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Courtesy of / Amit Lerner

The Athena Film Festival’s “Discovery: Student Shorts Program” celebrates the work of student and first-time female filmmakers who have produced their films during the pandemic.

This past year, student filmmakers at Columbia have tried to pursue their craft remotely, struggling to shoot footage and find a platform on which to showcase their films. The Athena Film Festival’s “Discovery: Student Shorts Program” celebrates the works of student and first-time female filmmakers who have directed or shown their films during the pandemic. The films touch on themes of gender-based wage discrimination, racial tensions, sexism in film, and following one’s passions in the face of adversity. Director Amit Lerner’s “Pam,” for example, showcases her creativity and identity as an Israeli-American student filmmaker with a broader audience.

“Whenever I saw someone who was even a little bit like me and I could relate to, that made the film so much better in my eyes, and there’s a lot of films out there that aren’t representing all races, all sexual orientations, it’s not inclusive as it should be,” she said. “I think it’s losing a lot of its audience, and once you expand that and you can have more people that can relate to what they’re seeing, you’re just gaining a bigger audience and you’re making everyone feel inclusive.”

“Pam”—directed by Amit Lerner

“I don’t know that it’s that important to feel young, I like feeling the way I feel, I like looking the way I look, I like where I am now,” Pam says as she gets ready for her dance performance. At 73 years of age, Pam, a retired yet exuberant New York teacher, challenges stereotypes about aging by turning to dance as an outlet for creative expression and resilience.

Amit Lerner has known the titular figure her whole life, as Pam is a distant relative. According to Lerner, Pam’s lifelong love for dance only blossomed after her retirement when she began dancing five or six times a week.

“It’s kind of a testament to show how you can keep doing things at any age in your life and you don’t have to necessarily take a step back after you retire,” Lerner said.

The film follows Pam as she and her dance ensembles rehearse ballet, jazz, tap, and a host of other dance styles.  Whether she is in a room with dancers her age or 50 years younger, Pam’s confidence shines through. In one scene, for example, she lays out five different outfits for a performance while joking with her husband as she tries to focus on staying calm.

The film concludes at a recital, as Pam turns, leaps, taps, and frisks across the stage. Her moments of joy during the performance are interspersed with shots of her supportive family offering her flowers and hugging her. Her final words reveal her hope for continuing to dance for many years to come, fulfilling a part of her life that had been missing for 73 years.

“Pam has gone through specifically a lot of hardships, and she was a single mother with a really young kid and she was barely making any money,” Lerner said. “She pushed through that, and she did that in a way that she always had a positive outlook, so I thought that was really important to give her that recognition and also to inspire other people who are in that situation.”

“Hallowed Ground”—directed by Catherine Rafferty

“Education … means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.” reads the Frederick Douglass quote, moments after Anastajia Charley recites his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in front of a large audience. It is the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site oratorical contest, and for Charley, this moment means more than just trying to win a prize.

Catherine Rafferty’s “Hallowed Ground” follows Charley and her fellow Rochester student orator Tian-Xing Stephens as they attempt to navigate racial issues similar to those that had shaped Douglass’s writing. The film ties together the narratives of Douglass and the two students, relating experiences lived 150 years apart. “Hallowed Ground” was created during Rafferty’s senior year at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I wanted it to be a success story, a positive story, because there’s a lot of negative stories about Rochester schools in the news, so I wanted this to be kind of counteractive to that and talk about, here’s a way that students are being educated about this history and transforming it and taking the words of Douglass and bringing new meaning into it,” she said in an interview.

Douglass, who also lived in Rochester, had given many orations around the city in favor of advancing the rights of African Americans. The film discusses how Douglass had sent his daughter Rosetta to Seward Seminary, a private school, instead of a segregated all-Black school in Rochester. Rosetta was later withdrawn from Seward Seminary after her father spoke out against the school’s segregation and one parent refused to have his child taught in the same classroom as Rosetta.

