Throughout the weekend, the Athena Film Festival focused on celebrating women in the film industry not just with screenings, but also with panels and talks that gave deeper insight into the unique experiences and work of festival guests.
Following a screening of “MANKILLER” this weekend at the Athena Film Festival, activist and writer Gloria Steinem spoke with the film’s director Valerie Red-Horse and executive producer Gale Anne Hurd about the life and ideals of the late Wilma Mankiller.
The documentary focuses on the life of Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, and is set to air on March 1 on PBS. The panel was moderated by Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post.
Early in the conversation, Hornaday asked Red-Horse about her connection to Mankiller. Like Mankiller, Red-Horse grew up in San Francisco through the same relocation program.
“When you’re an urban Indian, you do receive newsletters about happenings back in the Nation,” Red-Horse said. “So I knew who she was, of course, and I was a great fan but never had an opportunity to meet her. I knew she was a great leader, but I didn’t know a lot of details about her life.”
After receiving the offer to direct from PBS, Red-Horse said, “I would love to do that. And it wasn’t until we got into research and development that I felt this complete, almost spiritual connection.”
Both Red-Horse and Mankiller had Caucasian mothers and Native fathers, and both Red-Horse and Mankiller did work for the Cherokee Nation.
“I work in economic development with tribes and worked with things like gaming and infrastructure. So the connections just kept going over and over and I learned so much from her that at this point in my life, I feel like I know her,” Red-Horse said.
Hurd also described to how she came to document Mankiller’s life.
“I looked back in my career and I realized that I do tell the same story again and again, with different characters in different genres, but they’re generally stories of ordinary people like Sarah Connor in ‘The Terminator,’ or Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens,’ who don’t realize the power, the strength, and the leadership abilities they have within themselves. They’re often women characters. And that was very much, I think, Wilma,” Hurd said.
In response a question from Hornaday concerning the impact of Mankiller’s leadership, Hurd said, “Her mandate was that the movie could not be about her alone. She wanted it to be the story of her people, and that was something that we really took to heart. And that is just an extension of leadership that serves the people.”
Throughout the actual film, Steinem remarked on her friendship with Mankiller, and the inspiration she drew from her.
“That was where the journey came to,” Steinem said during the panel. “I owe it to a sequence of events, as it always happens. The National Women’s Conference in Houston in the late ’70s, it was huge and representative of every state and territory, and was the kind of constitutional convention for women because it was the single, only representative meeting. There were hundreds of women from Indian country there. And that was the first time that I realized, wait a minute, they have a memory of what we’re looking for in the future.”
Beyond the focus on Wilma Mankiller, the panel briefly touched upon issues of feminism, women in media, and the dangers of the Trump administration.
When asked by an audience member if she felt Mankiller could have been president, Steinem said, “She was president of her Nation.”
UnREAL Season Three Premiere
The third season of “UnREAL,” the soapy TV drama that follows the lives of two female producers on a “Bachelor”-esque reality television show, premiered at the Athena Film Festival with a panel that included stars Shiri Appleby and Craig Bierko, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, and executive producer and cocreator Sarah Shapiro.
In the show, which centers on talented young producer Rachel and her return to her high-pressure job, the grungy, hardened producers trade cynical one-liners as they weave through the brightly lit set of fictional TV show “Everlasting,” complete with fairy lights, champagne, and stone patios.
While fictional tv shows don’t always portray real life accurately, viewers of “UnREAL” don’t have to worry about accuracy—Shapiro was a producer on The Bachelor for three years.
Shapiro made her debut in fiction writing and producing via a video short called “Sequin Raze,” which shows the foundational narrative behind “UnREAL.” Pared down with harsher lighting and Italian opera music, and without the sudsy finish of a Lifetime drama, the short tells a story of manipulation: a producer that will pull any card—crocodile tears, coercion, alcohol, backhanded insults—to get a recently dumped contestant to say something with high emotion to the cameras.
The show toggles between showing the humanity of its characters and their caricatured TV-ready selves. Each person is shown through two lenses—as humans and as television tropes—with even the producers simplifying themselves down.
In an interview with Spectator, Shapiro said that as a producer, she “[learned] how to look at women through the male gaze, and evaluate them in a way that’s incredibly sexist and diminishing of their abilities.” She went from “sitting in a control room looking at a bunch of female figures on a screen and calling them fat and ugly and stupid and slutty,” to “getting home after an 80-hour work week and looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘I’m a fat, ugly, stupid slut.’”
