February 26, 2021
by Carla Hay
The 11th annual Athena Film Festival—which takes place from March 1 to March 31, 2021—has undergone a massive change this year. Not only is the festival an entirely virtual event for the first time (due to safety concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic), but the Athena Film Festival has also expanded to an entire month. The Athena Film Festival was previously a four-day event. Although the 2021 Athena Film Festival takes place during the entire month of March, the feature-length films are not available during all 31 days of March. Check the schedule for availability.
One thing hasn’t changed: The Athena Film Festival has a diverse selection of female-focused programming. This year’s feature-length movie lineup is dominated by documentary films, many which focus on social justice issues. 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 supporting 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 directors of feature-length films are doing Q&As online as part of the festival.
The opening-night film is the U.S. premiere of director Tracey Deer’s “Beans,” which tells the story of a 12-year-old Mohawk Indian girl and her family’s involvement in Canada’s 1990 Oka crisis, which was a 78-day standoff in Quebec between Mohawk communities and the Canadian government. “Beans” came in third place for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. In addition, there are discussion panels and creative workshops.
Here is the programming lineup of feature-length movies at the 2021 Athena Film Festival. More information can be found at the official festival website. (All descriptions listed below are courtesy of the festival.)
Director: Francis Lee
Writer: Francis Lee
In the 1840s, acclaimed self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet) works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. The days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists to support herself and her ailing widowed mother (played by Gemma Jones). When one such tourist, Roderick Murchison played by James McArdle), arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European tour, he entrusts Mary with the care of his young wife Charlotte (played by Saoirse Ronan), who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. Mary, whose life is a daily struggle on the poverty line, cannot afford to turn him down but, proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, she clashes with her unwanted guest. They are two women from utterly different worlds. Yet despite the chasm between their social spheres and personalities, Mary and Charlotte discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for: the realization that they are not alone. It is the beginning of a passionate and all-consuming love affair that will defy all social bounds and alter the course of both lives irrevocably.
Director: Tracey Deer
Writer: Tracey Deer
Twelve-year-old Beans (played by Kiawentiio) is on the edge: torn between innocent childhood and delinquent adolescence; forced to grow up fast to become the tough Mohawk warrior she needs to be during the Indigenous uprising known as The Oka Crisis, which tore Quebec and Canada apart for 78 tense days in the summer of 1990.
My Name Is Baghdad
Director: Caru Alves de Souza
Writer: Caru Alves de Souza, Josefina Trotta
Baghdad (played by Grace Orsato) is a 17-year-old female skater, who lives in Freguesia do Ó, a working-class neighborhood in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. Baghdad skateboards with a group of male friends and spends a lot of time with her family and with her mother’s friends. Together, the women around her form a network of people who are out of the ordinary. When Baghdad meets a group of female skateboarders, her life suddenly changes.
Director: Shatara Michelle Ford
Writers: Shatara Michelle Ford
“Test Pattern” is part psychological horror, part realist drama set against the backdrop of national discussions around inequitable health care & policing, the #MeToo movement, and race in America. The film follows an interracial couple (played by Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill) whose relationship is put to the test after a Black woman is sexually assaulted and her white boyfriend drives her from hospital to hospital in search of a rape kit. The film analyzes the effects of the systemic factors and social conditioning women face when navigating sex and consent within the American patriarchy, along with exploring institutional racism from a Black female point of view.
Director: Aideen Kane
“The 8th” traces Ireland’s campaign to remove the 8th Amendment: a constitutional ban on abortion. It shows a country’s transformation from a conservative state in thrall to the Catholic church to a more liberal secular society. “The 8th” includes voices from both sides of the debate, but its primary focus is on the dynamic female leaders of the pro-choice campaign. The film follows the veteran campaigner Ailbhe Smyth and self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan as they chart a bold strategy of grassroots activism and engineer the impossible. This dramatic story is underscored by a vivid exploration of the wrenching failures that led to this defining moment in Irish history. An urgent narrative, a cautionary tale and a roadmap for progressive reforms in a modern era where authoritarianism is on the rise, “The 8th” shows a country forging a new progressive path at a time when reproductive rights are threatened around the world.
Ahead of the Curve
Director: Jen Rainin
“Ahead of the Curve” is the story of one of the most influential women in lesbian history you’ve never heard of and the impact her work continues to have today. Growing up, Franco Stevens never saw any representation of queer women—she didn’t even know it was possible for a woman to be gay. When she realized she was a lesbian, it changed the course of her life. In 1990, Franco created a safe place for lesbians in the form of Curve magazine. Her approach to threats and erasure in the ‘90s was to lift all kinds of lesbians up and make them beautifully visible. The magazine helped build a foundation for many intersectional movements being led by today’s activists in the face of accelerating threats to the LGBTQ community. Decades later, as her legacy faces extinction and she reassesses her life after a disabling injury, she sets out to understand visibility work being led by an intersection of queer women today. Featuring Andrea Pino-Silva, Kim Katrin, Denice Frohman, Amber Hikes, Jewelle Gomez, Melissa Etheridge, and Lea DeLaria, and a score composed by the legendary Meshell Ndegeocello, “Ahead of the Curve” celebrates the legacy of a movement while considering the agenda of its future.
