In its quest to uplift the voices of women in leadership roles, the 10th annual Athena Film Festival shined a spotlight on women who often go unseen within society and the subsequent issues that they face, spanning from wage inequality to the accessibility of confidential healthcare resources.
Through film screenings and panel discussions, the festival called attention to problems that span different industries and walks of life, from the fight for the rights of sex workers to the negotiation of fair wages for NFL cheerleaders to the movement against racism and patriarchy in Brazil to the question of women’s rights versus fetal rights in our justice system.
Never “mother,” “sister,” or “friend”—only “prostitute”
“Lost Girls” is a misnomer. The girls, or women, to whom this film title refers—the girls whose murders were considered little more than occupational hazards by those tasked with protecting them—were not lost; they were failed by others.
The New York premiere of “Lost Girls,” produced by Netflix, was held in the Diana Center’s Event Oval on Saturday as part of the Athena Film Festival. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film portrays the true story of Mari Gilbert, an American activist, as she tries to find justice for her missing-then-murdered daughter Shannan in the face of dismissive, ineffective, and corrupt police officers. Her daughter’s death appears to be the work of the Long Island serial killer who targeted sex workers in the area, four of whom were found during the investigation into Shannan’s case.
The family members of the murdered victims, all working-class women, supported each other as the male-dominated police department and wealthy residents of Oak Beach—where Shannan disappeared—did little to help them find closure. The film is an indictment of not only the corruption and inefficacy of law enforcement but also of American society and the governments that have failed the poor and marginalized.
For example, the police took over an hour to answer Shannan’s last 911 call to the police before she was killed because the officer decided to let his dog out on the way. Yet, they responded to a less urgent test call that Mari made while pretending to be a wealthy Oak Beach resident in just 12 minutes. The women who were killed were never called someone’s “mother,” “sister,” or “friend” in the news reports—only “prostitute.”
The marsh where Shannan’s body was ultimately found one year after her murder was only drained when Mari threatened the police department with exposure in the press. “I’m her mother; it’s all on me,” Mari says at one point in the film. In reality, it was only “all on her” because she and her daughter had been forgotten by those who were supposed to help them.
Cast members Miriam Shor, Lola Kirke, Molly Brown, Amy Ryan, and Oona Laurence, as well as director Liz Garbus and producer Anne Carey, participated in a brief talkback at the end. The filmmakers, cast, and real family members of the murdered women all expressed hope that the film will incite the police to act so that they can finally have some justice. But a larger question loomed over the auditorium: If the police were not there to protect their sisters and daughters back then, are they really the best people to find closure for these families now?
The film’s ending, which showed Mari and all of the other family members huddled together against the ocean wind, talking to reporters without a single accountable police officer in sight, implies a resounding “no.”
From 15-second Tik Toks to 15-minute films
Sweeping views of Rio de Janeiro’s mountainous landscapes and beaches open up “Defenders of Justice: Fighting Racism and Patriarchy in Brazil,” the second episode of the YouTube Original documentary series “Fundamental.” The realities that lie behind the scenery, however, paint a far grimmer vision of the lives of Brazilian women as they fight for abortion rights and increased political representation of Black and indigenous women in the months leading up to the 2018 election of far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Some of the episode’s most striking moments include news coverage of comments made by then-candidate Bolsonaro on issues of rape, racism, and LGBTQ rights. The episode also follows activists to the #EleNão protests, a movement against Bolsonaro that translates to “Not Him,” and ends with a poignant moment in a cemetery acknowledging the activists lost in the fight for equality.
The episode’s New York premiere at Athena on Sunday included a “Culture and Activism” panel following the screening with two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who directed the series, along with Nathalia Arcuri; Allison Rowe; Brianna Johnson, BC ’21; and moderator Latanya Mapp Frett. Panelists used the episode’s narrative as a jumping-off point to explore topics related to representation in film, youth activism, and political equality for women on a global scale.
“I think this generation, and what we see across the world, is blowing up the table. It’s no more that we want a seat at the table; it’s get rid of the damn table and let’s figure out where to go from here,” Frett said, from her perspective as president and CEO of Global Fund for Women.
While acknowledging how younger activists are moving the needle, the panelists nodded to platforms beyond film that have become relevant in amplifying underrepresented voices.
