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Women, Leadership, and Film: An Interview with Athena Film Festival Co-Founders, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein

The remarkable ATHENA FEST has just ended. We now have a chance to provide Michelle Renee Jackson’s incisive interview with the founders of the Festival.

Women, Leadership, and Film: An Interview with  Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein,

Athena Film Festival Co-Founders

Interview and Story by Michelle R. Jackson

Kathryn Kolbert is the Constance Hess Williams Director of Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies. She is a former president of People for the American Way and the People for the American Way Foundation.

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Melissa Silverstein is a media consultant and writer with 15 years experience in the non-profit and communications fields. She specializes in the area of women issues, with an emphasis on women and Hollywood. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post and is the Artistic Director of Women and Hollywood.

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Films featured at the Athena Film Festival have a common theme of female leadership and the empowerment of women. With this in mind, do you think female-centered films, namely films made by or featuring female narratives, have an obligation to promote messages of female empowerment?

Kathryn:           My short answer is no.  The whole point of our festival is to show women in very diverse roles.  There are, in this particular festival, in some kind of leadership, but there’s huge diversity in what that means in their lives and in their profession, in a whole – whether it be in different countries around the world, whatever.  One of the things you take from the films we show is that women approach life in myriad different ways. Of course all films cannot be singular in purpose.  A film festival can be.  But all film has to show women’s wide range of diversity.  In my view, whether men or women are making the movies, and we want both of them to include women in a greater number of roles, it is the diversity of women, the knowledge that they are real, that they’re authentic, that they are not just caricatures of themselves – that’s what we’re really after in the long term.

Melissa:             Would you ask the Toronto Film Festival if the films about men have to be a certain way?  I think one of the goals of our festival is to show that women make movies about all different kinds of women, and men make movies about being strong protagonists also.

I ask this question in the context of being a filmmaker. One could argue that there is a trend, concerning films featuring female narratives, to promote themes of empowering women in a different ways. I suppose the source of such a trend is to counter the absence of our voices for so long. With that in mind, I most likely would not ask a similar question of the curators of a male-centered film festival, namely do male-centered films have an obligation to be a certain way because, due to the multitude of male-centered films and the subsequent thematic diversity that results, I am unaware of compelling evidence that proves they are trying to be a “certain way.”

Melissa:             I think a lot of our movies are empowering.  I mean, we’re not taking away from that fact.  I think that you’re going to walk out of the Athena Film Festival and feel inspired and empowered by a lot of these movies because they have strong women at the center of story.  But I also feel that it’s really important for all of us to see a diverse group of female protagonists and leads out there that can drive stories and for Hollywood to recognize that this can not only be a trend, it can could be the norm. We could have half our movies about women.

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Some have argued that blockbuster comedies like Bridesmaids and The Heat have gained popularity due to their capacity to compete with male-centered comedies and/or action films.  For example, when Bridesmaids premiered, many called it the female Hangover.  In it, we saw, some would say for the first time, that women could not only be as funny as men, but they could also be as sexual, as vulgar, and disgusting as men in film. Similarly, in The Heat, we saw that female-centered action films could be as funny, as obscene, as violent as movies like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon.  Has the popularity of these films had an impact on the Athena Film Festival? For example, has there been a change in the types of film submissions you have received, in the types of programs you feature, or in the achievements of the types of speakers you highlight?

Melissa:             I’m going to take that.  The point that we’re hearing about Bridesmaids was said that this was the first quote unquote “first female movie where people realized that women could be funny and raunchy.”  What that does is negate all the other movies that women have been doing about that topic before.  I don’t agree that Bridesmaids was the first movie where women could be seen as funny.  It’s only that it was acknowledged in the larger sphere of popular culture. A, in Hollywood that women could open a movie, a blockbuster movie and bring in the audiences and also bring in the men.  So part of the conversation is A, acknowledging the things that have come before that built up to that day that Bridesmaids opened, and B, the fact that everybody said things were going to change after Bridesmaids.  Nothing changed.  So the whole point of this is that we have to have more than just a single movie every two years with funny women in them.  And so that’s a separate conversation from what we do at the Athena Film Festival.  The Athena Film Festival’s goal is to highlight female protagonists as leaders in our world.  So how we would frame this conversation is the fact that there can be female leaders like Katniss in Catching Fire, and Catching Fire can be the number one grossing box office movie in the U.S. in 2013.  That’s the change that men, women, and everybody want to see happen.  And nobody had a problem going to see that movie.  We need more of those movies so we don’t go, “Oh, my gosh!  She’s the first female protagonist in 40 years to be at the top of the box office!”  That needs to be –we need to have more of those so it’s not an anomaly or a fluke, instead it becomes a trend.  Then they continue to make more of these films with female protagonists.

