February 10, 2020
by Carla Hay
The 10th annual Athena Film Festival—which takes place at New York City’s Barnard College from February 27 to March 1, 2020—is once again presenting a diverse and international selection of female-focused programming. This year, there’s an unusually high number of female-empowerment films about women who are involved in the legal system, war or politics. 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. In most cases, the films’ directors attend the festival and do intros or Q&As at the screenings.
The opening-night film is the Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman,” directed by Unjoo Moon and starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the Australian songstress. The narrative centerpiece film is the mystery thriller “Lost Girls,” directed by Liz Garbus and starring Amy Ryan as a mother searching for her missing 24-year-old daughter. The documentary centerpiece film is the Oscar-nominated “For Sama,” directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, which chronicles al-Kateab and her family’s life in war-torn Syria. The international centerpiece film is “The Perfect Candidate,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, a drama about a Saudi Arabian female doctor who ends up running for her local city council. The closing-night film is “Rocks,” a drama directed by Sarah Gavron, about a London teenager who comes home to find her mother missing.
The only feature film to have its world premiere at the festival is the documentary “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, about female rabbi/activist Rachel Cowan and how she lived with terminal brain cancer before her death in 2018.
The festival has some movies that were originally released in 2019 and have been winning prizes and getting Oscar nominations. In addition to “For Sama,” there is also writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated version of “Little Women,” based on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Other films that received Oscar nominations are the animated sequel “Frozen 2” and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet.”
In addition, there are networking events (most are invitation-only), discussion panels and creative workshops.
Here is the programming lineup for the 2020 Athena Film Festival. More information can be found at the official festival website. (All descriptions listed below are courtesy of the festival.)
Director: Sophie Deraspe
Writer: Sophie Deraspe
Inspired by the Greek tragedy of the same title, multi-award-winning filmmaker Sophie Deraspe centers her adaptation around a brilliant teenage girl who chooses to live by her own standards of justice, love and loyalty rather than society’s.
Director: Sophia Takal
Writers: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe
As Hawthorne College is quieting down for the holidays, sorority girls on campus are being killed by a stalker. In this loose remake of the 1974 Canadian “slasher” classic, the killer is about to discover that today’s generation of fearless women are not willing to become hapless victims.
Carmen & Lola – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Arantxa Echevarria
Writer: Arantxa Echevarría
The love story of two Roma women: bride-to-be Carmen and street artist Lola find themselves in a secret love affair, having to hide it from their families and their community.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Chinonye Chukwu’s sophomore feature is an enthralling story of Bernadine (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden whose years working on death row takes a psychic toll. After a harrowing botched execution, her growing investment in the next prisoner to be executed encourages her to look more closely at her motivations and relationships and offers a tough-minded inquiry into the morality of capital punishment. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and a 2017 Athena List Winner.
Directors: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Writer: Jennifer Lee
Why was Elsa born with magical powers? What truths about the past await Elsa as she ventures into the unknown to the enchanted forests and dark seas beyond Arendelle? The answers are calling her but also threatening her kingdom. Together with Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven, she’ll face a dangerous but remarkable journey. In “Frozen,” Elsa feared her powers were too much for the world. In “Frozen 2,” she must hope they are enough. From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez— “Frozen 2” features the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard
Directed and co-written by 2014 Athena Award-winner Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
I Am Woman – OPENING NIGHT FILM AND NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Unjoo Moon
Writer: Emma Jenson
For the first time on screen, “I Am Woman” tells the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s. The film is a story of fearless ambition and passion, of a woman who smashed through the patriarchal norms of her time to become the international singing superstar she always dreamed of being.
Director: Myriam Verreault
Writers: Naomi Fontaine and Myriam Verreault
Mikuan and Shaniss grew up as best friends in their Innu community. While Mikuan has a loving family, Shaniss is picking up the pieces of her shattered childhood. As children, they promised to stick together no matter what, but at 17 their friendship is shaken when Mikuan falls for a white boy, and starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Writer-director Greta Gerwig ‘06 (“Lady Bird”), winner of a 2011 Athena Award, has crafted a “Little Women” that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life with her three sisters.
