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Athena Film Festival 2015 Highlights

Waiting at Penn Station before heading home, I realized that the fifth edition of the Athena Film Festival, the four-day event held Feb. 5-8 on the campus of New York’s Barnard College that promotes women in all facets of the movie industry, had cast its spell on me.

In case you are wondering, the answer is yes, there were a fair number of men in attendance at Athena, including actors Vondie Curtis-Hall, with director-wife Kasi Lemmons (“Black Nativity”), and Dylan McDermott.

But to be surrounded by a female majority of various ages and backgrounds—especially the bright young students at this prestigious educational institution for women, many of whom work as festival volunteers—and being able to share knowledge, ideas, concerns and advice across several days is a too-rare occurrence for me. As an Athena first-timer, I knew I would enjoy the movies and Q-and-A sessions, but I didn’t realize how much I would appreciate the opportunity to connect with women beyond my usual circle.

That is probably why I felt compelled to move my bag off from the seat next to me and beckon a Boston-bound woman holding a cane, who was clearly seeking a place to rest before her train arrived. As we talked about matters both mundane and serious, I realized I wasn’t just being polite. I was trying to keep the discussion going.

The only jarring note during the festival: the sexist come-ons in the air as rap music was piped into the eatery at the Diana Center, the festival’s ground zero. Definitely not on message.

Athena co-founder Melissa Silverstein, editor of the blog Women and Hollywood at who handles the festival’s programming, finds a substantial number of documentaries and shorts from around the globe to show each year. But she has a harder time locating worthy feature-length films that fit the festival’s objectives. As she says, “This is not a film festival for women. It is a festival that focuses on women leadership on screen,” both in front of and behind the camera.

With just 15% of features involving a female protagonist, it is not an easy task. “Our stories need to matter just as much as the male stories,” she says.

A few noteworthy independent films released last year definitely fit that bill and were present and accounted for: “We Are the Best!,” a celebration of punk-girl rebellion directed by Sweden’s Lucas Moodysson; “Obvious Child,” a dramedy starring comic actress Jenny Slate and directed by first-time feature director Gillian Robespierre; “Dear White People,” a racially charged satire directed by Justin Simien in his feature debut; and “Beyond the Lights,” a showbiz love story directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also participated in a festival master class and was an awards recipient.

But Silverstein also managed to include some potential sleepers. One she is especially keen on was the closing-night title, “Difret,” which was picked as Ethiopia’s best foreign language Oscar entry, about a 14-year-old who refuses to be abducted into marriage and ends up being the center of a precedent-setting legal case. “Angelina Jolie is the executive producer,” she says. “It is a very powerful, special movie.” One that already has a distributor and should come out this year.

In some ways, Athena is much like other festivals. Glitz and glamour are a must, of course, the better to attract press coverage and keep star-gazing attendees happy. And there is no better way to ensure that a celebrity shows up than to present them with a fancy knickknack.

Then again, there could be no better recipient for a lifetime achievement honor at a female-focused film gathering than two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster. She received her embossed crystal on Thursday, the fest’s opening night, rather than at the official awards reception on Saturday. Foster, no diva, had a good excuse: Her presence that same night was required at the Directors Guild Awards ceremony in L.A. as a nominee for her directorial efforts on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards.”

Foster, 52, duly walked a mini red carpet and posed for pictures before speaking to the overwhelmingly female members of the press in attendance. In her 49 years in the movie business, she has collected 54 awards and 37 nominations. Still, her Athena trophy holds a special meaning for “The Silence of the Lambs” actress—not the least of which is that it’s named for Laura Ziskin, the producer behind the first “Spider-Man” trilogy and a high-ranking studio honcho who died of breast cancer in 2011.

“She is someone I knew and really respected,” she told me. “A great lady and a terrific executive.” Also, Foster admires the mission behind Athena, named for the patron goddess of art and war. “I appreciate the idea of being surrounded by women and filmmakers.”

Added the onetime child actress who would make the same observation later onstage, “When I was growing up there were no female faces at all on a movie set. Every once in a while, there would be a makeup artist or script supervisor, and that is about it. I never thought I would even direct because I had never seen a female director. It is just wonderful to see that it has changed so much.”

But she also concedes, “It’s still a struggle for women to direct—especially to direct,” considering that only 7% of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014 were made by female filmmakers. Foster also acknowledges that when she made her first movie, 1991’s “Little Man Tate,” she had an edge by being an industry veteran.

“These men, these older men. They had worked with me and they knew me. They knew I was there at 8 in the morning. They knew I had ideas. They were like my fathers. And they gave me the opportunity that they gave their own daughters. The women directors at that time, they had advantages. And now they can pass those advantages to other people coming down.”

At this stage of her career, Foster seems more devoted to making films than being in them, and her next one, “Money Monster,” is a throwback to socially aware ‘70s thrillers like "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon." It stars George Clooney as a pompous TV financial advisor who is kidnapped on-air by a worker, played by "Unbroken"’s Jack O’Connell. Also in the cast: Julia Roberts. Production stars up in three weeks. And she needs no warning about Clooney’s penchant for pranks. She says she's taking precautions.

But while the festival’s scheduled events might be the initial draw, it is the unexpected moments off-screen that can and will happen that truly define a film festival. Here are a few I witnessed.

The opening-night movie, “Dreamcatcher,” was a doozy—equal parts soul-wrenching despair and spirit-lifting hope—about the life-saving efforts of an incredible Chicago woman named Brenda Myers-Powell. The onetime prostitute, whose force-of-nature personality propels the documentary by award-winning British director Kim Longinotto that was picked up by Showtime, decided to become an advocate for women and especially teen girls caught up in the ugly cycle of sexual and violent abuse.  