Prescient for the current media environment, “UnREAL” features three female leads. The
show takes a grimy perspective on the world of reality television, showing the sometimes vicious machinations of producers Rachel and Quinn to create compelling television.
This interplay between women and work is played out on the screen as roles on the set of “Everlasting” determine the prominence of work in various women’s lives. Quinn and Rachel reckon with the reality of their jobs as the producers of sexist stereotypes.
Alternately, the female contestants at the center of the narrative end up suppressing their work in the process of the show.
Responding to an audience question on whether the lack of detail on what the season’s “suitress,” Serena Walcott, does for a living was a deliberate choice, Shapiro said, “A very central premise of this show is a whole TV show where women talk about their jobs and focus on their jobs and so when we brought Serena in, that was a big conversation.”
Referencing Serena and citing the environment created in the reality television world, Shapiro said, “There’s a very meta component to it which is that once she’s sort of metabolized into that world, the specificity of her job just evaporates.”
Shapiro cites this very dynamic as one of the most annoying aspects of working on “The Bachelor.”
“[The Bachelorettes are] allowed to have a job, but they’re not allowed to care about it. They’re never allowed to talk about their ambition or profession. They have to basically be like dumb kindergarten teachers,” Shapiro said.
It may be reflected in its viewing audience as well. In an interview with Spectator, Shapiro mentioned this dynamic among viewership.
“One thing that was super fascinating when I was pitching the show and researching the show was that a lot of women who watch the show have advanced degrees and make $250 [thousand] a year and above, so a lot of really educated, successful women watch the show,” Shapiro said.
However, Shapiro believes that the simplicity of the sexist storyline is what draws in the audience.
“I think that it’s really stressful and hard sometimes to be a very ambitious woman in America, and that there’s like a real sort of pleasure in the fantasy that there is a Prince Charming, and there is a helicopter coming and all you really have to do is be pretty and nice and somebody will save you. I think there’s a princess fantasy that’s very alluring,” Shapiro said. “And then there’s also a very sadistic satisfaction in making fun of the girls who believe in that, even though you believe in it a little bit. It’s like those dumb, weak bitches who are ... such idiots, you know, I would never do that.”
The show does in fact rely on the same hypnotic elements that “The Bachelor” does: the vulnerability inexorably tied up in the process of looking for love on reality television, the gut-wrenching rawness, the sadistic joy in watching a stranger’s inevitable downfall to shame, absurdity, or both, the momentum toward an uncomplicated, perfect love story neatly tied up at the end of each season with a proposal.
The show’s third season and growing popularity come at a time dubbed “the golden age of television.” Indeed, it manages to deliver a captivating critique of a mega-series adored by America. “UnREAL” is a cultural critique within a show within a show.
It strives to question the consumption of storylines by highlighting the enormous production effort that goes into the creation of them through the show’s antihero Rachel. “UnREAL” critiques a show, “The Bachelor,” which has gone on to spawn “The Bachelorette,” “Bachelor in Paradise,” “The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All,” and “The Bachelor: Women Tell All,” is referred to by its host as “The Bachelor Universe” and has spawned some number of copycat dating contest reality shows. It asks, what is the dark side of the voracious consumption of these narratives?
Correctional facilities are not usually where Ivy League classes are held. But “It’s Criminal,” a documentary directed by Signe Taylor, BC ’87, portrays Dartmouth students and incarcerated women at a correctional facility in Sullivan County, New Hampshire, who participated in a Dartmouth program that required them to work together on a play at the jail.
The film followed the students and the inmates as they met, slowly learned to trust each other, reflected upon their own lives, and eventually stunned the audience with a heartwarming production loosely based on their own experiences and feelings.
In a scene portraying the students’ first visit to the correctional facility, an employee at the institution warned the students against bringing certain items into the room with the inmates. She pointed at a ballpoint pen one of the students had and said it was not allowed in—it would make a great tattoo gun.
Juxtaposed with scenes that showed the inmates’ loss, dejection, and frustration, were scenes of the Ivy League students reflecting upon their own lives, trying to put their privilege into perspective. While there was occasional friction between the two groups, the documentary ultimately showed them all sharing about their lives, laughing, and learning together. In the final production, as they were all put in costumes and makeup (the overjoyed reaction of the inmates when they were given makeup for the first time since their incarceration was heartbreaking), it was hard to tell who was a student and who was an inmate.
