Born and raised in Egypt, a country that only recently started valuing its independent art, I had never been to a film festival before attending Athena in 2018. I knew very little about what a film festival entailed and what kind of audience I would be interacting with. After taking the time to reflect on my three-day experience at Athena, I can confidently say that I was far from disappointed.
The most mesmerizing aspect of the festival was the audience at every screening I attended. Unlike spectators in a regular movie theater, who generally tend to keep to themselves and express their emotions rather silently, the Athena audience was very interactive and outspoken during the screenings. We shared laughs, tears, and even some witty comments, which made the film-viewing experience much more engaging. My time in Athena reaffirmed that films are a rollercoaster of emotions — one that can take you from unstoppable laughter to tears in a very short time frame, and one that is even better shared with others. It was refreshing to be part of an informed, witty, scholarly audience that was all there for one purpose: to experience and appreciate films where women played a key role.
The engaging audience that I speak of allowed me to appreciate a genre that I do not usually go for: animation. Directed by Nora Twomey, The Breadwinner (2017) tells the story of a young girl who lives under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and is forced to dress up as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is sent to jail. Normally I would not be able to invest myself in an animated film out of my personal preference for live-action films . However, I found myself crying with the girl through her hardships, and felt elation at her micro-victories under such an oppressive regime. I came to see the beauty in animation, which can offer an inside look into worlds that are inaccessible in real life. Movies like The Breadwinner, set in Afghanistan, cannot work as live-action films, for they would not be able to depict the oppression that goes on in the public and private spheres in such an intimate, candid manner.
The festival has also helped me realize the importance of another category: short films, which can capture the essence of a life in a concise but transformative time. Being an Egyptian woman raised in a Sunni Muslim milieu, the short that captured my interest was Al Imam (2018), directed by Kuwaiti Omar Al Dakheel. The film depicts the life of Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim spiritual leader based in Los Angeles, who advocates for a more progressive practice of Islam. Her views include the acceptance of inter-faith marriage — an idea that would be considered a major sin by most Arab Sunni Imams. She advocates for a more spiritual approach to the religion, which focuses on the healing provided by Islam rather than on its dogmatic aspect. The short documentary refreshed my perspective on the religion, and reminded me once again that Islam itself is not misogynistic or oppressive. Rather, it is the males in power in the Arab world that have built a culture rooted in patriarchal power and have falsely pointed to Islam as being their guide for such practices. Even though the film was only around twenty minutes long, it successfully depicted the various aspects of Zonneveld’s life, including her collective prayer sessions, her relationship with her daughter, and the violent threats she receives from the Sunni community. To me, Al Imam is a film that is best experienced with an audience like the one at Athena — one that is diverse in its nature, and can therefore be accepting of all kinds of practices and religions.
One of the most powerful moments in my Athena experience was the showing of It’s Criminal: a documentary that follows a group of female Dartmouth students who create and perform an original play with women inmates in a rural jail. The documentary was very relevant to me as a college student who tries to stay in tune with current events, but may be oblivious to the harsh realities that people (e.g. inmates) have to endure. The documentary became even more personal for me when I found out that two of the ex-inmates were present at Athena and answered questions after the showing. One of them is now the Vice President of a major company, and she gives credit to her theater instructor during her prison sentence for changing her perspective. After the film ended, I gave her a hug, as did many other audience members who were as moved by the film as I was. My sense of hope was restored, and I was reminded that one does not have to be a world leader to create change: the college professor who started the program is now writing a manual to extend the collaborative theater project to other prisons.
Although I was not able to attend The Divine Order, which was sponsored by FF2 Media, I was able to make it to the closing night film for Athena: The Post, which was a perfect ending to a festival that centered around the empowerment of women. The film features Meryl Streep as “Katharine Graham,” the head of The Washington Post, who is put in a difficult situation when her company gets access to classified documents on the Vietnam War. The film follows her as she finds herself in difficult positions with her all-male board, and finds her own voice in the process. In such trying times, the film touches on two important issues: the importance of free press, and the importance of empowering women.
Overall, #MyAthena was a life-altering experience for me. With its carefully-selected films and its engaged, interested audience, the festival is a great place to allow oneself to feel, and to appreciate the moving, empowering, inspiring art that is film.
© Farah Elattar (03/07/2018) FF2 Media
Featured Image: Editor-in-Chief, Jan Lisa Huttner at Athena Film Festival 2018.
Photo Credit: The Athena Film Festival.
Top Photo: the FF2 Media team at Athena Film Festival 2018.
Photo Credit: FF2 Media.
Bottom Photo: the logo for the 2018 Athena Film Festival.
Photo Credit: The Athena Film Festival.