I got to be at Athena Film Festival this year with friends new and old. FF2 members not located in NYC converged in the city to go to screenings together and create visibility for our message. We also got to meet a couple new FF2 members whom we met in person for the first time at our FF2-sponsored screening.
The setting is an old home for me, since I did my undergrad at Barnard’s affiliate across the street, Columbia. The screenings happen in classrooms and theater spaces where I’ve seen friends working hard on their own art, and it’s lovely to see other artists’ work coming to fruition and being celebrated in those same spaces.
The FF2 team walked around handing out buttons, wearing t-shirts, and having conversations to share our movement, Support Women Artists Now (SWAN) Day. It was great to talk to so many people who are working toward the same mission in their own ways.
The Athena Festival each year feels a bit like an FF2 reunion, or a milestone. I met Editor-in-Chief Jan for the first time at Athena in 2016. And this festival celebrates the kinds of stories that we wish could be told more, and nothing but those stories. It reminds us what we’re working toward.
Here are my thoughts on my top three favorite movies at the festival this year!
Stars by the Pound
Written and directed by Marie-Sophie Chambon and co-written by Anaïs Carpita, Stars by the Pound is a teen movie I would’ve loved to have had in my toolbox when I was that age. Through themes of friendship, resilience, and self-image, this film is a misfit adventure story told with sensitivity and heart.
Sixteen-year-old Lois (Laure Duchene) is precocious in science and dreams of becoming an astronaut. Soon she’s heading to a design competition to showcase her simple, ingenious gadget that can collect particles in space. However, Lois’s teachers discourage her dream of becoming an astronaut, citing her weight as an insurmountable obstacle. Lois has already been suffering from an eating disorder, and their comments prompt a sudden downturn in her already-shaky health. Lois’s mother, who has also struggled with weight and eating disorders, warns Lois of how this unhealthy behavior can be damaging over a long period of time. But Lois is determined to become thinner, urged on by social pressures and, thanks to her teachers, by her perception that she can’t have her dream of being an astronaut without getting smaller.
Lois is admitted to an in-patient eating disorder treatment center, and it looks like the engineering competition won’t be possible for her anymore. In the hospital, she befriends three other teens: Amélie (Angèle Metzger) (!!! It’s rare that I share a name with someone! Just reveling in the moment. Mmm), Stannah (Pauline Serieys), and Justine (Zoé De Tarlé). The three of them decide to escape the hospital together and attend the competition, planning that they’ll share Lois’s winnings: a ride in space.
My favorite parts of the movie are the moments when the girls find new definitions of selfhood. One late evening, they argue about who has it worse: Amélie, whose butt is too small; Lois’s, whose is too big; or Stannah’s, whose butt can’t be seen, because she’s in a wheelchair. When the girls realize that they are all unhappy with how they look, they realize that they can view themselves lovingly, as they do their friends. At the competition, Stannah shows Lois how she can get the boys’ attention by letting her hair down and opening her sweatshirt. In that moment, Lois discovers that she can see herself differently, and at the same time she realizes how flimsy femininity is, how it means nothing about one’s actual worth. These moments of selfhood are hard to come by when you’re a teenager, and it’s heartwarming to watch them on screen.
Military Wives, written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, is about the wives and families left behind on a British military base while their husbands are at war in Afghanistan. It stars serious Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) and playful, sardonic Lisa (Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan), who, in a social structure mimicking that of a military group, lead operations on the base while their husbands lead in the field. To pass the time and come together, the women start a singing group.
The movie begins as a comedy. The silly earnestness of the women singers makes for some light character-driven jokes, and the two leads’ clashing personalities add some humor too. In the movie’s second act, as it gets harder and harder to ignore the traumas of real life, the film’s tone shifts to a drama. In the third act, the amateur choir becomes a force for healing.
The story is based on those of real choirs made up of military families. Now in this public health crisis, the social media movements I’m seeing remind me of this movie. When people are feeling alone and afraid, communities find their own ways of cheering each other up.
A Regular Woman
Directed by Sherry Hormann, A Regular Woman is a dramatization of the true story of Hatan “Aynur” Sürücü (played by Almila Bagriacik), who was killed by her brother in an honor killing.
The narrative framing is devastating: it’s narrated from Sürücü’s point of view. She tells us from the outset that she was killed as a young woman. Throughout the film, as we watch her life and her family tensions unfold. A Turkish family living in Germany, the Sürücüs are deeply concerned about preserving the values of their heritage and the culture of their community. However, their family values manifest in ways that are deeply oppressive of women, and often physically and sexually violent, and Aynur begins to take steps to take herself out. As Aynur’s story goes on, we piece together what motivated her brother to make the choice to kill her, and we feel the full extent of her loss.
The film doesn’t condone Islamophobia, but instead it explores the nuances of how this family’s culture takes religion to oppress even their loved ones. Since we know the culprit of the crime from the beginning, the film is a reinterpretation of a crime drama narrative, helping us piece together the motivations and nuances of violence as they unfold.
Though by far the hardest to watch, this movie was ambitious, impactful, and resonant, and it was my favorite of the festival this year.
Photo: Almila Bagriacik as “Aymur” in A Regular Woman.
Photo Credits: NFP Filmverleih