader, more inclusive picture of what leadership looks like — to not only think about leadership in terms of career but to think about leadership in making a difference in the world or thinking about leadership in your family. My goal has really been to have films that demonstrate women as leaders in a whole host of arenas all over the world: all different shapes, sizes, colors of people and have our sense of leadership be broader and more diverse."

Kolbert hopes that those who attend the festival and see such multifaceted portrayals of women will get a different view of a leader.

"When they close their eyes and they think leadership, they're going to see a multiple array of people, over half of which are women, in strong and courageous roles," Kolbert says of her goal for the festival's audience.

When festivalgoers open their eyes, they'll also see a number of well-known female leaders in Hollywood being honored at the festival. In addition to Foster — who's being honored with the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award, past recipients of which include Sherry Lansing and Gale Anne Hurd — the festival is honoring Beyond the Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also directed Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees; HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins and Oscar-winning Crash producer and Mandalay Pictures president Cathy Schulman.

"Its flattering that they think that my leadership has been helpful in moving the national debate on the role of women in media forward at least a [bit]," Schulman, who's also the president of Women in Film, tells THR.

Silverstein said she hopes the festival, and the conversation it generates about women's roles in the entertainment industry, will "aspire and inspire people."

"We need a critical mass of women, so it's not just one person standing up there, holding up half the sky for all of us," she says.

Both Silverstein and Schulman said they hoped one day that gender equality in Hollywood would be so prevalent that there wouldn't be the need for a specific festival devoted to female leaders.

"I'm working towards a world where gender diversity, racial diversity is the norm," Silverstein says. "We all should be."

Schulman is also hopeful but believes there's a strong need for the festival now.

"I certainly long for a day in which we don't need to distinguish ourselves as different or separate," she says. "But I also feel very, very committed that while the numbers are this bad…I don't see any option as we stand here today that if we weren't to distinguish ourselves that we'd be able to change this fundamental problem."

The 2015 Athena Film Festival, presented by Barnard College's Athena Center for Leadership Studies, will take place in Morningside Heights from Feb. 5-8.