A dedicated Longinotto appeared on Skype to introduce her film wrapped in a warm winter coat. She explained it was 1:30 a.m. where she was and freezing cold, since her boiler had broken down that day. Myers-Powell was in attendance along with one of the young girls onscreen in “Dreamcatcher.” The recent high-school graduate openly cried on stage after seeing it for the first time. The film and discussion afterwards caused one audience member to stand up and share some of her own harrowing personal travails in rather uncomfortable detail with the crowd. The gracious Myers-Powell gently stepped in and offered to talk to her afterwards. That is the power of cinema in action.

Twyla Tharp, dance pioneer and a member of Barnard’s class of ’63, participated in a conversation about her life, career and approach to work before a rapt audience that were equal parts mature admirers and eager students. Dry of wit and sharp of mind—although admittedly legally blind—one of the premier choreographers of her generation, 73, did not disappoint as she recalled growing up in Southern California while working at her family’s drive-in during the ‘50s.

She was asked by the moderator what she learned from watching all those films. “Timing,” she said. “When things got slow, there was a run on the popcorn.” She talked about her three movie collaborations with director Milos Forman, 1980’s “Hair,” 1981’s “Ragtime” and 1984’s “Amadeus.” The clip shown from “Hair” is one of my favorite movie scenes from that era: A rendition of “Aquarius” is performed in Central Park, where the horses carrying two police officers mimic the movements of the hippie dancers. “That was my idea,” Tharp says with pride. No, she did not teach the horses—both trained Lipizzaners—to copy the moves. Instead, she had to teach the dancers to copy them.

Many of the questions asked by students centered on her 2003 book, “The Creative Habit,” in which she argues that great ideas often come from a very strict work routine such as always rising at a certain hour each day. But fate can also play a role. When asked why Tharp dropped out of Pomona College after three semesters and switched to Barnard—a move that eventually allowed her to make the right New York connections to further her career dreams—she suddenly jerked her head to the side as if pondering what to say and then blurted out, “I was caught making out in the chapel.”

Rather than re-watching such titles as “Beyond the Lights” or “Obvious Child,” I decided to see a series of eight short films that ranged from 7 to 20 minutes in length.

The program began with the rather surreal black-and-white “Afronauts,” about a 17-year-old albino girl from Zambia who is in training for her trip to the moon. It ended with a title that was considered for Oscar recognition: “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” which focuses on a 32-year-old Scottish woman as she awaits the verdict on whether or not she has inherited the gene for Huntington’s Disease, a fatal and incurable illness.

But the real treat came when three of the directors took part in a post-screening discussion along with Robina Asti, the 94-year-old subject of “Flying Solo: A Transgender Widow Fights Discrimination.” The short tells of Asti’s fight to get her rightful Social Security survivor benefits after her husband died in 2012. It did not take long for the upbeat Asti, a World War II flyer who became a woman after serving her country, to take over the talk. With a white knit cap, blue jacket and hearing aid device, she looked out at the audience and said it was wonderful to see all the young faces. She then philosophized a bit, saying she doesn’t know why there is so much meanness in the world when there doesn’t have to be. And why are there plans afoot to send us to live on Mars when Earth is such a wonderful place?

Asti then revealed that despite going through her checklist before her trip, she had forgotten her glasses. Soon, an older gentlemen with a long white beard was making his way to the stage with a pair for her to borrow. She was incredibly touched by the gesture—and so was everyone in attendance.

The awards night reception followed a screening of Rosie O’Donnell’s Valentine’s Day HBO special “A Heartfelt Standup.” The show is part joke-a-thon inside of a Nyack, N.J., mall, part PSA about the importance of heart health for women in the wake of the comic’s own 2012 heart attack.

Despite having been in the headlines all day after Friday’s announcement that she was leaving TV’s “The View” once again as well as splitting from wife Michelle Rounds, O’Donnell was in rare form during a post-screening chat and across the street, where she presented an honor to HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, the force behind her special. 

The 52-year-old funny lady might be a divisive figure, but she didn’t duck from the spotlight and fully participated in an event to promote a cause she obviously believes in.

O’Donnell had no problem facing a huddled gang of reporters on the red carpet who were eager to ask why she is quitting the chat show again. Basically, her doctors were worried that her second go-round was affecting her health. “My health got a little bit worse right before the holidays, my doctor was kind of concerned,” she explained. “I can’t really fix my personal life right away, but I can fix my job.”

The comic didn’t shy away from the topic of her rocky marriage, either: “We’re separated, we’re not living together, and, like most married couples I know, we’re trying to figure it out. And I love her very much and she loves me.”

She also could not help herself from publicly dumping on “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams after he retracted his claim about being aboard a plane that was shot down in Iraq over a decade ago. “Maybe this is what’s the problem in my relationships. I see someone and I make shit up like Brian Williams...I escaped on 9/11 from the Twin Towers. No, I didn’t. I got mixed up. Fucking Lance Armstrong liar.”

O’Donnell also brought the subject up during the post-screening conversation. “I wrote and directed “A League of Their Own.” Wait a minute, I was just in it. Shit, I forgot.” She then added that she hoped Williams’ woes “will distract from my divorce.”

If that weren’t enough, she looked over at a table full of attractive women at the awards reception and declared that she had spied “my next wife.”

Someone who can survive a heart attack, turn it into comedy and come back swinging clearly is full of the artful warrior spirit of Athena.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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