Content warning: Some aspects of this article discuss thoughts of suicide, death, and eating disorders.
Some young children dream of making films. Some write their own scripts, some imagine cinematography, some design sets, and others do anything they can to make their imagination a reality. However, as these children mature, many abandon their dreams of entering the film scene while others courageously enter into the competitive industry.
The Athena Film Festival gives these young filmmakers a chance to share the work of their dreams. “Discovery: First Time Shorts” looks to celebrate new voices amid the hardships of COVID-19. The Athena Film Festival invited many student and first-time filmmakers to share their films at the festival and encouraged other student and first-time filmmakers to apply as well.
“Highlighting those stories and those creators, not even necessarily stories that center on race, but just giving a platform to Black creators, Black actors, that makes a difference,” Regina Hoyles, director of the short film “Adullam,” said. “[This is] where they’re not saying our lineups should only have stories that we’re used to or stories that feel good to us. They’re saying, ‘No, we just see people creating great work and we want to show that and just making that space available for them.’”
“Breathe” (Neefso)- Directed by Aisha Jama
In its three-minute duration, “Breathe” captures the plight of anxiety. Centered around Raha, a girl who struggles with anxiety, the film follows how her anxiety affects her life on her birthday. Despite reminders by a family member that Allah will “preserve” her, her anxiety still strikes, plaguing her day.
As she breathes in, exhales, and repeats, Raha makes it through the day, overcoming her anxiety. She is comforted by the memory of a voicemail that the viewer hears played over Raha’s actions. As the voicemail reminds her that she will overcome the anxiety she struggles with and that she is loved, Raha is able to laugh and smile on her special day.
At the end of the short, Raha is struck by a wave of anxiety and subsequently comforted by her friend. Director Aisha Jama demonstrates the power of religion and family through Raha’s path to strength, reminding viewers to breathe to escape the anxieties of life.
“Patriot Day”- Directed by Nailah Robinson
Nailah Robinson juxtaposes the innocence of childhood hope with the 9/11 attacks to describe a tragic day in protagonist Jamila’s life. The film begins in Jamila’s middle school, where the deep blue uniforms and green chalkboard create brightness and a sense of happiness. However, news of the tragedy in New York City brings the happiness to a halt. With the school in Washington, D.C., the children are not in direct harm and continue on with their school day.
However, when news of the crash at the Pentagon reaches the classroom, it becomes clear that the students will be sent home early. However, it is Jamila’s mother’s birthday, so she heads to the store to buy ingredients for a cake.
Robinson creates a feeling of anticipation as the film progresses with no introduction of Jamila’s mother. Former President Bush’s words haunt the film. Anticipation morphs into dread as Jamila frosts the word “Mom” in bright blue frosting onto her cake. As they “walk through the valley of death” as George Bush put it, he grieves for the children who will be affected by the events of 9/11, maintaining the dread that lives on until the final moments of the film.
The film opens with the quote “Besides / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed.” “Patriot Day” demonstrates that as a young Muslim child, Jamila’s life will be forever changed by the events that took place on 9/11. As the film closes, she must remember “how beautiful [she is]” and find the strength to move on.
“NAPS”- Directed by Martinique Waston and Tarik Smith
Hair is one of the most personal ways in which humans express who they are. That is the reason why Charlie, the protagonist of “NAPS”, battles with the decision to do the “big chop.” The big chop, which involves cutting all of one’s hair except the growth at the roots, is something that many Black women do to embrace the natural beauty of their hair.
Although Charlie’s friend Jazliyn tells her not to do the “big chop,” she decides to embrace the chop. This triumph to embrace her natural beauty is made more powerful by hip-hop and R&B music from Te’von, Dacompany, Kalipop, and Macc McCray. However, her triumph is soured by the reaction of Jazilyn—Charlie’s friend who shames her for having a large head. Not everyone is ready to accept Charlie for the way she wants to present herself. However, Watson and Smith demonstrate the way Charlie should have been perceived by Jazilyn when they present the scene in the manner in which Charlie wants to be perceived.
“Closing Annisa”- Directed by Sophie Luo
“Closing Annisa” is a documentary about new beginnings. Chef Anita Lo closes her Michelin-starred restaurant Annisa with hopes of starting a new chapter. She feels that people expect one other to do one thing for their entire lives, but that is not realistic.
As moments from the auctioning of the restaurant’s supplies appear throughout the film, the sterile nature of the auction contrasts the genuine moments of admiration in interviews with Anita’s staff. Luo turns a story of tragedy into one of new beginnings and hope.
Raw, on-the-ground filming captures the chaos of selling a restaurant and the challenge of starting a new life. However, when Lo says, “Goodbye my little restaurant, it’s been nice working with you,” her sadness at the loss of the restaurant is replaced by her excitement to embrace a new challenge.
“Jamie”- Directed by Esmé Creed-Miles
Director Esmé Creed-Miles captures the raw, dark moments of the protagonist in her short “Jamie.” The film, which follows a nineteen-year-old struggling with bulimia and suicidal thoughts, captures her thoughts as she types a letter expressing her feelings.
Showing Jamie nude and forcing herself to throw up, Creed-Miles forces viewers to confront Jamie’s pain as she endures it. When Jamie feels like she cannot live anymore, she goes to visit her aging grandmother.
As she travels on the train, the muted colors of the countryside on a gray day mirror her mood as she sleeps on her journey. With a sudden stop, the train is delayed and Jamie is shaken by the death of a woman who was run over.
The final moments of the film allow both Jamie and the viewers to think about what has transpired as “Horses in My Dream” by PJ Harvey plays. Due to the dark themes in “Jamie,” the film credits remind viewers that “Help and support is available right now if you need it. You don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone.”
“Adullam”- Directed by Regina Hoyles
“Adullam” merges director Regina Hoyles’ love for science fiction and Black culture. Shot in Hoyles’ childhood stomping grounds of Olympia Fields, Illinois and Flossmoor, Illinois, the film follows Rasheeda, a well-known teen who is struggling with her identity.
As Rasheeda revels in her Black culture, she celebrates the dance crazes around her and spends time with her friend at a kickback. However, a science fiction scene at the beginning of the film plants a seed of wonder in the minds of the viewers as they attempt to discern how futuristic science fiction comes into play in a regular suburb full of kickbacks and swingsets.
“I just really wanted to capture someone who had become so loved by her community, only for her to be hiding things about herself not really sure that she would be accepted for who she was,” Hoyles said in an interview. “Just understanding that there’s a spectrum of Blackness, but also what does it mean to be Black? And what constitutes a safe space? Is that an actual physical location? Is that a person?”
This film celebrates Black culture while demonstrating the ways in which it is erased by those in power. It demonstrates how Black people have to seek out spaces in order to feel safe and seen. It is a film that allowed Hoyles to stay true to her roots while informing others about the importance of this story.
“The Cuddler”- Directed by Lurdes Maswanganye
As the film opens sharply with the wake-up alarm of the protagonist Dikeledi, the bubbly energy of the film rises as she sings and hums, unable to contain her joy during her morning routine. However, this joy is muted by her father’s melancholic attitude—which only momentarily hurts her shine as she continues her job as a professional cuddler. The continuous rhythm of her singing acts as a reminder of the joy that can persist despite hardships.
Faced with her father’s opposition to her job, Dikeledi does not know how to proceed. Despite the opportunity to move to a new country, Dikeledi remains in her job to give her and her father a better life. Maswanganye’s film struggles with themes of family and loyalty and demonstrates the difficulty of going against the wishes of one’s family when striving for a better life. Despite these difficulties, the film illustrates the importance of family.