The Long Shadow – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Daniel Lafrentz
Writers: Daniel Lafrentz and Stephen Peltier
A Sheriff’s deputy takes on her Louisiana town’s old-money establishment when the woman she loves – an attorney fighting a corporate land grab that will displace the poor – is found murdered.
Lost Girls – NARRATIVE CENTERPIECE AND NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Liz Garbus
Writer: Michael Werwie
When 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert mysteriously disappears one night, her mother Mari embarks on a dark journey that finds her face to face with hard truths about her daughter, herself, and police bias. Determined to find her daughter at all costs, Mari Gilbert retraces Shannan’s last known steps and her discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers, young lives Mari will not let the world forget.
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Writers: Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard
With their partners serving in Afghanistan, a band of women form a choir on the military base and quickly discover that they can rely on each other for more than beautiful harmonies. The women, who must confront the challenges of having a partner at war, find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Eliza Hittman
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an intimate portrayal of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) embark across state lines to New York City on a fraught journey of friendship, bravery and compassion.
The Perfect Candidate – INTERNATIONAL CENTERPIECE AND NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Writers: Haifaa al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Maryam is an ambitious young doctor working in a small town clinic in Saudi Arabia. After she is prevented from traveling to Dubai in search of a better job, a bureaucratic mix-up leads her to stumble on the application for her local city elections and she decides to run. She enlists her two younger sisters and while they face the restriction of women’s traditional roles in the Kingdom at every turn, Maryam’s audacious candidacy starts to build momentum and challenges her conservative community.
Radioactive **UPDATE/NEWLY ADDED FILM**
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Writer: Jack Throne
From the 1870s through our 21st century, “Radioactive” tells the story of pioneering scientist Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) through her extraordinary life and her enduring legacies – the passionate partnerships, her shining scientific breakthroughs, and the darker consequences that followed.
A Regular Woman
Director: Sherry Hormann
Writer: Florian Öller
“A Regular Woman” tells the story of 23-year-old Hatun Ayhrun Sürücü, a Turkish-Kurdish woman living in Germany who in February 2005, was shot dead at a Berlin bus stop in an “honor killing” by her youngest brother. This film gives Ayhrun the opportunity to narrate her own story as she leaves her abusive marriage and struggles for a free, self-determined life in the face of her family’s opposition.
Rocks – CLOSING NIGHT FILM
Director: Sarah Gavron
Writer: Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson
In East London, teenager Shola is known as “Rocks” after protecting her childhood friend from bullies. Rocks has big dreams but one day she returns home from school to discover her life is radically altered: her troubled, single mother has disappeared, leaving her responsible for her younger brother.
Sea Fever – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Neasa Hardiman
Writer: Neasa Hardiman
Siobhán’s a marine biology student who prefers spending her days alone in a lab. She has to endure a week on a ragged fishing trawler, where she’s miserably at odds with the close-knit crew. But out in the deep Atlantic, an unfathomable life form ensnares the boat. When members of the crew succumb to a strange infection, Siobhán must overcome her alienation and anxiety to win the crew’s trust, before everyone is lost.
Directors: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann
Writers: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann
In 1926, the world’s most famous evangelist, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, fakes her own death in order to run away to Mexico with her married lover. Once on the road, and equipped with new identities, they find themselves chased by the very persona Aimee so desperately tried to kill. They hire Rey, a former Mexican Soldadera turned smuggler, to help them cross the border, as detectives, the world, and Aimee herself all pose the question, “Who is Sister Aimee Semple McPherson?”
