The eighth annual Athena Film Festival, which took place at Barnard College from Feb. 22 to 25, continued its strong tradition of highlighting female talent and narratives in the film industry with high-profile guests, a string of premieres, and a diverse wealth of films from all over the world.
“Athena is a collaboration of women in Hollywood, a platform that advocates, educates, and agitates for gender parity,” co-founder Kathryn Kolbert, the Constance Hess Williams ’66 director of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College, said on the opening night. “The goal of the festival is both ambitious and simple: to spread the messages and triumphs of all women and rejoice as we envision a world where every young woman can grow up to be secure in herself and influential in her community.”
Battle of the Sexes, 2017, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
The festival kicked off on Thursday night with a screening of 2017 feature film “Battle of the Sexes” in Barnard’s Diana Event Oval. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Billie Jean King, tennis legend and subject of the film, in partnership with the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative.
The opening night feature film looks into the formative years of tennis legend Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the one-dollar contract (which King calls “the birth of women’s professional tennis as you see it today,”) and the most televised sports of event of the time: the titular “Battle of the Sexes.”
King is approached by 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) to play a match and initially refuses the Wimbledon and US Open champion and self-described “chauvinist pig.” But when her peer, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), loses to Riggs, King takes it upon herself to show that women can be equal to men on the playing field. Concurrently, both King and Riggs are faced by a share of personal struggles: King confronts her sexuality through a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn, and Riggs is desperate to rid himself of the distinction of washed-up gambler.
A story of female fortitude, personal discovery, and a formative year that changed women’s tennis forever, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is an emotional, comedic, and inspirational tale. The film is highlighted by amusing cameos from noted comedians and actors like Alan Cumming, Sarah Silverman, and Fred Armisen. Well received by the Athena crowd, the film was met by a shower of in-house applause several times throughout and with cheers to celebrate on-screen feminist victories.
The highly anticipated Q&A immediately followed the film. King herself, now 74, was interviewed by recent Columbia alumna Margaret Lu, CC ’17, six-time USA fencing national champion, and 2020 Olympic prospect.
Lu began by recounting how she first discovered King while investigating her personal identity.
“Not too long after I started fencing, I was realizing I was going to have this identity as an athlete, and I was negotiating other parts of my identity and I didn’t quite fully understand or have an idea about, so I looked up, I googled ‘gay female athletes,’ and-” King interjected, “Bingo!”
Of the moviemakers themselves, King spoke with praise. While she was shy to meet Emma Stone at first, she said they ultimately grew quite close and King helped Stone with her tennis swing. Steve Carell, she noted, was an adorable introvert. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “have something magical” according to King.
The story was portrayed very accurately, but King gave a further behind-the-scenes view into her mind while the pivotal events took place.
“I said no to [Bobby Riggs] for two years, he was following me for two years, he was driving me crazy…” King said. “In my mind I’m thinking, if I beat a 55-year-old athlete, that’s not a big deal.”
But when she saw her rival, Court, lose to Riggs, “internally, my heart absolutely sunk, and I’m going, I have to play him now,” King said. “I understood the consequences, I understood culturally, I knew it was going to touch the hearts and minds of people, especially the emotional parts of people, men, women—it was crazy, and I knew it was going to be crazy.”
But King’s experience at the conclusion of the film’s narrative wasn’t as heartening as the audience was led to believe.
“I was outed, by Marilyn, that sweet little thing in the movie wasn’t so sweet…” said King. “I lost everything overnight, all my endorsements, basically… I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin probably until I was 51.”
However, though her personal story is fraught with challenge, King had no shortage of encouraging and uplifting messages to offer the Athena crowd.
“We depended totally on whether women’s professional tennis was going to make it or not on the traditional media ... and 95-percent of media is controlled by men, so we didn’t know what was going to happen,” King said. “But that’s where technology takes over. ... This is an opportunity to use that technology we have for good. … We’ve got to keep these movements, we have to sustain them because movements come and go.”
“Battle of the Sexes” and Billie Jean’s personal story showed paramount inner strength and events that truly changed the world beyond tennis.
