Throughout the last year, the film industry has suffered the ongoing consequences of COVID-19 shutdowns. How do filmmakers continue to share stories in a socially distanced world? The Athena Film Festival had to tackle this question when planning its 11th annual festival. Now, for the first time, the Athena Film Festival has made an adjustment that many around the world have had to make—hosting a completely virtual event.
While in past years the festival took place over a single weekend, this year, in honor of Women’s History Month, all Athena Film Festival programming will take place throughout the month of March. The festival will showcase new stories and program areas that seek to highlight the relevancy of varying experiences during the pandemic, including those of female, nonbinary, and BIPOC directors.
“For a long time, we were planning two to three different festivals. … We had an in-person festival plan, a hybrid plan, and a full virtual plan,” Kory Louko, BC ’17 and postbaccalaureate fellow for the Athena Film Festival, said. “It was really a struggle working over the summer because not only is everything changing around you and you don’t really know week to week what your job is going to look like, you’re also kind of doing twice or triple the work to try to plan for these different contingencies.”
Similar to Athena, several other notable film festivals such as Sundance and SXSW have recently organized their festivals in fully virtual formats, working around the limits that COVID-19 has presented.
While the pandemic created logistical challenges for the Athena Film Festival team over the past year, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer has triggered a public conversation about oppression and gatekeeping. This, according to Victoria Lesourd, Chief of Staff, Athena Center for Leadership, was something the Athena Film Festival team focused on significantly in its programming, especially through a format that could make these stories more accessible to people across the country.
“Once we got over our disappointment, understanding that things were going to look and feel very different, we were really focused on the benefits of being virtual,” Lesourd said. “We have people who are joining the festival from all over the country—from Hawaii, Seattle, Denver, Arizona, really all over—it’s a broad, broad swath. … One of the benefits of the fact that we’re virtual is [that] people don’t need to make the schlep up to Morningside Heights. They can join to watch a film right from their couch.”
According to the Athena Film Festival’s official website, the 2021 program areas have also been curated to reflect how leaders, especially women leaders, have responded to the challenges of the past year. These program areas include “Making it Happen: Women in STEM,” which consists of films uplifting women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries in the face of issues like the ongoing pandemic and climate change; “Tear it Down: Dismantling White Supremacy,” which features stories of people attempting to tear down systems of oppression; and many more.
Within each of these categories, filmmakers tackle what it means to be leaders that endure the struggles that come with their gender, racial, and religious identities while also living amid a global pandemic and other difficult moments in our country’s history.
“We wanted to make sure that we were highlighting those stories that were really speaking to what we were going through in this moment and be able to continue the conversation, and sort of look at this moment as an opportunity to tear down what doesn’t work and what’s oppressive to people and rebuild something much better,” Louko said. “Before we opened submissions, we decided [the program areas] on an ongoing basis as we started to see what films were coming in and what we were interested in.”
On March 1, the opening night of the festival, the first feature film to premiere will be “Beans,” directed by Tracey Deer. The film follows a young Mohawk girl’s experience living during the Oka Crisis, a land dispute between the Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, that Deer experienced herself as a young child. It will be followed by a Q&A with Deer. Many other feature films presented at the Athena Film Festival will follow a similar format.
Moreover, the team has drawn inspiration from attending virtual panels hosted by organizations such as FilmEx Film Festival Alliance. According to Lesourd, the FilmEx Film Festival Alliance has helped the Athena Film Festival solve problems related to accessibility, curation, and sponsorship in a virtual environment.
To ensure accessibility, there is a special section on the Athena Film Festival’s website for films with closed captions available, panels with closed captioning, and pre-recorded Q&As and panels. Attendees, panelists, and filmmakers themselves can continue the conversations on the festival’s Discord channel, where everyone can discuss the movies they have seen and ask questions to generate further conversation. Though the festival cannot be accessed internationally, the virtual format allows anyone in the United States the opportunity to participate in viewings and panels.
In addition to making these narratives more accessible to audiences, the Athena Film Festival took steps to reduce barriers for filmmakers in the submission process. As a result of the pandemic’s damaging financial toll, fee waivers were made extensively available to filmmakers with marginalized identities interested in submitting their work. With this new endeavor came another benefit: including more films in each programming area from younger voices and storytellers.
For instance, part of the festival includes a live event with young filmmakers from the Emerging Filmmaker Mentorship Program, a program hosted by the Barnard Sloate Media Center that supports Barnard students in developing and producing their first short films. At this live event, students who had their productions cut short by the onset of COVID-19 will be discussing how their films are still works-in-progress.
These perspectives are also being amplified through one of the festival’s newest program areas called “Discovery,” which features first-time filmmakers from both Barnard and other colleges. In prior years, only about three student short films were shown per festival, but with the new virtual format, the Athena Film Festival can showcase more films from young, diverse voices.
Though the festival will include a variety of new contributors this year, there will be some notable absences. Given the festival’s virtual format, Lesourd mentioned that the festival was unable to bring back staff and volunteers from previous years to help coordinate the festival.
“In terms of the emotional toll, we had to make some hard decisions,” Lesourd said. “We’re used to hiring a fleet of seasonal staff that have been with us for many years, and we didn’t bring them back this year because those positions didn’t exist in the virtual world.”
While the festival’s team is looking forward to inviting those members back one day, in the meantime, this virtual format allows viewers leeway to make the Athena Film Festival their own this year.
“I would say do what you can to try and recreate the festival experience,” Lesourd said. “Grab some popcorn, watch a movie with a friend, and then talk about it. Because I think that’s some of the magic of the festival—it’s being able to have that conversation and digest what you just saw.”
Noah Sheidlower contributed reporting.