January 9, 2019
by Carla Hay
The ninth annual Athena Film Festival—which takes place at New York City’s Barnard College from February 28 to March 3, 2019—continues its tradition of offering an intelligently curated and diverse lineup of female-focused programming. Most of the feature-length films are those that have already been released in theaters or have premiered at other events, but the Athena Film Festival has such a unique focus that it’s worth attending for people who haven’t seen these movies yet, want to see the movies again, and/or are interested in checking out the panel discussions or short films. The event always has some gems to offer that catch on later with the general public. (In 2017, for example, Athena Film Festival had one of the first public screenings of clips from the first season of the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” long before the show would go on to win several major awards.) In most cases, the films’ directors attend the festival and do intros or Q&As at the screenings.
The 2019 Athena Film Festival’s opening-night film, closing-night film and the narrative and documentary centerpiece films will all have their New York or U.S. premieres at the event. The film that is probably getting the most buzz is Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House,” a documentary about four very different female candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections. One of candidates in the film is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who made history by becoming the youngest woman (at age 29) to serve in Congress. The opening-night film is “Fast Color,” directed by Julia Hart, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a superhero forced to go into hiding. The narrative centerpiece film is the detective thriller “Out of Blue,” directed by Carol Morley and starring the always-great Patricia Clarkson. The documentary centerpiece film is Amy Berg’s “This Is Personal,” which takes a look at the modern women’s movement.
For those on the lookout for movies originally released in 2018 that are getting awards buzz, the clear standout film is “The Favourite”—starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone—which has been collecting prizes at pretty much every major awards show. Also noteworthy is “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which has been garnering a lot of praise and awards for co-stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, as well as screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. The performances of Regina Hall in “Support the Girls” and Rosamund Pike in “A Private War” have been getting notable recognition. For their respective roles in this films, Hall was named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle, while Pike received a Golden Globe nomination. Meanwhile, the documentary “On Her Shoulders” made it on the Oscars shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. (The nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on January 22, 2019.)
Here is the programming lineup for the 2019 Athena Film Festival. More information can be found at the official festival website. (All descriptions listed below are courtesy of the festival.)
A Private War
Director: Matthew Heineman
Writers: Marie Brenner and Arash Amel
One of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, Marie Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless.
Ask for Jane
Director: Rachel Carey
Writers: Rachel Carey and Cait Cortelyou ‘09
The true story of determined women in the 1960s who quietly provided the phone number of reliable abortion doctors to women in need. Operating like a spy network, using blindfolds, code names, and secret locations, the Jane Collective helped over 11,000 women receive safe, illegal abortions until they were legalized in 1973.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
Based on a true story, Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, the best-selling celebrity biographer who makes her living profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead. Unable to get a new publishing gig, Lee turns to artistic deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack.
Don’t Talk To Irene
Director and writer: Pat Mills
When an overweight and unpopular teenager is suspended from school, she must endure two weeks of community service at a nearby retirement home. She secretly signs up the residents for a dance-themed reality show to prove that you don’t have to be perfect to be perfectly awesome.
Fast Color – OPENING NIGHT FILM & NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Julia Hart
Writers: Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz
This fantasy, superhero re-mix stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a hero forced to run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her family, the only place she has left to hide is home. Lorraine Toussaint and David Strathairn co-star.
*February 12, 2019 UPDATE:
I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story
Director: Janice Cooke
Writer: Camille Thomasson
“I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story” tells the journey of a young African-American girl who navigated over 30 foster homes and psychiatric facilities before age 18, and the one woman, Jeanne, who believed in her. After 25 years, Jeanne is finally able to adopt Regina in the same courthouse that denied them previously.
Director and writer: Nijla Mu’min
In writer-director Nijla Mu’min’s debut feature, an African-American teenager’s world is turned upside down when her mother, a popular TV meteorologist, abruptly converts to Islam, prompting both mother and daughter to reevaluate their identities.
On the Basis of Sex
Director: Mimi Leder
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
The compelling story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years, as she crafts a national legal strategy to win equal rights for women and fights to succeed in a profession notably hostile to women. The screenplay was a 2014 Athena List winner.
Out Of Blue – NARRATIVE CENTERPIECE AND U.S. PREMIERE
Director and Writer: Carol Morley
Detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is called to investigate the shooting of a leading astrophysicist. As Mike tumbles down the rabbit hole of the disturbing case, she finds herself grappling with cosmic secrets that may hold the key to unraveling the crime, while throwing into doubt her very understanding of reality.
Director and writer: Wanuri Kahiu
In their community “good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives,” but Kena and Ziki long for something more. When love blossoms between them, the two girls are forced to choose between happiness and safety.