“We hope that these stories of passion, intrigue, grief, and joy will inspire you to make the world a better place,” Kathryn Kolbert said in an encapsulating manner in her remarks prior to the film.
Chavela, 2017, directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
The documentary “Chavela” celebrates the hard life led by gay ranchera singer Chavela Vargas.
The film, which is almost entirely in Spanish, concentrates on the life and relationships of Costa Rican singer Isabel Vargas Lizano, better known by her stage name Chavela Vargas. Using archival footage and select songs recorded by Vargas, the documentary traces her early development, successes, and subsequent impact on Latin American music. Interviews are conducted in the present with former lovers and friends, creating a holistic image of a woman struggling to prove herself in an openly homophobic and patriarchal environment.
The life of Chavela Vargas was fascinating. From a one-night stand with Ava Gardner to Vargas’ struggle with alcoholism, the film faithfully tells her story. Broad strokes of humor are often intertwined with darker subjects—in one instance, Vargas teaches a boy how to shoot a gun, boasting that this will make him a real man. Major elements of her life are described through songs, often by Vargas herself. This is where the documentary shines the brightest, setting the artistry of its subject in the foreground. This allows Vargas to not just speak but to sing her story. Her personal heartaches accentuate the ranchera music, a genre dependent on raw and honest emotional expression.
The uncertainty of the feature’s intended audience was a distracting drawback. Spanish subtitles in standard yellow font alternate with the flowery white-lettered English used during songs. However, the few instances of spoken English are not subtitled in Spanish. The intended audience, then, must be those with enough background in Mexican culture to recognize the ranchera genre and understand English.
Overall, the documentary is a compelling story about a woman certain of herself and her sexuality. Chavela Vargas flourished in a time and society in which she was persecuted not just for being a lesbian but for being a woman.
I Am Not a Witch, 2017, directed by Rungano Nyoni
“I Am Not a Witch,” the feature directorial debut of Rungano Nyoni, made its New York premiere at the Athena Film Festival. Recently having won the 2018 BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, this film tells the story of Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), an eight-year-old girl accused of witchcraft by the members of her village in Zambia.
The film follows Shula’s time at a government-run detainment camp for witches. She is by far the youngest among the middle-aged and elderly women, all of whom are believed to have magical powers, including flight. They are each tethered at all times by spool of ribbon in case they choose to “fly away.” Trapped by superstition and sexism, Shula and the other women are forced to remain as witches or to cut their ribbon and be designated “goats”—presumably, for the slaughter.
“I Am Not a Witch” is jarring, interspersing moments of surrealist deadpan comedy into a tragic reality. What is perceived as ancient and mystical is challenged: the tale is drawn from director Nyoni’s real experience at a modern-day Ghanaian witch camp, making the plot even more unsettling.
Much of the film is left to the subtext. Shula herself is withdrawn and often not entirely comprehensible. However, what was lacking in the narrative was gained through the film’s visual mastery: stark, lingering shots make up most of the film’s composition, landing on a color-stripped landscape. Bare scenes are underpinned by the opposingly exuberant Vivaldi, creating an unconventionally disparate tone compared to other films dealing with similar heavy subject matter.
When accepting the film’s basis in reality, it certainly seems dismal. However, embracing the exceptionally interlaced drollness and melancholy of “I Am Not a Witch” allows one to fully appreciate the artistic virtuosity of the film. Though having only made its New York debut, the film is sure to continue receiving accolades for its extraordinary uniqueness.
Lady Bird, 2017, directed by Greta Gerwig Lady Bird, 2017, directed by Greta Gerwig
There isn’t much left to say about “Lady Bird,” directed by Barnard alum Greta Gerwig, BC ’06, that hasn’t already been said: It’s certainly a film of the ages—close to perfection—that showcases teenage life in the most intimate, comedic, and artistically touching of fashions.
Gerwig herself, caught up in a flurry of work in the days leading up to this Sunday’s Academy Awards (Lady Bird is nominated for five), couldn’t attend the screening in person. However, to the audience’s delight, she appeared in a brief, pre-recorded video message projected before the showing of her film.