Belly of the Beast
Director: Erika Cohn
The pastoral farmlands surrounding the Central California Women’s Facility the world’s largest women’s prison, help conceal the reproductive and human rights violations transpiring inside its walls. A courageous young woman who was involuntarily sterilized at the age of 24 while incarcerated at the facility, teams up with a radical lawyer to stop these violations. They spearhead investigations that uncover a series of statewide crimes, primarily targeting women of color, from inadequate access to healthcare to sexual assault to illegal sterilization. Together, with a team of tenacious heroines, both in and out of prison, they take to the courtroom to fight for reparations. But no one believes them. As additional damning evidence is uncovered by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a media frenzy and series of hearings provide hope for some semblance of justice. Yet, doctors and prison officials contend that the procedures were in each person’s best interest and of an overall social benefit. Invoking the weight of the historic stain and legacy of eugenics, “Belly of the Beast” presents a decade-long, infuriating contemporary legal drama.
Director: Shalini Kantayya
When MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers that most facial-recognition software misidentifies women and darker-skinned faces, she is compelled to investigate further. It turns out that artificial intelligence, which was defined by a homogeneous group of men, is not neutral. What Buolamwini learns about widespread bias in algorithms drives her to push the U.S. government to create the first-ever legislation to counter the far-reaching dangers of bias in a technology that is steadily encroaching on our lives. Centering on the voices of women leading the charge to ensure our civil rights are protected, “Coded Bias” asks two key questions: what is the impact of Artificial Intelligence’s increasing role in governing our liberties? And what are the consequences for people stuck in the crosshairs due to their race, color, and gender?
Denise Ho – Becoming the Song
Director: Sue Williams
“Denise Ho – Becoming the Song” profiles the openly gay Hong Kong singer and human rights activist Denise Ho. Drawing on unprecedented, years-long access, the film explores her remarkable journey from commercial Cantopop superstar to outspoken political activist, an artist who has put her life and career on the line to support the determined struggle of Hong Kong citizens to maintain their identity and freedom. Denise’s story mirrors almost perfectly the last three decades of Hong Kong’s uneasy relationship with China. A top international recording artist in Hong Kong and across China and other Asian nations, the turning point in her career came during the seminal moment of change for Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Her public support of students who demanded free elections and occupied central Hong Kong for nearly three months had immediate and lasting consequences: she was arrested and then blacklisted by China.
The Dilemma of Desire
Director: Maria Finitzo
How much do you know about the clitoris? Chances are, not enough. The vast internal structure tasked with sexual pleasure for over half of the population has been largely ignored by a long history of western medical science written by men. With humor and candor in equal measure, “The Dilemma of Desire” follows a quartet of remarkable women whose work in science, academia, industrial design, and art has paved the way for a better understanding of women’s sexual desire, anatomy, and health in an era when women’s rights are once again under fire. Biologist Dr. Stacey Dutton dispels age-old myths about women’s pleasure for her students, while University of Utah academic Dr. Lisa Diamond dismantles outdated notions about women’s arousal. Industrial designer Ti Chang is designing and manufacturing elegant vibrators for women and artist Sophia Wallace has set out to make the world culturally cliterate. Providing the embodiment of their work are the personal stories of five young women claiming agency over their sexuality. In this timely and radical film about female desire, gender politics, and sexuality, filmmaker Maria Finitzo invites us to share intimate conversations with women on a mission to reverse a patriarchal legacy that denies female empowerment through omissions and distortions. The Dilemma of Desire reminds us that true equality will come once we all arrive at a place of understanding and acknowledgement that all human beings are sexual beings, entitled to live their lives fully within the expression of their desire.
End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock
Director: Shannon Kring
“End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock” is the incredible story of a small group of indigenous women who risk their lives to stop the $3.8 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline construction that desecrated their ancient burial and prayer sites and threatens their land, water, and very existence. When the population of their peaceful protest camp exceeds 10,000, the women unwittingly find themselves the leaders of a global movement. Featuring exclusive footage including never-before-seen evidence of police brutality surrendered to the filmmakers by a disgraced law enforcement officer, “End of the Line” is both an exploration of the rise of indigenous and feminine power in the areas of social and environmental justice, and a searing and deeply personal story of four brave women. Together, they must face the personal costs of leadership, even as their own lives and identities are left transformed by one of the great political and cultural events of the early 21st century.
How It Feels to Be Free
Director: Yoruba Richen
“How It Feels to Be Free” takes an unprecedented look at the intersection of African American women artists, politics, and entertainment and tells the story of how six trailblazing performers, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier changed American culture through their films, fashion, their music and their politics. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Yoruba Richen and based on of the book “How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement” by Ruth Feldstein, the film examines the lives of these women and how they used their ground-breaking careers as platforms to advocate for change and reshape representation of Black women on stage and screen. The film includes archival footage of the six women, as well as original interviews from contemporary scholars and entertainers, including Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Alicia Keys, Lena Waithe, Halle Berry, Yolonda Ross, Samuel and LaTanya Jackson, and Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. The first documentary to focus on the crucial role Black female entertainers played in the ongoing struggle over inclusion and representation in American mass media, “How It Feels to Be Free” provides important context for the highly-charged contemporary debate over race and gender in Hollywood and shows how these women laid the path for the renaissance in Black entertainment that we see today.