Saint Judy – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Sean Hanish
Writer: Dmitry Portnoy
Based on a remarkable true story, when an Afghan woman flees her home after being persecuted by the Taliban, immigration attorney Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan) takes her case. In the process, she changes U.S. asylum law and saves the lives of countless people.
Support the Girls
Director and writer: Andrew Bujalski
The general manager at a highway-side ”sports bar with curves” who has incurable optimism and faith in her girls, her customers, and herself, is tested over the course of a long, strange day.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
Set in early 18th-century England, this award winning comedy-drama stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as cousins whose quarreling take center stage as each jockeys to be the court favourite of a frail and mercurial Queen Anne.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Writers: Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele
In this drama directed by Desiree Akhavan, Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teenager sent away to a remote “treatment center” after being caught in the backseat with the prom queen. As she is subjected to questionable gay conversion therapies, she finds both challenges from and solace in fellow residents.
Director: Michal Aviad
Writers: Michal Aviad, Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik
Orna’s life at work becomes unbearable when her boss, a major Israeli developer, makes inappropriate advances. Caught between the need to support her family and the increasingly disturbing behavior of her boss, Orna fights for her job and her sense of self-worth.
Director: Paula Eiselt
Set in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn, a tenacious group of Hasidic women challenge stereotypes and power structures in their tight-knit community by creating the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in New York City. This film was a 2015 Athena Work in Progress film.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
Director: Pamela B. Green
In 1896, Alice Guy-Blaché was the first female film director at age 23. She went on to write, direct, produce, or edit more than 1000 films and became one of the early film industry’s biggest stars. Then she vanished from history.
Dykes, Camera, Action!
Director: Caroline Berler
Stonewall, the feminist movement, and the experimental cinema of the 1970s, set the stage for lesbian filmmakers to transform how society views queerness. In this moving and often hilarious film, lesbian filmmakers share their stories and discuss how they express their queer identity through film.
Knock Down The House – CLOSING NIGHT FILM & NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Rachel Lears
A young bartender in the Bronx, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, a grieving mother in Nevada and a registered nurse in Missouri build a movement of insurgent candidates challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. One of their races will become the most surprising political upset in recent American history.
Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order
Director: Ruth Leitman
Led by The Daily Show’s co-creator Lizz Winstead, the Lady Parts Justice League barnstorms the country to support abortion providers and defend women’s reproductive rights. Using comedy as the ultimate weapon to mobilize voters for the 2018 elections, they use a boots-on-the-ground strategy to protect bodily autonomy for all.
Life Without Basketball
Directors: Tim O’Donnell, Jon Mercer
After the International Basketball Federation forbids head coverings, making it impossible for Muslim women to maintain their religious convictions while on the court, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir fights to change the rules. With her victory, she becomes the first Division I basketball player to play wearing the hijab and inspires the young Muslim women she coaches.
Director: Cynthia Lowen
The proliferation of cyber harassment spreads from the web to the most intimate corners of women’s lives. As the internet becomes the next frontier of civil rights, three women who are targets of harassment confront digital abuse and strive for equality and justice online. The film was a 2017 Athena Work in Progress film.
Nothing Without Us: The Women Who Will End AIDS
Director: Harriet Hirshorn
A compelling portrait of the inspiring and remarkable women at the forefront of the global AIDS movement who work tirelessly to end the 30-year old pandemic and help women around the world at risk of HIV and AIDS.
On Her Shoulders
Director: Alexandria Bombach
With deep compassion and an elegance that matches her calm and steely demeanor, 23 year-old Nadia Murad survives the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escapes ISIS to become a relentless beacon of hope for her people.
Director: Hampus Linder
This personal and compelling portrait follows Gudrun Schyman, spokesperson of Sweden’s Feminist Initiative political party as she moves between small towns, refugee camps, and the corridors of power. In the process, she inspires women across the globe and becomes one of Sweden’s most influential politicians.
The Great Mother
Directors: Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker
When two U.S. born children share that their mother is being deported, immigration activist Nora Sandigo steps up to become their legal guardian, saving them from the fate of “immigration orphans’’ trapped in the foster care system. Six years later, Nora’s charges have grown to nearly 1,000 children.
This is Personal – DOCUMENTARY CENTERPIECE
Director: Amy Berg
While the 2016 election catalyzed the Women’s March and a new era of feminist activism, Tamika Mallory and Erika Andiola have been fighting for their communities for years. Their stories expose the fundamental connection between the personal and the political, and asks: how can intersectionality birth a new social justice movement?
Directors: Elizabeth A. Castle and Christina D. King
Madonna Thunder Hawk, unapologetic organizer of the American Indian Movement, has cultivated a ragtag gang of activist children—including her daughter Marcy—into the We Will Remember survival group. Through their story, the film highlights the struggle for native rights and how activists pass their legacies from generation to generation.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Director: Rob Garver
This nuanced portrait of Pauline Kael, among the most famous and divisive film critics of all time, uses never-before-seen archival film, wide-ranging interviews and her own writings voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker, to capture her complexity while revisiting late-twentieth-century cinema through her lens.