“I am so honored that Lady Bird is being shown,” Gerwig said. “I am a Barnard alum, and it changed my life. It’s where I fell in love with movies; it’s where I first started to really understand cinema, and I’m so happy I ended up becoming a director, which felt like a very crazy thing to want, but I developed it as a secret dream… I wish I could be there, but perhaps next year.”
This viewing was unlike any other festival showing of “Lady Bird.” In a sense, the film was home in a theatre chock-full of Barnard students. Aware of the autobiographical nature of the film, the New York college that Lady Bird attends certainly seems like Barnard, and the pilgrimage to the city is one much like that on which the wide-eyed, non-native New Yorkers in the audience had embarked to start their own Barnard experience.
In this way, the film seemed to resonate more with viewers than it might have elsewhere. “Lady Bird,” marked one of the greatest films of the past year, is sure to continue to resonate through its freshness, poignancy, and—among students—relatability for much longer.
The Divine Order, 2017, directed by Petra VolpeThe Divine Order, 2017, directed by Petra Volpe
Set in rural 1971 Switzerland, “The Divine Order” tells the fictional story of Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a dutiful housewife-turned-suffrage leader during the fight to give women the right to vote.
Swiss writer and director Petra Volpe begins the film with clips from 1960s campaigns like the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the Sexual Revolution. The film cuts suddenly to the mountains of Switzerland, where Nora lives with her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) and their two sons. Over the course of the film, Nora becomes more and more aware of the movement advocating for women’s right to vote. She becomes the voice of the movement in her town, and by doing so, faces threats and discouragement from her fellow citizens. Eventually, Nora convinces the women in the village to go on strike until the day of the national vote on women’s suffrage.
The film was received well by the large audience, who laughed often and clapped with each small victory for the women of the town. After the film, editor-in-chief of FF2 Media, Jan Lisa Huttner, spoke to Volpe and facilitated a discussion with the audience. One audience member asked about the scene in which many of the town’s women formed a tunnel in front of the town hall as men cast their ballots.
“It didn’t really happen,” Volpe said. “It was my utopia for what should have happened. I tried to be very truthful about the atmosphere and how it felt to be a woman in the countryside at this time. But I also felt, of course, it’s a little bigger than life. I just really wanted that scene to show the power of a group of women and how intimidating that can be.”
“The Divine Order” is a film that speaks to many generations of activists. It motivates its audience to fight for what they believe in regardless of the risks on both a personal and a national level.
The Post, 2017, directed by Steven Spielberg
The festival closed with “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Based closely on the true story of The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1971, the film focuses on the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, and the executive editor, Ben Bradlee, as they maneuver a pivotal time in the paper’s history.
The film begins with Katharine Graham making one of her first major decisions after taking on her dead husband’s publishing role; she sits in a conference room filled with men as she prepares to take the Washington Post Company public.
Most of the film focuses on a tangle of conflicts: problems between the press and the Nixon administration, the executive editor Ben Bradlee and Chairman of the Washington Post Company Fritz Beebe, and the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The film depicts the newspaper at several critical crossroads. From their frustration at losing the Pentagon Papers scoop to the New York Times to their ultimate fateful decision of whether or not to publish the papers they had recovered after an injunction, the newspaper could face either fame or destruction. One of the film’s most memorable scenes shows journalist Ben Bagdikian going to the motel room of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and seeing all of the Pentagon Papers laid out over two beds, realizing then that they were risking everything.
The film, which heavily draws from Graham’s memoir “Personal History,” highlights Graham as the sole woman in a man’s world. Several scenes depict her male employees doubting her abilities, both behind her back and to her face. One of her employees even goes so far as to begin critiquing her by saying,“Kay plans great parties, but…”
“We all thought that way,” Graham herself says to her daughter as she describes how normal it had seemed for her father to have given her husband control over the newspaper instead of her. Every time Graham countered and conquered the sexist obstacles put her her path, the Athena audience erupted into applause, cheering as Graham took down her male opposition.
Ultimately, however, the film was a forceful advocate for free press. After receiving threats from both Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist and Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara, the Post sees its case merge with the New York Times’ case at the nation’s highest court. Quoting the Supreme Court ruling in the paper’s favor, editorial writer Meg Greenfield says, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” In today’s political climate, this message seems particularly pertinent.