CW: This article discusses sexual assault, PTSD, and eating disorders.
You receive a notification that a new email has arrived in your inbox; it’s work, and it begins with “I hope that you are well.” But in a year defined by a devastating global pandemic, healthcare disparities, and a hospital system crumbling under the weight of its demand, what does it even mean to be “well”?
The “A Look at Health” shorts program at the Athena Film Festival takes a deep dive into the larger question of how we deal with health. With a particular focus on the “ongoing fight for reproductive rights, justice, and disparities in maternal healthcare,” the program asks: What does it mean to be healthy? Who has access to healthcare? And do people have autonomy over their own health?
“This past year has been a wakeup call for all of us,” Kory Louko, a programmer with the Athena Film Festival at the “A Look at Health” Q&A, said. “When you’re faced with the challenge of bringing your program virtual, we wanted to make sure that you’re bringing something new, exciting, and also something that dug deeper into our programming.”
“Good Thanks, You?” directed by Molly Manning Walker
In the new short film “Good Thanks, You?” writer and director Molly Manning Walker examines the trauma of interrogations that survivors of sexual assault face when reporting an assault.
The film opens with a dark screen and the sound of breathing; gasping and erratic patterns crescendo as the screen cuts from black to a scene where Amy, the protagonist, frantically dresses herself in a bathroom stall. The unstable camera movement mimics her breathing—hectic and fast, as Amy panics in the aftermath of an assault.
After Amy returns to her boyfriend’s flat the next morning, she recoils at his attempts at intimacy. When he asks her what happened at the party the previous night, Amy is unable to respond.
Amy reported the assault to local authorities and is met with an interrogation. Their questions start to overlap and rise in intensity as she becomes increasingly panicked, and they begin to trigger flashbacks of the night of the assault. The camera movement mirrors her panic once again; it circles the scene, spinning faster and faster as it encloses in on her, leaving the viewer feeling as suffocated as Amy does.
The film closes with Amy’s boyfriend asking her to tell him what has been going on with her. She opens her mouth as if she is about to say something, but the screen goes black.
“Hysterical Girl,” directed by Kate Novack
Emmy-nominated director and producer Kate Novack’s new documentary “Hysterical Girl” re-examines Sigmund Freud’s only major case history involving a woman: “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” The film reflects on his destructive influence in framing women who accuse men of sexual assault as “hysterical.”
Novack takes the viewer into the past as a voice-over of Freud begins to narrate his experience with a suicidal young woman named Ida, whom he called Dora in his case study. After discovering her suicide letter, Ida’s parents sent their reluctant daughter to Freud for treatment, hoping that he could “bring her to reason.”
“She was motivated by jealousy and revenge,” Freud says. “Her behavior was completely hysterical.”
In the present, the re-imagined Ida narrates her side of the story. She reveals that at the age of 13, a man named Hans, who was the husband of her father’s lover, sexually assaulted her in his office. She told no one. A few years later, her family took a trip to Hans’ lake-house, where Hans attempted to assault her again. This time, Ida told her family, but no one believed her.
“I’d been researching Freud for years,” Novack said in an interview. “But when I saw the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and then revisited Anita Hill’s testimony, I was stunned by the parallels to the Dora case. It was clear these Freudian narratives are still so pervasive, and I knew I wanted the story to be linked to the contemporary moment—and that it needed to be made right away.”
“Freaks (Tarados),” directed by Inés Fernández
Inés Fernández’s directorial debut “Freaks (Tarados)” explores how society stigmatizes people with mental illness, as well as how the healthcare industry often favors treating patients with pills rather than proper therapy.
“Freaks (Tarados)” follows the protagonist Bea after she is discharged from a psychiatric facility where due to budget cuts, the staff overmedicated the patients in order to gain control over them. Bea suffers from anxiety, depression, and a curious disorder in which she bursts out into song if she gets overwhelmed.
Following her psychiatrist’s advice, Bea decides to testify against the hospital in court. But in order to do so, she must first pass a psychiatric evaluation.
In a Q&A with Athena Film Festival organizers, Fernández talks about how her background in psychology and experiences dealing with patients who suffer from mental illness inspired her to tell a story about “a woman who fights against being treated like a freak due to her mental disease.”
“I wanted her to be like a fighter against society’s stigmas,” Fernández said.
“Immaculate (Inmaculada),” directed by Stephanie Sandoval
“Immaculate (Inmaculada)” reflects on the challenges girls face when growing up, from first periods to fights with friends and first loves.
In a Q&A for the Athena Film Festival, Chilean director Stephanie Sandoval describes the inspiration behind the short film.
“I wanted to tell a story about first periods because it’s such an intense time in a woman’s life. Growing up in a very Catholic culture, it was very hard to talk about that,” Sandoval said.
The film follows Alejandra, a late bloomer who unexpectedly faces womanhood during her school’s celebration of the Annunciation.
