Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival
The Athena Film Festival—which kicks off today in New York City—isn’t the first to focus on women, but it’s one of the few that can boast a line-up that includes Julie Taymor, Diablo Cody, Liz Meriwether, and even My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman. Now in its second year, the four-day festival is the brainchild of Melissa Silverstein, founder of the blog Women & Hollywood, and Kathryn Kolbert, the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College (which is hosting the screenings, workshops, discussions, and award presentations).
Those who can’t make it to New York City aren’t completely out of luck; following screenings, discussion sessions will be streamed live on the website, with viewers encouraged to ask questions via Twitter. “Our goal is really to get as many people there to be a part of the conversation,” explains Silverstein, who spoke with ELLE.com about the importance of the festival and why she thinks women can do better than Bridesmaids.
ELLE: There are so many film festivals today—why does a festival like this need to exist?
Melissa Silverstein: What it tries to do is create a cultural conversation and dialogue about issues relating to women’s leadership. We live in a world where there’s a leadership crisis—we see the same kinds of leaders over and over again. Women need to see other kinds of options out there to believe they can be leaders. The film festival shows women leading in all kinds of contexts: There is a fictional film about the first prime minister in Denmark, a documentary about women in Nigeria who rebelled against a larger corporation that was poisoning their water, and then leadership related to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” What distinguishes this from other film festivals is we have films directed by both men and women, but the core has a women’s leadership component. In Hollywood, most people making movies are men. So we need movies [featuring women as leaders] to happen, we need people to see them, we need people to think about when they make decisions on the weekend of what to see, they need to want to see a movie with women and not have it be Bridesmaids.
ELLE: Do you think films like Bridesmaids, which was promoted as a women-can-be-as-gross-as-men comedy, are part of the problem?
MS: I think it’s great that we have the conversation—people are talking about it and thinking about it. Once people hear that 95-percent of top-grossing movies in Hollywood are directed by men, they go, “What? I didn’t know that.” When you spend your money, you should really know what you’re spending it on. Part of biggest problem is that men are indoctrinated over decades to believe that their stories are universal and stories of women are seen as the other. They don’t want to see movies about women because they don’t feel like it moves them forward. We don’t walk in and say, “God, I don’t want to see another movie about a comic book character.” It’s not the way people think about movies. I really think that if people knew and had the information and felt comfortable enough, had enough ammunition to say to their boyfriend, “This one got really good reviews,” or, “Last week we saw a movie directed by this guy, how about this week we see one by this woman?” instead of feeling like a pill or annoying or, “Oh my, she’s taking a stand.” Wanting diversity in your movie going shouldn’t have to be a feminist action, but it seems it is.
ELLE: Is the problem that these movies aren’t being made, or that people aren’t going to see them?
MS: Firstly, most of the people making movie decisions are men. And what drives their thinking is opening weekend box office, and they’re really stuck in this narrative that the thing that drives the box office are young men. And while we’re starting to see statistics proving that to be false, they seem stuck in this idea that this is how Hollywood operates. Every movie that opens is opening here in New York, so we have a very skewed perspective, but for people who don’t live in New York or L.A., movies [featuring women] are not available, so people don’t really have the choice. That’s why it’s really important for guys in Hollywood to make bigger movies that open on bigger screens and star women, so they can see that women can carry movies.
ELLE: What films screening at the festival are you particularly excited about?
MS: I’m excited about everything! I’m of the generation who loved My So-Called Life, and I met Winnie [Holzman, the show’s creator] this year and she’s an incredibly talented writer. She did a show, Huge, with her daughter Savannah Dooley, so we’re going to have them talk about being the first mother-daughter team to work together [on TV]. And our closing film is The Lady, which is a fictional film based on the true story of Aung San Suu Kyi, a democracy leader in Burma. The most amazing scene is there’s a huge rally, all these people are just saying her name and she says to her husband, “I’ve never spoken in public before.” And she’s doing this; to just stand up and figure out how to lead like that is incredibly inspirational. There are a lot of men in this country who lead because people say to them, “You’re born to be a leader.” But you never see that with women. Young women need to believe that they can lead just as well as their male peers, and they shouldn’t be afraid. What movies do is really give people cultural touchstones. So when you see a woman like Michelle Yeoh, an action star, playing Aung San, you’ve got to pause and go, “We need more women like this.” And that’s what the whole Athena Film Festival is for: You too can lead, and here are examples, here are people whose lives were being poisoned and had to stand up, or had to lead to get out of their communities, or lead to make their lives better.