Kathryn Kolbert argued the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey before the Supreme Court as a public interest attorney specializing in women’s reproductive rights. Melissa Silverstein founded Women and Hollywood, an initiative that “educates, advocates, and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry,” according to its website. At Barnard, they worked together to create an innovative event that promotes a new kind of leadership, uniting politics and film.
Kolbert helped create the Athena Center for Leadership Studies in 2009, which she directed until this past June. Then, in 2010, she co-founded, along with Silverstein, the Athena Film Festival, a weekend consisting of film screenings and programs centered around stories of women leaders. In a series of interviews with Spectator, Kolbert and Silverstein talked about the festival’s origins and their experiences as co-founders of the project.
Kolbert and Silverstein, who have known each other for many years, recounted how the idea first emerged from a conversation they had at a party hosted by feminist organizer and journalist Gloria Steinem.
“When I first came to Barnard in the fall of 2009, [Silverstein] invited me to a party at Gloria Steinem’s with a variety of filmmakers who were assembled to meet Jane Campion, the director of ‘The Piano’ and other great films,” Kolbert said.
At the party, Kolbert and Silverstein realized there were a lot of women directors talking about the lack of opportunities to tell female-centered stories.
“And I said to Melissa, or Melissa said to me,” Kolbert said, “‘Why don't we try to do something about that problem?’”
Kolbert had a clear goal in mind for the festival, which echoes that of the Athena Center: Change what leadership looks like. Kolbert sought to promote women leaders, especially ones who had been removed from leadership roles or were not given opportunities for leadership roles. The Athena Center was and is, according to Kolbert, committed to training women and men to become better leaders and providing women access to a realm of leadership possibilities.
Kolbert then talked about how the festival has grown since its inception and its significance for the attendees.
“Luckily, there’s been more and more films that have the themes that we are trying to promote. And the audiences have been terrific and incredibly inspired by seeing a weekend of films, all of which are kind of geared to the same theme,” Kolbert said. “It’s one thing if you’ve seen one movie about a woman in a strong leadership role. It’s a totally different experience if you watch a whole weekend of many films that depict women as leaders, across a whole range of occupations, cultures, countries, communities.”
The festival’s promotion of stories from all around the globe about fearless and strong women makes it seem quite relevant because of the ongoing conversations surrounding women in the media. Silverstein, however, talked about how the festival is often seen as revolutionary when it shouldn’t have to be.
“When you have a voice of a Latina or an African American or a woman from another country—the whole festival is all about centering stories about women leaders—it really changes your whole perspective on the world because basically what we’re told all the time is that the men are at the ‘center’ and we are ‘outside the center.’ And so this festival debunks that narrative,” Silverstein said. “In some ways, it’s quite revolutionary, but it should be completely normalized.”
That’s why, for Silverstein and Kolbert, the festival was indeed ahead of its time—the Athena Film Festival even honored Ava DuVernay five years before she received widespread acclaim—but is still a reminder of a much more broader change that needs to happen.
Their goal was not only to amplify women’s voices but also to tell stories about female leaders, regardless of whether they were written by men or women, in a world that needed female leadership. Yet they were focusing on issues that the general public wasn’t ready to pay much attention to, and that, nowadays, the public perhaps still isn’t completely ready to acknowledge.
For this reason, according to Kolbert, the conversation continues, but there needs to be significant social change in the industry. The Athena Film Festival is, of course, at the forefront of this conversation, but it is also aspiring to attain the change that is required to transform an industry that has frequently portrayed women in ways that are one-dimensional and stereotypical.
To this end, the festival gradually and effectively expands the presence of women filmmakers in the industry by providing marginalized voices with the exposure they deserve.
“We have a great number of filmmakers who participate in the festival, about 75 percent of which are women, and about half of which are women of color,” Kolbert said.
The festival also boasts educational programs, such as workshops, panels, and master classes for aspiring female filmmakers and writers, including students at Barnard and Columbia.
Additionally, there’s a program called the Athena List, in which awards are given to screenplays that they’d like to see fully developed into films. Past winners include “On the Basis of Sex,” which will be screened this year, and Sundance 2019 Grand Jury Prize Winner, “Clemency.”
Although the film festival originally showed features, documentaries, and shorts, it has included virtual reality films, expanded the television offerings, and added films that depict women in STEM fields to its works-in-progress program.
Reflecting on how far the film festival has come but has yet to accomplish, Kolbert and Silverstein reinforced the need for cultural change.
“I've always understood that while law can make social change, social change also requires a change in the culture. …The idea is that if you change how people perceive certain topics and perceive certain people, you can help change how the culture views it more generally and the kinds of reforms that are necessary or easier to undertake,” Kolbert said.
“Leadership is what we want the world to be—to include women's leadership and women's voices and women's discourse in our culture,” Silverstein said. “Athena Film Festival might happen at this time of year but we're really trying to build something that lasts beyond just the four days of the festival. We're really looking to make sure that we have a lasting impact.”
The ninth annual Athena Film Festival will take place from Feb. 28 to March 3, 2019.
“Take advantage; it’s in your front yard! [Film festivals] don't happen on college campuses regularly,” Silverstein said.