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The Mary Sue Interview: The Athena Film Festival Founders On Women in Hollywood And Strong Female Protagonists


Five years ago, Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert pooled their resources, expertise, and passions to create The Athena Film Festival. Kolbert is the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, an interdisciplinary center dedicated to advancing women’s leadership. Silverstein is the editor, founder, and writer at Women and Hollywood, which attempts to educate the public of the film industry’s gender gap and advocate for a more inclusive Hollywood. Together, they run the world’s only festival dedicated to celebrating women in leadership positions.

In addition to her work at Barnard College, Kolbert is also a renowned attorney, journalist, and non-profit executive. She’s appeared on NPR’s Justice Talking; been President and CEO of People for the American Way; and was a lawyer for the Women’s Law project, the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project (which she also cofounded). Kolbert even argued the landmark reproductive rights case Planned Parenthood v. Casey before the US Supreme Court in 1992, one of the reasons she was named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most Influential Lawyers in America. Silverstein’s site, Women in Hollywood, was named one of the top 100 websites for women by Forbes for three consecutive years (among other well-deserved honors and recognition). Recently, the, CNN, BBC, Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and New York Times veteran compiled 40 of her best interviews with female directors for Women and Hollywood into the book In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing.

Being someone who writes about film myself, I am of course more than familiar with Women and Hollywood, and was curious how it even started. Speaking with Silverstein, she recounted how a moment of frustration was her inspiration. “One day I was at the movies, because that is what I always did,” she said. “But as I was getting older, I went to the blockbuster films, [and] I said to myself, ‘These all suck, and I don’t see anyone like me here.’ So that kind of stuck in my head and I was doing other things and learned about the blogosphere. And I have always been a person interesting in pop culture and feminism, and there was this light bulb day.”

So how did Kolbert and Silverstein come together to create the only film festival focused exclusively on highlighting women in leadership roles? Silverstein explained on the eve of the 5th annual Athena Festival:

[Kolbert] and I had known each other for many years, and she came to Barnard about six years ago. And I was doing some events with my work and we came together at an event for Jane Campion. There were a lot of women directors in the room, talking about the difficulty they have getting films made. So we talked after that and came up with this idea, but stuck to the leadership thing first. And our focus is on leadership on screen, because there is such a lack of female protagonists onscreen. So what we are looking for are examples of real women of strength, and five years later we continue to highlight women of leadership on screen, behind the scenes, and in our real world.

While the recent development of the Athena Center was an obvious choice, both Silverstein and Kolbert find Barnard College to be more than an ideal partner because, as Silverstein explains, “Barnard is a place where future women leaders are being trained and that is something the college has embraced. They continue to grow with the campus and women are coming to Barnard now to be a part of Athena.” Kathryn, notes that they have over 4,000 film lovers who have never been to Barnard come to the festival. And the students and faculty involvement as attendees and volunteers has also increased in the five years since the festival was created; they have over 300 volunteers working with the festival this year, along with student ambassadors using social media to spread the news about the festival.

For Kolbert, one of the highlights is the ability to work with students who introduce and help pick the films. The Athena Center’s mission made the festival’s mission statement a no brainer because, as she explains:

One of my chief goals when coming to Barnard was knowing the leadership center had to work in the ecosystem and include cultural conversations. When people think of a leader, people often first think of a little white man with grey hair. And we wanted to change that, so when you picture leadership you think of women and diverse women. And until our culture changes and sees things differently, women will always have a difficult time.

Film is one of the the things that can help this perspective can change because, simply put, by Kolbert, “Films are emotional. Change doesn’t just happen because something is a good idea or facts which back up the need for change. Change happens when people are stirred emotionally and propel people to take action. And films do that. The very act of seeing multiple dimensions of leadership in one venue, it can really change how you feel about this need for women in leadership.”