Rosetta’s plight is brought into the present day as Stephens discusses the limited support given to Black students at schools like McQuaid Jesuit High School. He recalls hearing a white student in middle school threaten to lynch him, which stuck with him even when graduating from high school. In one scene, Stephens describes his reaction when two white males removed the statue of Frederick Douglass from Rochester’s East End. At a rally in response to the incident, he recited the same speech that Douglass gave after Rosetta was kicked out of school.

As Rochester remains a city separated by race and class, Rafferty hoped to document how Douglass’ words have narrowed these divisions, with these two students interpreting Douglass’ intense and heartfelt words as they try to make a difference in their communities.

“Yellow Cards for Equal Pay”—directed by Maia Vota

When the United States women’s national soccer team won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the players were met not only with immense applause and enthusiasm, but also chants of “equal pay.” According to the U.S. women’s team 2019 lawsuit, female players earn $99,000 to their male counterparts’ $263,320 if the teams won all 20 non-tournament games. Inspired by the efforts of figures like Megan Rapinoe, the Burlington High School girls’ soccer team created #EqualPay shirts to wear at their games. But none of the girls expected that one yellow card would have such an impact on the movement.

In “Yellow Cards for Equal Pay,” Maia Vota follows the high school soccer team from the first shirts they sold to their subsequent appearances on CNN and NBC. When a referee labeled their display of #EqualPay shirts underneath their jerseys as “excessive celebration,” the Burlington Free Press picked up on the crowd’s disturbed reaction. According to Helen Worden, the team’s co-captain, the energy of the crowd was comparable to that of the FIFA final match, even without the thousands of fans in the stadium.

The next day, “Good Morning America” wanted to cover the incident as well as the girls’ resilience and insistence on bringing attention to the gender-based pay gap in sports. From there, sports legends like Rapinoe and Billie Jean King began to purchase #EqualPay shirts. Even the referee who issued the yellow card bought a shirt and supported the team in spreading the word.

The film features team photos with both young girls and boys teams wearing the shirts, footage from media mentions of the team, and interviews with players and community members. The movement becomes increasingly significant over the course of the film, thereby revealing how the grassroots efforts of just a few teenage athletes can bring nationwide attention to gender-based discrimination in pay.

“Chick Flicks”—directed by Tatiana Jorio

“People, men especially, tend to hire other people who remind them of themselves. We hear all the time that a director was quick to hire someone else to be his assistant because, ‘Oh, he seemed like me at that age,’” said award-winning filmmaker Lynne Sachs in the film “Chick Flicks.”

“Chick Flicks,” directed by Tatiana Jorio, explores sexism and racism in the film scene at Ithaca College and the film industry at large. For the female filmmakers at Ithaca, there were few professors who resembled them or took accusations of sexual assault or racism seriously.

Throughout the film, these student filmmakers discussed how they would feel anxious when filming on set; one student even noted that she would not touch any of the equipment in fear of humiliation. Another student noted that she would be shamed for little mistakes.

“Chick Flicks” is divided into four parts corresponding to the four different years of a traditional bachelor’s degree, each part contextualized with contemporary American events concerning women’s rights. For example, the sophomore year segment opens with Donald Trump’s campaign and misogynistic remarks, while junior year is framed by sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other major players in the film industry. Some students noted that none of their professors discussed the allegations at all, causing them to remain complacent about this widespread issue.

Toward the end of the film, professionals in the film industry discuss how women are less likely to be hired for executive positions, especially when success in the industry depends heavily on connections. The film points out that while white male directors often receive new film deals even after failed projects, female and nonbinary filmmakers lack these opportunities even after a successful showing. “Chick Flicks” culminates with an impactful line that calls for viewers to wake up to the reality of the white male-dominated industry.

“I’m done making work for people who don’t give a shit about me,” April Carroll, one of the film’s co-creators, said.

Arts & Entertainment Editor Noah Sheidlower can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter @NSheidlower.

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Catherine Rafferty Amit Lerner Maia Vota Tatiana Jorio Noah Sheidlower Discovery: Student Shorts Program Athena Film Festival
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