Whispering Truth to Power
Director: Shameela Seedat
After her appointment as South Africa’s Public Protector in 2009, Thuli Madonsela immediately faces violent protests, court interdicts, political and personal attacks, and death threats, as this remarkably steadfast woman seeks justice in a country still coming to terms with its apartheid past.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
Director: Arwen Curry
Explore the remarkable life and legacy of the late feminist author Ursula K. Le Guin. She holds her ground on the margins of “respectable” literature until the sheer excellence of her work forces the mainstream to embrace her science fiction and fantastic writings.
7 Planets – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Milda Baginskaite
A young girl dreams to escape planet Earth.
A Woman’s Place
Director: Jen Zhouwenyue Xu
Three female chefs grapple with barriers in the male-dominated food service industry.
Director: Demi Waldron
Six women cinematographers share the complexities of working in an industry that rarely hires women.
Come & Take It
Directors: Ellen Spiro, PJ Raval
America’s most irreverent anti-gun activists create the Great Texas Dildo Revolt. #CocksNotGlocks.
Cross My Heart
Director: Sontenish Myers
While visiting her family in Jamaica, an American teenager becomes her cousin’s confidant, changing the way she sees the people she loves.
Director and writer: Jeannie Donohoe
The new teenager in town shows up at the boys basketball tryouts and instantly makes an impression. Will talent and drive be enough to make the team?
Giving Birth in America: California
Director: Clancy McCarty
A Mexican farmworker, pregnant with her third child, seeks prenatal care from a clinic in the “Strawberry Capital” of California.
Director: Giulio Tonincelli
In Northern Uganda, a midwife accompanies new mothers through the physical pain and intense emotion of giving birth.
Heed the Call – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Laura G. Chirinos
In the midst of World War II, a young woman must decide if she is willing to defy both social expectations and her family by joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
I’m Just Here
Director: Lara Aslanian
Writer: Mari Savinar
A suicide helpline operator fields an unforgettable call from a young, queer woman.
Directors: Ulrika Bandeira, Julia Gumpert, and Olivia Kastebring
Feminist activists use dance to challenge popular notions of modern femininity.
Lotte That Silhouette Girl
Directors: Carla Patullo, Elizabeth Beecherl
With music, magic and a stirring narration by Lotte herself, Lotte that Silhouette Girl tells the tale of one of animations’ foremost pioneers, German Film Director, Lotte Reiniger.
Director and writer: Mahaliyah Ayla O
A closeted medical student’s secret is threatened when out on a date with her girlfriend.
Newport Gun Girls – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Lauren Orme
Writer: Nigel Crowle
The story of a forgotten group of Welsh women who worked at an ordnance factory during World War II.
Nour – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Danielle Naassana
A young girl feels self-conscious about wearing a hijab at her new school.
One Small Step
Directors: Bobby Pontillas, Andrew Chesworth
Writer: Andrew Chesworth
In this animated short, an ambitious girl aspires to be an astronaut, guided by her supportive father.
Rise and Shine
Director: Ben Dai
Writer: Andrew Robinson
Waking up after years in a deep sleep, the last surviving scientist in Antarctica must use her ingenuity and science to survive.
Director: Mohammad Gorjestani
After thirteen years in prison (six in solitary), an ex-offender opens Sister Hearts, the largest thrift store in New Orleans, and offers a path forward for women like her.
Waahi – US PREMIERE
Director: Aftab Abbasi
A Pakistani wheat farmer shatters stereotypes with her courage and resilience.
While I Yet Live
Director: Maris Curran
Acclaimed quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, talk about love, religion, and the fight for civil rights, as they continue the tradition that brought them together.
She Flies By Her Own Wings
Project Creator: Jesse (Jesus) Ayala
Driven by the military tenet of “Leave No One Behind,” Shannon Scott, a proud transgender veteran, seeks justice for those vets who championed equality before her.
Project Creator: Celine Tricart
Meet Xate Singali, captain of the Sun Ladies, a female-only fighting unit that risks everything to protect the Yazidi community from violent attacks by ISIS.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project
Directed by: Michele Stephenson
The story of acclaimed poet, Nikki Giovanni and the revolutionary historical periods through which she lived—reveals the enduring influence of one of America’s greatest artists and social commentators.
Project creators: Hannah Rosenzweig, Wendy Sachs and Tanya Selvaratnam
Tired of being ignored, angered by government policies, and anxious about the future, thousands of women were inspired to run for office in what became an historic midterm election.