Stars by the Pound
Director: Marie-Sophie Chambon
Writers: Marie-Sophie Chambon and Anaïs Carpita
In this heart-warming story of friendship, acceptance, and the importance of loving yourself, Lois, 16, dreams of becoming an astronaut. Although gifted in physics, she has a big problem: she weighs over 200 pounds. When all seems lost, Lois meets three other teens who, like her, are shattered by life’s tough breaks yet ready for anything in order to leave with her for outer space.
Director: Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman
Irma “The Butterfly” Testa, a talented 18-year-old, is the first female Italian boxer to be selected for the Olympic Games. Butterfly is an intimate portrait of this determined athlete in the run-up to the games and thereafter, when she has more time to be with her best friend and family.
Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing
– WORLD PREMIERE
Director: Paula Weiman-Kelman
Rachel Cowan was a civil rights activist, community organizer, the first female Jew by choice ordained as a Rabbi, a beloved and influential mindfulness teacher, a grandmother and wise elder. And then she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Living each day fully, she turned dying into an opportunity to experience gratitude.
For Sama – DOCUMENTARY CENTERPIECE
Directors: Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts
“For Sama” is the incredible story of Waad al-Kateab, a journalist/filmmaker who filmed her life for over five years during the conflict in Aleppo, Syria. Waad documented her personal journey as she married a doctor who operated the only functioning hospital in their besieged area, gave birth to a daughter (Sama), and continued filming the cataclysmic events unfolding around her. At its core, this documentary serves as a love letter from a mother to her daughter, as Waad captures deeply moving scenes of love, laughter, loss, sacrifice and survival.
Objector – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Molly Stuart
Like all Israeli youth, Atalya is obligated to become a soldier. Unlike most, she questions the practices of her country’s military, and becomes determined to challenge this rite of passage. Despite her family’s political disagreements and personal concerns, she refuses military duty and is imprisoned for her dissent.
Power Meri – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Joanna Lester
“Power Meri” follows the PNG Orchids, Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s rugby team, on their journey to the 2017 World Cup in Australia. These trailblazers not only must win on the field but also beat intense sexism, a lack of funding, and national prejudice to reach their biggest stage yet.
Queering the Script
Director: Gabrielle Zilkha
Giving queer fandom a voice in the conversation about LGBTQ+ representation, from Showtime’s “The L Word” to FX’s “Pose,” “Queering the Script” examines the rising power of the fans and audience shaping representation on TV, the relationship between fandom and activism, and what lies ahead for visibility and inclusiveness.
Director: Andrea Cordoba
Amanda Morales, a Guatemalan mother of three U.S.-born children is the first immigrant to claim sanctuary in New York since President Trump took office, publicly resisting her deportation by taking refuge in a church. “Sanctuary” gains rare and intimate access to Amanda and her family as they fight to remain together and adapt to their daily life of resistance.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
An artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to book tours with Muhammad Ali, the front lines with Angela Davis, and her own writing room—Morrison explores race, America, history and the human condition.
We Are the Radical Monarchs
Director: Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Set in Oakland, California, this film introduces the Radical Monarchs, an alternative to the Scout movement for girls of color, and its founders, two fierce queer women of color, who have inspired a new generation of social justice activists. The film follows the first troop and its co-founders as they respond to a viral explosion of interest in the troop’s mission while the girls complete programs on the environment, disability justice, and Black Lives Matter.
Woman in Motion **UPDATE/NEWLY ADDED FILM**
Director: Todd Thompson
In 1977, with just four months left, NASA struggles to recruit scientists, engineers and astronauts for their new Space Shuttle Program. That is when Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, challenges them by asking the question: Where are my people?. She embarks on a national blitz, recruiting 8,000 of the nation’s best and brightest, including the trailblazing astronauts who became the first African American, Asian, and Latino men and women to fly in space.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem
Director: Yu Gu
Football and feminism collide in this documentary that follows former NFL cheerleaders who are battling the league to end wage theft and illegal employment practices that have persisted for 50 years.