Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College, Columbia University constitutes the only woman’s film festival in New York City. It numbers among a handful of women’s film festivals nationally.
For four days in February women filmmakers, experienced and nascent, screen their films. Notably, fans and supporters watch shorts, full-length documentaries, and features. And many of these include World Premieres. Also, favorite films with monumental female protagonists like those in Wonder Woman, The Post, and issue films like Patti Cake$ and The Divine Order which screened widely in 2017 made their appearance.
Additionally, Athena Film Festival has broadened its reach to include Virtual Reality productions and a Television showcase as female-centric stories thrive there and their viewership increases. Of course panels and master classes abound as well as screenwriting labs. Receptions, parties, and brunches for Alumnae and filmmakers sparkle through the weekend.
Finally, festival judges bestow awards in various categories. These include the 2018 Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award won by Barbara Kopple. Secondly, Amma Asante, the first black female director to win a BAFTA received the Athena Award for her work as a screenwriter and film director. Additionally, the Inaugural Athena Breakthrough Award went to Bridget Everett for her prodigious acting chops, and J.J. Abrams (writer, director, producer), received the Athena Leading Man Award. Abrams continually demonstrates his commitment to creating content that “features and celebrates brave and powerful women.”
Festival programmers offered a vital addition on Sunday before the screening of The Post. Surely, the Town Hall demonstrated Athena Film Festival’s tireless determination to be on the cutting edge where women’s issues abide. The #MeToo movement embraces women’s voices rising against the shame and powerlessness women experience from sexual predation. Not only did the Town Hall highlight issues of misogyny and patriarchy, panelists discussed the entrenched institutional and cultural norms that sustain sexual violence, and they offered solutions. Each of these hotbed items in the discussion touched upon many of the same issues in the content of festival films. Indeed, the festival seeks to inform and advocate for women and men to support one another and improve conditions for all.
Zainab Salbi, host of the PBS series #MeToo, Now What?” and Founder of Women for Women International moderated the panel. Featured speakers included Mallika Dutt, founder, past president & CEO of Breakthrough. Notable activist Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, contributed salient points. Additionally, Jehmu Greene, media and advocacy strategist, board chair of VoteRunLead provided the political dimension. Finally, Gillian Thomas, attorney ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, added the legal policy perspectives over the last thirty years.
During the discussion Gillian Thomas reinforced disconcerting facts. Policy against sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace and elsewhere has existed for over thirty years, yet women are loathe to speak out. The reasons become multiple in work cultures where men have normalized sexual objectification, harassment and violence against women. Against entrenched patriarchal or misogynistic norms, women cannot easily speak out to defend themselves with impunity. They risk losing their current career status and jobs, and if they bravely speak out, many often jeopardize future employment and career success.
Indeed, the opportunistic and craven predator will deny the allegations and become the victim whom the “lying woman” attacks. Unless more women come forward against that predator, her credibility is questioned, not his, mores of social constructs of the patriarchy. Whoever has more power at the outset of the accusation often wins, unless enough women call out the predator.
But the handwriting is on the wall. The employer may suspend both parties until an investigation assigns guilt. If she needs the money, all of this becomes a moot point and silence becomes the financial survival route. Thus, round and round like rats in a wheel women struggle with the same tiring and oppressive circumstances until they give up, give in, and react like robots to the culture of sexual harassment. Some may use stealth and their keen acumen to avoid negative fallout and get the male to stop the predation. In a culture that uplifts sexual violence, sexual objectification and harassment with a “boys will be boys” mentality, this becomes harder and harder.
Of course the panelists brought up the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle. Thomas currently sits on the Supreme Court as a noxious reminder of the preeminence of men in power backed by well-placed cohorts in the patriarchy. As Hill suffered through the outrage from men and women who disbelieved her, so women today who outted Roy Moore’s pederasty suffered defamation as he turned himself into the victim of conspiracy plots. But for his defeat in the senate Moore’s behavior would have been given a pass. In Moore’s instance, the nation watched and black women came out in droves to defeat his candidacy and de-legetimize the norms of sexual predation he had uplifted for himself. Nevertheless, white women still advocate for Moore and rebuke his accusers.
Gillian Thomas and the others underscored that the #MeToo movement has made strides. However, the fight to topple each predator must continue, despite the thorny problem of “push-back” and predator victimization. Will speaking out eventually be normalized? Regardless, the resistance will be intense, and as Mallika Dutt so eloquently stated, unless norms and folkways against sexual predation change in the culture of families concurrently with the culture of the workplace, little permanent change will result.
Both Jehmu Greene and Saru Jayaraman brought a hopeful aspect to the discussion as they commented on their own activities. Greene advocated that rage be expressed. Women must not be afraid to verbally call out or identify their attitudes to known infamous harassers, as she did with Mark Halperin. Also, Greene discussed that women must run for elected office in positions of law enforcement. For example women should fill Sheriff positions, become DAs and seek other top elected official posts in law enforcement. As many have suggested the immediacy for the Mid Term Elections becomes a concrete response to overcome the inequities and the backlash against women speaking out.
Saru Jayaraman clearly laid out how the restaurant industry policies of tipping and absence of salary began in slavery when former slaves (after the Civil War) only received tips. Though this policy changed and employers offer a salary, it is below minimum wage. Currently, only eight states offer a salary above minimum wage and tips.
Sadly, Jayaraman pointed to research that shows a correlation between little money and sexual predation. For those women making a decent salary above minimum wage as well as tips, these waitresses brooked no harassment. For them their money became the power to speak out; they did not succumb out of fear to harassment. Thankfully, incidents of sexual harassment and violence in those eight states have fallen dramatically. In the rest of the country, desperate waitresses and hotel maids, etc., become hunted sexual animals. Because these women need to work, men feel they can violate them with impunity. The women speak out at their peril.
Clearly, the outrage expressed by women fosters their empowerment. Suppression leads to a host of ills cultural, personal, familial. However, the political determination and will to change cultural norms through laws will be inadequate unless the change occurs everywhere we abide. As Dutt suggests change must occur in our homes, in our workplaces, in our leisure spaces, in ourselves. It is a journey of a trillion steps trod by women hand and hand with men. Both can and should lead together in this struggle for human decency.
Once again, the Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College shines a light on issues of women’s equity and men’s personal freedom from fear to share power with them. Shared power strengthens one’s person-hood and inner well being, a benefit to all. Next year if you are in NYC check for the festival to note their films and programs. You’ll be glad you did.