Another important part of making that change is involving men in the conversation, which is the reason male filmmakers are not excluded from the films and encouraged to attend the festival. Kolbert explains that including men in this conversation is vital:

We aren’t going to make change in the world unless we are working side by side with men. So one of the things we did from the beginning was to say, we are showing films from both men and women, but the key factor in the film is they have to have a woman in a leadership role as the protagonist. So encouraging men to make these kinds of movies is a great aspect of the festival. We want to encourage more female directors, because Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record with that. But we also want to encourage men to make great stories about women.

Silverstein agrees, recalling that even anecdotally, they’ve seen male directors at the festival who tell them who tell the audience, “I made this movie for my daughter. I want my daughter to see these kinds of women on screen.” And Silverstein notes that awareness is vital because “our world is not going to change with just women pushing. I think we do need men as partners. We need everyone to understand that our world is a much better place when a diversity of voices are heard.”

Hollywood’s problems are a microcosm of bigger problems in many industries today. In films, Silverstein notes that “if you count, there seems to be a diminishing number of women on screen. As the conversation about women continues to rise, we still see a diminishing number of women on screen or static number. 15% of females in leadership roles, 30% of roles for women, seems to have been the number for the last couple of years. So we aren’t seeing any improvement. So we are trying to push for the fact that we are 50% of the world, so we need to have 50% of the power positions, because our world would be a different place.”

While those numbers aren’t great, they’re actually better than the general business world, because, as Kolbert notes,

Hollywood is no different than other areas where women are excluded from leadership. And there are a couple of things at play. One is the question of trust. Most people trust people like themselves before they will trust someone who is different. So it is not surprising that when men are 95% of the boardroom and CEOs, they are going to look to people like themselves to trust big dollars with. So I think part of the problem is how the money flows and who makes the decisions. And the fact that women are still controlling the money. When women get to leadership, in all industries not just Hollywood, they are more likely to bring in more women and add more women to the key seats and boards. But we are all concerned over how slowly that is happening. And one of the way to move that forward is what we are doing here.

Ironically, just last autumn we saw an cold, hard evidence of Hollywood’s corporate sexism when the Sony hack revealed the industry’s pay gap, something unsurprising to an attorney with Kolbert’s experience. “I wasn’t surprised at all,” she said, “and that is true across all industries. And there are number of factors which contribute to that. In ecosystems which are transparent, when you know the range of pay, women will ask more questions and demand more money than if that is not transparent. So one of the things the Sony hacking did was make that public, and my guess is, women will start to ask more questions and demand more so they are treated equally.

“But more than that,”  Kolbert added, “I think there should be a check on these things. I think big business have a responsibility to examine pay scales and not just lead it to chance, and look when booking a film to ensure that things are equal. And until they do, we will continue to see disparities.”

One of the problems the industry still has, and how they justify these “differences,” is the continued myths which are passed down and perpetrated which, as Kolbert notes with a laugh, “just aren’t true. There are a lot of myths which back up stereotypes, in all parts of the world.”

“But we know a number of things which happen when women are leaders,” Kolbert continued. “They are more innovative, they make money at equal or great rates than men. So we know that bringing women into leadership roles is critically important to the bottom line. Why, because otherwise you’re missing half the talent. And if you want to have the most interesting, creative films, ignoring half the population just makes no business sense at all. We’ve seen films about women be blockbusters. And that is because finally films are being made about women, and being distributed and marketed the way other films. And when that happens, and they see profits, they are going to take a second look.”

Silverstein agrees with using that bottom line to push the industry forward. “As you know from The Mary Sue,” she said, “the fact that the male experience is still seen as universal and women are scene as other is a problem. And one of things which is great about Athena is the fact that we interrupt that. We want people to be inspired and aspired to go into leadership roles. And we are half the world – why should our experiences be seen as other? But there is a narrative that exists within the entertainment business that content about men is a positive, while content about women is the negative. And those perspectives have to shift, because that narrative simply does not match the data.”

The Athena Film Festival will take place at Barnard College this week in New York, from February 5th to 8th. Films that have premiered at the festival in the past include Selma director Ava DuVernay’s first movie and Jennifer Lawrence Oscar vehicle Winter’s Bone, so there are sure to be many gems this year too. To buy tickets or see the schedule, head to The Athena Film Festival.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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