An upbeat and nostalgic music track sets the tone for this coming-of-age film as Alejandra’s morning alarm blares in the background. She wakes up and groans in discomfort from her stomachache.
Later in gym class, Alejandra clutches her stomach in pain and decides to sneak away from the teacher to head to the bathroom, where she discovers she has gotten her first period. Carolina, her best friend, gives her a tampon and explains how to use it, and Alejandra warns her not to tell her mother about her period.
The night of her performance as the Virgin Mary for Annunciation Day arrives, and Alejandra’s emotions start to unravel as a fight with her mother, as well as with her best friend, Carolina, leaves her feeling upset right before her performance. The surprise of her first period comes to a breaking point when she stands up to recite her first line to the audience, only to realize that blood has seeped through her white dress. Horrified, she flees from the school, and Carolina runs to comfort her.
After the two girls make up, Alejandra realizes that she does not have to face womanhood alone.
“Bye Bye, Body,” directed by Charlotte Benbeniste
The sound of feet pounding on the floor during an exercise class opens up Charlotte Benbeniste’s poignant new film, “Bye Bye, Body.” The film follows a young woman named Nina as she navigates her way through failure at a weight-loss camp.
In one scene, Nina anxiously stands at the front of a long line of girls waiting to get their weekly weigh-ins. Her eyes flick self-consciously from girl to girl, and she wraps her arms tighter around her body. It seems that even at this camp, Nina cannot escape her obsession with her figure.
After failing to meet her goal weight, Nina becomes desperate and makes a deal “with an unexpected person, a girl named Kay at the weight loss camp, who Nina isn’t exactly friends with—a decision that ultimately leads to unexpected discoveries and a new appreciation for her body.
In the Athena Film Festival post-screening Q&A, Benbeniste says the inspiration for the film stemmed from her own personal experience of being “sent to a weight-loss camp as a kid.” She wanted to create a film that showed how “a lot of body-positive messaging charges young women with the task of being confident in a world that doesn’t actively support that.”
“Blood and Glory,” directed by Satinder Kaur
Jackie and Rosa are homeless veterans living on the streets of Los Angeles. Rosa, who suffers from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder, relies on Jackie to take care of her. When Jackie gets offered a job interview at a local café, she jumps on the opportunity.
One day, Rosa tells Jackie she had a dream about the Titanic last night, but this time, it didn’t sink. “It was a sign. A sign that things are going to turn around for us.”
However, on the morning of her job interview, Jackie wakes up with an incredibly heavy period. With no money to buy a pad or a tampon, she is forced to make do with the strips of cloth she ripped from one of her spare shirts, hoping it will be enough to get her through the day.
In a Q&A, director Satinder Kaur spoke about the woman who inspired her to create her film.
“I used to volunteer on Skid Row. … And one night while I was out there, I saw a woman walk past me, and she had her dog tags and her combat boots on. I realized she was a veteran. I’m a veteran myself, so you just sort of pick up on those things. When I saw her back, she had a large period stain on the back of her pants. … That image just sort of stayed with me. It haunted me.”
Jackie arrives at the café, only to be told by an employee that the woman who offered her the job interview no longer works there. She asks to use the restroom, but the employee tells her only paying customers are allowed, so she takes some money from the donation box, hands it to the employee, and runs into the bathroom. Once inside, she starts to cry, as the day’s events take a toll on her.
“Blood and Glory” illustrates the realities of women living on the streets without access to feminine hygiene products and how society often overlooks their problems.
“A Mother,” directed by Natasha Ngaiza
Told through the lens of a horror film, Natasha Ngaiza’s new film, “A Mother,” examines a mother’s decision to abort a pregnancy and how America’s healthcare system impacts the lives of Black women.
The film opens with Agnes floating deep beneath the surface of a river. The sound of whirling water and bubbles echoes as she looks to the surface.
The scene cuts to Agnes, lying on an examination table in a hospital gown, staring at a painting of a river. After the doctor finishes her examination, she prescribes Agnes the pills needed for an abortion and tells her what to expect after taking the medication.
As Agnes struggles to decide whether or not she should go through with the abortion, she learns of a young Black girl named Zuri “Cherry” Hope, who has gone missing. For Agnes, the disappearance of Cherry acts as a reminder of the dangers of the world, which heightens her own fears of bringing another child into that world.
“I was inspired by my own experiences as a mom to three daughters, and the experiences that I went through in the healthcare system,” Ngaiza said in the Q&A. “It was important for me to be clear in the film that this is a woman who has decided to get an abortion, and that she was going to go through with the abortion, but there was no judgment about her decision to do that. However, I still wanted to show the struggles and the anxieties she was going through.”
The Athena Festival’s “A Look at Health” panel asks viewers to reconsider their perceptions of those who, in a failing healthcare system, are the first ones to be left without care. It asks the viewers to think about how they might change the way we define “health.”
“I wanted people to feel moved by my story,” Fernández said at the Q&A. “I wanted people to feel changed, for them to leave my film and feel like there’s hope that things can change.”