U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and leaders from the Time’s Up movement were among some of the big names who made appearances at Barnard’s ninth annual Athena Film Festival this weekend, joining in conversations regarding the importance of representation and women’s leadership in the film industry.
Ocasio-Cortez attended the premiere of “Knock Down the House” on Sunday, a documentary that follows her campaign as well as those of three other female congressional hopefuls in the November 2018 midterm elections. The premiere was followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and Ocasio-Cortez.
The documentary, directed by Rachel Lears, closed out this year’s four-day program which featured 14 other documentaries and 17 feature films. Ocasio-Cortez was featured alongside Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin in “Knock Down the House” for their groundbreaking grassroots political campaigns.
Despite losing their races, Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin were integral forces in the Democratic Party’s ultimately successful push to regain the majority in the House of Representatives last November. Each of these women ran on a platform centered around their individual struggles with governmental neglect in their respective districts.
Ocasio-Cortez ran the only winning campaign of those featured in the film, a feat she accomplished while grieving her father’s death and working double shifts at a restaurant to prevent foreclosure on her home.
Victoria Gordon, acting director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, was thrilled to bring “Knock Down the House” and its creators to the festival.
“We talk a lot about women in leadership at Athena in general,” Gordon said. “The film festival is our contribution to really shifting the cultural conversation around what leadership can look like. For us to be able to elevate and showcase stories of women from nontraditional backgrounds elevating themselves into leadership roles in difference spaces and disciplines is really important.”
Athena Artistic Director and co-founder Melissa Silverstein moderated a discussion with Lears, editor Robin Blotnick, producer Sarah Olson, and Ocasio-Cortez. Panelists touched on the making of the film and the nature of the election itself, and concluded with words of advice to the young women in the crowd.
Ocasio-Cortez stressed the importance of bravery and authenticity, expressing that, “It’s too much work to not be yourself.”
When asked about how she remains motivated, Ocasio-Cortez responded that “It’s really about finding what rejuvenates you,” explaining that when she is home, she feels most capable of being who she is.
Barnard students Jenna Madden, BC ’22, and Isabel Amos-Landgraf, BC ’22, were inspired by film’s subjects and by the creative team behind it.
“She’s just another person—and I saw it when she walked in,” Amos-Landgraf said of Ocasio-Cortez. “Realizing that she’s a person and hearing her talk about her own experiences and what it’s like to work for the government just brought it closer.”
Other notable presences at the festival included Athena award-winners Nina Shaw, BC ’76, Law ’79, Desiree Akhavan, and Cameron Bailey, who received the Athena Award, Breakthrough Award, and Leading Man Award, respectively. They each spoke to Spectator at the red carpet before the awards reception on Friday on the significance of being honored at a festival that celebrates the accomplishments of women in leadership.
Akhavan, who cowrote and directed “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which was screened at Athena on Saturday, noted the importance of the festival for showcasing narratives that often go unseen or unheard. Akhavan’s film focuses on bringing marginalized narratives into the mainstream through its depictions of female sexuality, notably of young queer women seeking and “grappling with [their] own pleasure.”
“I’m excited that there’s a space being made in mainstream Hollywood for stories we don’t hear from very often,” Akhavan said. “Growing up, I never saw myself on screen, so I’m excited that the conversation is broadening.”
In line with the mission of the festival to share the stories of strong women, other attendees spoke of the Time’s Up movement as well as the role of gender-related activism in film. Shaw continued this conversation with Time’s Up Executive Director Nithya Raman, actress, author, and director Amber Tamblyn, and actress Alysia Reiner at the Time’s Up x2 panel on Saturday.
“I love the expression, ‘awareness, acceptance, action.’ You have to become aware of it; you have to accept, ‘oh wow these statistics suck’ and then you have to take action. But you can't do the third until you’re aware of it,” Reiner said of the movement.
Shaw spoke on the significant role that her time at Barnard played in shaping her consciousness and advocacy as a co-founder of Time’s Up.
“So much of what I have done in this last year with Time’s Up is a reflection of the values that I learned at Barnard, where I saw women lead and I saw that women were just as good, frankly most of the time better than most of the men around them,” Shaw said.
Bailey spoke about what he believes is the responsibility of men to uplift and include women in the film industry.
“I think it’s [to] listen. I think it’s [to] share the power we have. Give them the platform if you have it. If you’re in a position to hire women, hire women. Simple things like that. Sometimes it’s to get out of the way,” Bailey said.
Ruba Nadar contributed reporting.