The fourth year of the Athena Film Festival, held at Barnard College February 6-9th, was an incredible experience for women and men. Foremost, the festival organizers and participants collaborated in their appreciation and recognition of those who have taken an active part in raising the banner of global film movements. Panel presenters, filmmakers, audience members, and sponsors gathered with the hope that as they express their dynamism in whatever talents and walks of life they embrace through film, they will continue to motivate women toward leadership, autonomy, creativity, and inspiration. Ultimately, doing so will only benefit culture and society as a whole.
Co-Founders Kathryn Kolbert (Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College) and Melissa Silverstein (Women and Hollywood) introduced many of the screenings and master classes. The films included a wide range of features, documentaries, shorts, and “works-in-progress” for critical review.. There were master classes for filmmakers, panels and special events: opening film after-party, luncheons and receptions and the Athena Film Festival Award Ceremony..
Festival highlights included the awards bestowed. On hand for the ceremony was Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, Regina K. Scully, CEO and Founder of Artemis Rising Foundation-the Athena Film Festival’s founding sponsor, Festival Co-Chairs, Co-Founders, illustrious recipients and others.
This year Sherry Lansing was the recipient of the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award given to a women in the film industry whose leadership demonstrated vision and courage and set a standard for other women to follow. 2014 Awards went to Callie Khouri, Oscar-Winning writer and film and TV creator and director, Kasi Lemmons, gifted actress, director and writer and Keri Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute. Each of these women is responsible for their groundbreaking achievements assisting women in gaining voice and power to maintain leadership positions. They continue to make a tremendous impact for women in the media industry with current projects.
These women have helped other women begin to move among their male counterparts. However, the statistics the festival reported are not as encouraging as one would hope. Among the films shown at Sundance in 2013, 29% of filmmakers were women and 71% were men.
There is a lot that must be accomplished and with the gap in economies of scale and increasing difficulty in achieving funding, women will be challenged more than ever to be innovative, forward thinking, and ahead of the curve, finding partnerships with others who recognize the acute sensibilities and resonances women can contribute to touching a cultural wellspring of film audiences that are increasingly dominated by women.
This 4th Annual Athena Film Festival article first appeared on Blogcritics.
The Athena Film Festival 2014, which ran from February 6th to February 9th, offered an amazing array of documentary films. Women are known to direct and helm more documentaries than narrative features. It is clear that their patience, meticulous research skills, and creative brilliance shine in this complex niche, which lends itself to revelation. Documentaries best dive into the underbelly of historical events and enlighten us about men and women whose life stories have hithertofore been obscured, “wiped out,” or discredited because their content was deemed dangerous or a fiction.
Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter, exemplifies such a documentary; the story of real-life heroine Loreta Velazquez was discounted and nearly eradicated from our history. Was the primary reason because Velazquez was a remarkable woman who transcended the limitations and mores placed upon her sex during the Civil War and afterward? Carter is to be lauded for painstakingly portraying Velazquez’ life on film despite the obstacles she faced to mount the project. Overcoming these issues took time, but Carter engaged her skills, and with her phenomenal effort crafted a jewel. The intensity of the result was well worth it, as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiastic response and their rapt, probing questions during the Q & A. With Rebel, Carter achieves her goal to beautifully relate the story of this courageous and clever woman who is an inspiration for us today..
Velazquez’s story begins in Cuba where she was educated and raised to be the woman of the house in time when paternalism and patriarchy ruled the lifestyles and actions of the promulgators of culture. Testing the limits of her father’s love and seeing the gross inequities in the treatment of women, Velazquez attempts to equalize her status with males, eschewing the easy “role” of a demure woman. Finding this behavior worrisome, her father sends her to relatives in New Orleans where she eventually continues to throw off her father’s choices of husbands and “women’s duties.” Clandestinely, she marries an American soldier who is sent to the frontier, comes back, and then returns to prepare to fight for the Confederacy.
By this point husband and wife have buried three children and Loreta considers her place to be by his side. He leaves and word comes that he’s been killed. She decides she has nothing to lose and will follow him to fight where he would have fought and kill who he would have killed. She cuts her hair and puts on a confederate uniform. She is alone, but finds comfort having taken his place. And in his place, she learns war, soldiering, and living in hardship with the rough men as well as having her eyes opened to many other things.
The film elucidates more including the risks that Velazquez takes in passing as a Confederate soldier. Carter follows Velazquez with details about her learning curves and discoveries about the rotten elements of war profiteers and currency calculators. From the soldier’s vantage point like never before, Velazquez is able to understand what they are fighting for and the nature of slavery. All of these events, Carter encapsulates with compelling detail and interest. However, this is only the beginning of Velazquez’s adventures. How she ends up fighting for the North and how she ends up as a spy is a fascinating experience. Carter shows that hers is an outer and inner journey. Certainly the nature of the war in the South and all of its ramifications helped to win Velazquez to the other side.
Carter’s film is compelling and engaging. This credible storytelling is at its best in relating Velazquez’s experiences by also highlighting extremely important historical details that shine a probing light on women’s involvement in soldiering during the Civil War. This is an aspect that is not well known. Nevertheless, Velazquez was not alone in picking up the cause and hiding her sex in trousers. The men simply would never have thought it possible; the folkways of feminine identity and behavior simply beggared their imagination to even think it. The women easily were able to dupe the men.