“Even if it’s a 15-second Tik Tok, 60-second Tik Tok, 15-minute film, if it hits a chord with us we’ll take it and run with it,” Johnson, a theater major at Barnard, said.
The conversation concluded with a note of advice to young women in the audience, encouraging them to pursue careers in film and activism regardless of age, medium, or scale.
“Stop with that whole, ‘It must be big, it must be amazing.’ If you change just one person’s life that would be amazing,” Arcuri, who hosts YouTube’s most successful financial entertainment channel “Me Poupe!,” said.
Obaid-Chinoy echoed this advice, adding, “Never take no for an answer. If a door hasn’t opened for you, it’s because you haven’t kicked it hard enough.”
“A woman’s work”
Pom-poms, red lipstick, and colorful outfits are characteristics of an NFL cheerleader––so are wage theft and unequal pay. The documentary “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” dives into the issues beneath the surface of a league that seems all-powerful as an integral part of American culture.
The documentary, directed and produced by Yu Gu, was screened at Athena in Altschul’s Lehman Auditorium on Friday night. The screening was followed by a panel with former New York Jets cheerleader Krystal Cruz and Meagan Molina, who is chief of staff for New York Assemblymember Nily Rozic.
The film follows former Oakland Raiderette Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields and former Buffalo Jills cheerleader Maria Pinzone as they file lawsuits against their respective teams for pay inequality. Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone both spent countless hours training and performing, only to learn that they were expected to foot all of the expenses ranging from cosmetic maintenance to travel. Their pay was below minimum wage, and they only got paid at the end of the year.
Gu goes on to show the history of how NFL cheerleaders haven’t been designated as employees and thus have been subjected to wage theft and illegal employment for years, despite the fact that the NFL profits off their performances and uses them to advertise for events outside football games.
On a more personal note, the film provides insight into the turmoil these women faced before filing their suits. They said that being a part of their teams was like being part of a sisterhood, but after they took legal action, the women faced backlash from former and current cheerleaders from their respective teams. Cruz also touched upon this in the panel.
“I sued in the year 2013-2014, and it was very scary for me since I was the only one. A lot of the other cheerleaders didn’t want to speak to me because it was something very taboo. So I felt really alone, just like the other cheerleaders [in the film] Lacy and Maria,” Cruz said.
The film ends with Thibodeaux-Fields reaching a settlement and Pinzone still in negotiations. Partly because of the two women’s courage, and in light of the #MeToo movement’s broader efforts to promote gender equality, countless other cheerleaders have also filed lawsuits fighting for fair wages, Molina said.
From the doctor’s office to prison
When Tamara “Tammy” Loertscher found out she was pregnant, she did as any expectant mother would do—she scheduled a doctor’s appointment. After being unemployed for some time, unable to treat her thyroid condition without healthcare, and suffering from depression, she had turned to drugs to cope with the pain. However, with a baby on the way, she quit drug use immediately. To ensure her baby’s health and safety, Loertscher disclosed her previous drug use to her doctor. Next thing she knew, she was summoned to a hearing, charged with child endangerment, and sent to prison.
“Personhood: Policing Pregnant Women in America” was screened on Sunday in the Julius S. Held Auditorium in Barnard Hall. The compelling 2019 documentary, directed by Jo Ardinger and produced by Rosalie Miller, explores the recent passing of state laws that protect “fetal rights” above the rights of their pregnant mothers. These laws operate on the concept of “personhood,” and whether it should be assigned to children at birth or from the moment of their conception in utero.
Ardinger’s directing debut follows the story of Tamara Loertscher, who was jailed in 2014 in her hometown of Medford, Wisconsin after confidentially disclosing to her doctor that she had taken drugs before knowing that she was pregnant. While her fetus was given legal representation, Loertscher was not.
Wisconsin’s Unborn Child Protection Act was created to protect fetuses from drug and alcohol use during the “crack baby” scare of the ’90s. The movement was ultimately born from predatory ideologies that both jailed mothers—barring them from prenatal care—and disproportionately targeted women of color.
While the film has yet to be distributed, Ardinger, Miller and Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said in the Q&A following the film that those interested can follow the work and initiatives of NAPW. The organization is still working with Loertscher to strike down Wisconsin and other states’ outdated and misogynistic “fetal rights” laws.