Charlotte Gunderson, a former drug addict, appeared hostile, dejected, and hollow in the film. It seemed unlikely that this would be her last time in jail, but the epilogue of the film showed that she is now working in management after graduating from college. She was one of the inmates that appeared at the Athena Film Festival on a panel with Taylor, alongside fellow subjects Ivy Schweitzer and Kim Vasquez.
“I was terrified of my own shadow. The program taught me that I was worthy,” Gunderson said. The audience erupted in applause.
Dressed in a fitted red blazer and smiling at the room, it was clear how much she had grown and changed since the documentary was filmed. As the audience filtered out of the auditorium, people thanked her, some of them in tears.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
“Of course! I love hugs!” she replied, smiling with an almost childish joy that reflected a feeling of trust and openness that was worlds away from the woman she was in the film.
Filmmakers Isabel Sandoval, Jennifer Fox, and Tracy Heather Strain joined moderator and film critic Thelma Adams on Saturday, February 24 for a panel on the Female Gaze, a discussion of the challenges that still face women in film who want to control their own narratives. Major topics in the 30-minute discussion and Q&A included visibility, age, race, and how the panelists’ experiences as young filmmakers shaped the arc of their careers.
The panel, now in its second year, kicked off with introductions from each panelist on how their own experiences in the industry have influenced their identities as women. Strain began by commenting on her decision-making process as a director and African-American woman. Her film “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” a documentary about black lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry, was screened at Athena on Saturday.
“There’s a lot of imagery of women in this documentary… but that was very intentional,” Strain said. “I elected to show black women in the piece because I hardly ever see people who seem like me in documentaries.”
Her sentiment was echoed by Sandoval, who spoke of her experience as a “gold-star minority,” referring to her background as a woman of color, a trans woman, and an immigrant, as very much interlaced with her filmmaking. She noted that it was by starring as the trans protagonist of her first film, “Señorita,” that she realized she herself was transgender.
Fox then touched on the topic of age, explaining that it has shaped how she is perceived by her peers in Hollywood.
“I’ve been making films since I was 20, so there’s a lot of work there. ... Age also is a political issue. I used to think, am I invisible because I’m a girl? Because I’m an older woman?” Fox said, in response to a question regarding visibility for women filmmakers.
Such questions steered the latter half of the discussion, including the Q&A portion of the panel, where the first comment from an audience member was from former Barnard professor Dr. Mildred Pollner, TC ’76, who called out the panelists as being young.
“I am one of the first female video filmmakers and I am 82 years young,” Pollner said before promoting her website and being interrupted by the moderator, who asked if she had a question for the panelists.
“Yeah, what would you do if you were 82?”
“Make another film,” Fox replied, to laughter from the audience.
My Year With Helen
The international premiere of “My Year With Helen,” a documentary focused on the titular Helen Clark, the first elected female prime minister of New Zealand, was held in Miller Theatre on Friday. The film follows her attempt to become secretary-general of the United Nations, another position she would have been the first elected woman to hold.
Directed and produced by lauded New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston, the film is simultaneously a striking commentary on the intersection of womanhood and politics as well as an insight into the typically secretive leadership selection processes of the UN. Audiences are introduced to Clark, who is boldly spoken but never brash, through intimate conversations interlaced with her campaign process.
Kavita Ramdas, former president and CEO of Global Fund for Women, moderated the post-premiere Q&A, introducing her “two kiwi sheros”: subject of the film Clark and director Preston.
As the appointment of the ninth secretary-general occured over a year ago in October 2016, an informed viewer might have already been aware of the fact that this position is now held by ex-prime minister of Portugal, António Guterres, and not Clark. This gives the film a discouraging sheen because, as viewers observed, throughout the race, Clark was favorite by far.
“I made a film that seems to have almost made the glass ceiling visible,” Preston said, on the unfortunate reality behind Clark’s lack of success, seemingly not chosen because she is a woman.
However, this documentary still is not meant to mark a story of a failure or to express pessimism toward the pursuit of gender equality.
“Often people see this film and get really mad, or get quite depressed by it, but I think it should be seen as a rallying cry,” Clark said later in response. “I think the reality is now dawning on younger women who thought this was done but isn’t.”
As for the next time the secretary-general position becomes vacant? “Women should be strategizing now,” said Clark.