Have you noticed any changes in the funding available for producing films promoting female leadership, both for films funded independently and by studios?

Melissa:             There are spending problems on the independent side also.  I mean, every movie, everybody who talks about movies talks about how hard it is to get the money to make their movie.  I don’t think that you can separate the money thing out.  What you can separate out is the fact that the big studios are still stuck in their place where they want these movies about male superheroes and action heroes because they think that’s what drives the box office.  At the Athena Film Festival, we have movies about female protagonists, and we show them as female leaders and we say that there can be more of them at the studio level – and we hope.  We’re showing Frozen, number four of the year.  A studio film, a Disney film.  There are plenty of movies this year at the studio level, Gravity, you got Catching Fire, you have Frozen.  Three of the top 20 movies and probably more—I  don’t know if I’m giving you the proper statistics on that—that  have female leads.  But we need many more.  Because we buy half the tickets.

Kathryn:           One of our goals of the festival is to change what people think when they think leader.  What they see and what they aspire to as they are considering their own life’s journey.  So to us, if you can demonstrate that there is an audience for films that have strong women protagonists, courageous women making a difference in the world, if that can drive the box office, that’s a very important message to send to Hollywood whose in the business of making films that make money.  So that’s one goal.  But the second goal is that when you change who people see on screen, if young people see more than just macho men using machine guns to kill each other on screen, if they see women making a difference in the world, if they see women in diverse roles, then their aspirations change.  To us, that’s a really important, long-term goal of the festival and our effort to try to change the kinds of movies that are made and the kinds of stories that are told.

The Athena Film Festival features Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You documentary about Moms Mabley’s significance in the history of American stand-up comedy.  Does comedy have a specific goal in the Festival, and if so, is that role growing?

Melissa:             Moms Mabley is such an important woman in comedic history.  Like Katy and I had this conversation – Kate’s like, “I knew who Moms Mabley was.”  And I’m like, “I never heard of Moms Mabley!” So this is part of how women disappear from our history.  So this is why we’re so excited to show who Moms Mabley is because here’s a woman who basically transformed the entire comedic industry, and I knew nothing about her.  So she’s hysterically funny.  She had this great shtick persona, kind of like Redd Foxx and he had a sitcom, and I never saw her on television.  So one of the things is to expose people to funny women, comedic women throughout history, who have helped, you know, build the building blocks to where we are today.  And that also goes for women who are not necessarily funny.  But comedy has a way of opening up conversations that dramas don’t.  It was a thrill to get this film to participate in the festival.

There is a diversity of voices represented at the Athena Film Festival. Are there any voices or stories that we have yet to here that you would like to highlight in the future?

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Festival Honorees Callie Khouri and Kasi Lemmons

Melissa:             I think that we do a really good job finding films from around the world to bring to the festival.  We want to have a balance and bring in as many diverse voices and different stories as we can. If you go to the shorts program, you see a lot of younger voices, especially behind the scenes, and I think that’s really exciting to see what younger women are doing.  And then a short is a really good entrée into the film business.  So you see the level of the shorts is increasing in terms of the sheer number of them, and how great that they are.  Each year I feel like they get better and better.  But also we try to make sure that we have protagonists in all our stories of diverse ages, from different regions of the world.  So we can capture the voices of women leaders throughout the world.  And we want people to come away from this weekend, going, “You know what?  There are a lot of women leaders out there.  And we need to have them in all areas of our life.”  We want to inspire people to think about maybe doing something different in their life, just think about how having women’s leadership in all sectors of all culture makes it a better and richer culture.  But also we want to inspire younger directors, writers, cinematographers who can sit in a panel and learn from people who’ve been in the business for 20, 30 years, hear their tales from the trenches.  That’s one of the panels that we’re having.  Take their experiences and do things hopefully in a different and new way because they’re a different generation.

Kathryn:           Let me add to that just as an educator and somebody who’s business it is to ensure that young people see things differently and think about this differently. I am very proud of our record in being diverse in the stories we tell.  In 20 years, I’d love to be a festival that is the place to go when you’re nominated for an Oscar and have many, many stories of women be in that category.  So it’s not just the place to go when you’re nominated for an Oscar if you have one film, but if you’re half the films that are nominated for Oscars that tell stories of great women.  So in my view, we have a lot of work to do over the next decade, but I think the part that I’m very proud of is that we are saying we want to do this in a big way.  We’re not saying we want to be just a small festival that serves a niche audience.  We think our audience of women is not niche; it’s half the world.  So we want to think big in that way.


March 1, 2014 - Posted by | BUSINESS, CULTURE, ENTREPRENEURS, FILM, LIFESTYLES | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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