The truth Carter brings to bear in Velazquez’s story enhances our understanding of a time that perhaps is still too uncomfortably close for some to view with perspicacity, wisdom, and integrity. These elements and traits Carter admirably demonstrates in showing us another type of soldier who fought during the bloodletting time to preserve an economic lifestyle perpetuated by the extremist cruelty and degradation. Because her story is so amazing, one hopes that Carter will be able to shepherd the adventures of this courageous, enlightened, and forward thinking woman into a narrative feature film.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
The documentary on Grace Lee Boggs which screened at the 2014 Athena Film Festival was sold out and there appeared to be individuals floating on the rafters aching to see the film. They were even more enthusiastic to see Grace Lee Boggs in the live Q & A session and meet her afterward. The audience was filled with young and old, and most likely, the oldest one there was Grace Lee Boggs herself. She is an active 98 year old, who is raging against the “dying of the light” of inequality and injustice, despite the visissiitudes of old age which aren’t for” cowards or sissies.”
This Chinese-American writer, activist, feminist and philosopher dedicated to improving herself, the country and the plight of average citizens has worked tirelessly for 70 years in the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs directed by Grace Lee (no relation), created from filmed interviews and discussions with Boggs, friends and celebrity fans, follows an ethnographic style over a ten-year period. During this time the director engaged her intention to understand Boggs’ evolution as a representative icon of change who was swept up in a flow of revolutionary crosscurrents from the 1940s until this day. This river of social progress is moving toward a paradigm shift and a new spiral of events which Boggs discussed after the screening. The events include her latest venture Detroit Summer also highlighted in the film.
The documentarian catalogues Boggs’ earlier life through narration, pictures, archival film and Boggs’ commentary and continues with film footage of Boggs over the last 10 years. We learn that Boggs was one of four women of color in 1935 to graduate from Barnard College in New York City. Because there were few opportunities for women of color in academia, Boggs took a low paying job in the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. At that time she also took her first foray into activism becoming involved with tenancy rights. This cultural engagement suited her and she joined the Worker’s Party, one of a number of parties she advocated for during her lifetime. After a speaking engagement, Boggs met with C.L.R. James and was hooked into his movement. She traveled to New York. With new vitality in her learning curve and the hope to enhance social freedom of opportunity for people of color, she worked with C.L.R. James and encountered important activists and cultural figures, i.e. Richard Wright and Katharine Dunham.
Her continued involvement with civil rights always inspired colloquies and discussions which fueled her writings about how to equalize the living and work opportunities for people of color. The film reveals Boggs’ progress after the shifts and splits from various groups in the 1940s, through her meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. and others during the 1950s and 1960s (Malcolm X) when civil rights actions and developments were fast and furious.With husband James Boggs the couple moved onward evolving their beliefs and continuing to work, write and publish about the needed social revolution in America.
Declassified, Grace Lee Boggs’ FBI file kept by Herbert Hoover is perhaps thicker than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s. It is a great point of humor when the filmmaker spotlights that this physically unimposing Chinese American woman with grand intellectual acumen and erudition was considered a potentially violent threat to this country because of the words she spoke and her writings. FBI officials even believed her to be African American because, who indeed who was not black would marry an African American man, live in the black community and actively support the civil rights of people of color?
Boggs’ activism in the Civil Rights Movement began when it was risky and courageous to participate. Only much later did it become “cool” and radical chic to “drop out and get down.” By then, Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs had moved on to other polemics. She was constantly evolving in her understanding, with the hope of carving a meaningful place in her world of friends, including those acquaintances who dropped by her door to engage in discussions and conversations about social revolution.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs completes a monumental feat examining this icon of American social movements during the last seven decades. It reveals our history in a way that no other documentary has dared to accomplish fusing present, recent past and past past with narrative from the perspective of the one who lived it and is brilliantly competent to provide an ongoing retrospective. It is she who discusses what she learned as a result of her actions, not some historian or commentator. In this the documentary breaks new ground, offering the incredible philosophies and viewpoints of the woman who lived through these events with inspiration, circumspection and wisdom. Above all this very human film pinpoints the unique, vital and unlikely story of how this Chinese American woman saw injustice and inequality in the human heart. And as she saw it flowing out into the culture creating a prevalence of misery and torment, she determined it must stop and she must devote her life to stopping it. Her life proves that in order to get people to say yes to change, one has to first say no to putting up with their abuse, no matter the cost.
Director Grace Lee’s renderings which cobble together film clips and flow her narrative from present to recent past to archival past is nothing short of wonderful. But then her subject matter is wonderful. What Boggs models for women, Asian Americans, millennials and all citizens engaged in the social reform of our political and corporate institutions is without measure. In Boggs’ world discussion and interchange especially with those whose beliefs run counter to ours is paramount for all of our growth. Dialogue and conversation must be ongoing to inspire cultural renaissance. Her world view is best demonstrated in the following quote:
“When you read Marx (or Jesus) this way, you come to see that real wealth is not material wealth and real poverty is not just the lack of food, shelter, and clothing. Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers to relate to other human beings.”
― Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
The film demonstrates that Grace Lee Boggs has lived her life coming to the fullness of this understanding. Would that we could all do the same following our own pathway of evolution.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.