As a disclaimer, this was my first Athena Film Festival. I have worked at a local film festival in New Jersey for the past three years, so I thought I knew what I was signed up for. I had no idea that there would be such a powerful sense of community surrounding the wonderful program of films on display for the weekend. There were workshops, panels, and a plethora of short and feature films to pick from, which was an absolute treat.
The first film that I saw was Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me? directed by Marielle Heller. I had been itching to see the film for a while and thought that there was no better opportunity to see it than at Athena. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, which documents her experience forging literary letters to pay the bills. It is a film about financial instability, humanity, and the price that is often paid for “success.” Can You Ever Forgive Me? hit me hard as a writer and as a woman struggling to make it in an unforgiving world. Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Lee Israel was absolutely stunning, and the film was a powerhouse of emotional moments and hilarious outbursts.
I didn’t realize that there would be a Q&A with director Marielle Heller and producer Anne Carey directly following the film, which added to the excitement surrounding the screening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Heller and Carey spoke about the adaptation of the film, the struggles of making it, and McCarthy’s amazing performance. One of the most interesting points of the Q&A was when Heller mentioned that she pushes for “French hours” on her sets. This means that the cast and crew work through lunch (considering everyone is always eating anyway) so that they can get home earlier. Heller mentioned that it is extremely important to her that mothers can return to their families at a reasonable hour and that she is excited to continue fighting for women’s rights in this way.
The second film that I saw was the FF2 Media sponsored screening of Working Woman written and directed by Michal Aviad. FF2 Media’s own Jan Huttner introduced the screening with a powerful statement about the timeliness of the film and the necessity of supporting women artists. Working Woman is a gut-wrenching, realistic depiction of a young mother and wife who is abused in the workplace. Her boss makes frequent sexual advances towards her, abuses her free time, and makes inappropriate comments about her appearance and family. Though the film is incredibly difficult to watch at points, Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna with striking emotion and poise. Working Woman is an absolutely necessary film for audiences everywhere to see so that we can begin to make progress on the difficult issue of abuse in the workplace.
The final program I attended at the Athena Film Festival was on Sunday morning. It was an excellently-planned array of short films about women in STEM. Though there were seven films screened, two in particular stood out to me. The first was Giving Birth in America: California directed by Clancy McCarty. The short film documented the struggle that many immigrants, especially pregnant women, face to find adequate health care. Giving Birth in America: California was a heartbreaking film that truly emphasized the need to reform our current healthcare system. Giving Birth in America: California emphasizes the intense manual labor that these women perform every day to make enough money to support their families and proves, in a succinct documentary, that healthcare access should not be a privilege, but a right.
The second short film that made a huge splash during the shorts program was Oscar-winning Period. End of Sentence., directed by Rayka Zehtabchi. The film documents women fighting against the stigma of menstruation that is still heavily prevalent in many areas of India. They start their own pad company and try to educate other women through the marketing of their products. Period. End of Sentence. was comical, touching, and extremely timely considering that menstruation is still taboo in many places of the world. The group of women portrayed in the film not only create their own empowering business model, but also work to educate and assist in erasing inequalities one pad at a time.
All in all, my Athena experience was more wonderful than I would have ever expected. Not only did I get the opportunity to work with my lovely FF2 team all weekend, but was overjoyed to be surrounded by a community of people so intent on supporting female stories and filmmakers from all over the world.
Featured Photo: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Credit: IMDB)
Top Photo: Dayna in front of the entrance to the Athena Film Festival
Middle Photo: FF2 Media's Jan Huttner speaking before the sponsored screening of Working Woman
Bottom Photo: Members of the FF2 team and friends from left to right: Stella, Dayna, Anika, Farah, Jan, and Kimi