Director: Jessica Earnshaw
Filmed for over three years, “Jacinta” begins at the Maine Correctional Center where Jacinta, 26, and her mother Rosemary, 46, are incarcerated together, both recovering from drug addiction. As a child, Jacinta became entangled in her mother’s world of drugs and crime and has followed her in and out of the system since she was a teenager. This time, as Jacinta is released from prison, she hopes to maintain her sobriety and reconnect with her own daughter, Caylynn, 10, who lives with her paternal grandparents. Despite her desire to rebuild her life for her daughter, Jacinta continually struggles against the forces that first led to her addiction. With unparalleled access and a gripping vérité approach, director Jessica Earnshaw paints a deeply intimate portrait of mothers and daughters and the effects of trauma over generations.
Julia Scotti: Funny That Way
Director: Susan Sandler
In the comedy boom of the late 1980’s Rick Scotti was a busy guy—appearing in clubs across the country, on bills with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, when he came to the deadly realization that nothing felt right. At a time when the words gender dysphoria and gender reassignment surgery were rarely heard, Rick’s true awakening at age forty-seven led to hormonal treatments, surgery, and a new identity as Julia Scotti. And then the doors shut tight. Everyone turned away—former wives, friends, family, comedy world buddies, and most painfully Julia was shut out from any contact with her children. She reinvented herself, spent a decade teaching, and then several years ago, stepped back on stage at an open mic and began her journey back to the world she loves. And just as she returned to comedy, her children reached out to her after 15 years of silence. Shot over a period of five years, “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” tracks Julia’s triumphant comeback, the rough life on the road, and the complex process of reuniting with her children, as comedy becomes the shared language of identity, healing, and joy.
La Madrina: The
Savage Life of Lorine Padilla
Director: Raquel Cepeda
“La Madrina: The
Savage Life of Lorine Padilla” is a feature-length documentary about a beloved South Bronx matriarch and former “First Lady” of the Savage Skulls gang struggling to remain visible in a rapidly gentrifying community she helped rebuild in the 1980s. With one foot firmly grounded in the outlaw life and the other as an activist and spiritual advisor, Lorine straddles the complexities of multiple worlds. Employing rich never-before-seen archives of the borough that gifted the world both salsa and hip-hop culture, we will go on a complicated and, at times, surreal journey through five decades of Bronx history and resilience in La Madrina’s own words.
Director: Luchina Fisher
Meet Mama Gloria. Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen, now in her 70s, blazed a trail for trans people like few others before her. Emerging from Chicago’s South Side drag ball culture in the 1960s, Gloria overcame traumatic violence to become a proud leader in her community. Most famously, she pioneered a charm school for young transgender people that served as inspiration for the hit play Charm. Luchina Fisher’s empathic and engaging documentary is not only a portrait of a groundbreaking legend, but also a celebration of unconditional love, the love Gloria received from her own mother and that she now gives to her chosen children. And it is driven by the love the director has for her teenage transgender daughter.
Picture a Scientist
Director: Sharon Shattuck
“Picture a Scientist” is a feature-length documentary film chronicling the groundswell of researchers who are writing a new chapter for women scientists. A biologist, a chemist and a geologist lead viewers on a journey deep into their own experiences in the sciences, overcoming brutal harassment, institutional discrimination, and years of subtle slights to revolutionize the culture of science. From cramped laboratories to spectacular field sites, we also encounter scientific luminaries who provide new perspectives on how to make science itself more diverse, equitable, and open to all.
Through the Night
Director: Loria Limbal
To make ends meet, people in the U.S. are working longer hours across multiple jobs. This modern reality of non-stop work has resulted in an unexpected phenomenon: the flourishing of 24-hour daycare centers. “Through the Night” is a verité documentary that explores the personal cost of our modern economy through the stories of two working mothers and a childcare provider—whose lives intersect at a 24-hour daycare center. The film follows a mother who works the overnight shift at a hospital; another holding down three jobs to support her family; and a woman who for two decades has cared for children of parents with nowhere else to turn. Over the span of two years, across working holidays, seven-day work weeks, and around-the-clock shifts, the film reveals the personal cost of rising wealth inequality in the U.S and the close bonds forged between parents, children, and caregivers.
Director: Ashley O’Shay
“Unapologetic” captures a tense and polarizing moment in Chicago’s fight for the livelihood of its Black residents. The film follows Janaé and Bella, two young abolitionist organizers, as they work within the Movement for Black Lives to seek justice for Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, two young Black people killed by Chicago police. They aim to elevate a progressive platform for criminal justice to a police board led by Lori Lightfoot and a complicit city administration, while also elevating leadership by women and femmes.
Director: Stacey Lee
Filmed over the summer festival season, “Underplayed” presents a portrait of the current status of the gender, ethnic, and sexuality equality issues in dance music.