On the five-o’clock train to Barnard College I sat, ecstatically scrolling through the Athena Film Festival’s website to pick out which films screenings I wanted to see. This may make me look bad but despite being a junior film student I have admittedly never been to a film festival before. I had no idea walking into it how transformative that weekend would be for me. Having become so tired by the ways that Hollywood repeatedly fails to give respect to the stories of women and girls, I needed this film festival to show me that our stories and experiences are worth sharing.
I started the weekend off on Friday night with a showing of the short film Cross My Heart by recent NYU graduate Sontenish Myers. The film explored themes of sexual abuse within families and the way that secrecy and silence can stem from these realities. In a Q&A with the director, Myers spoke about how it was important for her to write Black girls who inhabit silence. Her actresses explore this beautifully and move through scenes with a captivating honesty that feels almost painfully real.
After this short I saw Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu. In this film two Kenyan women, Kena and Ziki, discover they have feelings for each other in the midst of a political battle between their fathers and their community, which is still not quite ready to accept them. Watching this film felt like a breath of fresh air. Kahiu is able to balance reality and honesty with all of the sappiness and joy that you’d want from a lesbian romance movie. I felt like I was hanging onto every line and, looking around the room, I realized that everyone in the audience was as visibly enthralled by the romance and in love with the characters as I was. We laughed at the goofy romance scenes and when the characters were tested by the demands of trying to navigate their discriminatory community, I looked over and saw people holding back tears or placing their hands over their chest. Rafiki is a truly amazing film that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
Next that night, I watched one of Athena’s short programs. Before the showing, one of the festival coordinators explained that they had chosen these shorts from over 1,000 entries. The two that stood out the most to me were the documentaries Come and Take It and Sister Hearts. The former documentary is co-directed by PJ Raval and Ellen Spiro and follows organizer Jessica Jin as she put together the “Cocks not Glocks” protest on the University of Texas campus. This protest saw students carry dildos across campus in an effort to combat the Texas campus carry law that saw it become legal for students to carry firearms into classes. It followed the ups and downs of her journey, from having a hundred dildos show up at her door to being publicly shamed online, and gave us a look into the person behind the viral movement.
Sister Hearts, directed by Mohammad Gorjestani, follows Maryam Henderson-Uloho, a woman who was incarcerated for thirteen years and now runs a thrift shop that employs only formerly incarcerated women. It dives into the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated women, from physical setbacks like homelessness to the mental struggles of building yourself back up after spending so much time navigating the inhumane system that is incarceration in the US. The film’s shift from black and white into color as the women begin to find themselves is a reminder of how much prison can strip women of their humanity and how deeply important Maryam’s work is.
The next morning I sat in on the screening of Life Without Basketball, directed by Tim O’Donnell and Jon Mercer. This film followed the story of Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the first woman to compete in Division I basketball wearing a hijab. The documentary provided an intimate portrait of Abdul-Qaadir as she navigated the unjust and discriminatory rules that the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) had set up that kept her off the court. Abdul-Qaadir was forced to take up the role of an activist and speaker in order to force the change needed for FIBA to change their laws, and the documentary gives us a look into the highs and lows of this difficult and draining journey. Her father, who spoke to the audience after the screening, said that his daughter “put down the ball and picked up a voice.” I hope that more people start listening to what she has to say.
After Life Without Basketball, I watched the documentary Nothing Without Us: The Woman Who Will End AIDS by Harriet Hirshorn. This extremely important film bravely highlighted the stories of Black women both within the United States and in some nations in Africa who have built their life around combatting the AIDS crisis. As the documentary states, the story of the AIDS crisis largely revolves around white gay men and tends to ignore the work done by women of color, even though Black working-class women specifically are disproportionately affected by the crisis and have been integral to the foundation of organizations like ACT-UP. Through the documentary, I was able to learn about the work of women such as Katrina Haslip, who was involved in the fight to expand the CDC definition of AIDS from its male-centered definition to include symptoms of AIDS that were more commonly found in women.
In a Q&A after the film, Hirshorn spoke about, among other things, the importance of ending stigma and decriminalizing sex work in order to end the spread of HIV/AIDS. My wish for this documentary is that it is able to gain more traction and expose more people to the warriors behind the crisis and the outstanding work that they continue to do.
After this, I saw Working Woman, sponsored by FF2 Media itself. Before it played our own Editor-in-Chief Jan Huttner spoke briefly about the film and its importance. This piece, directed by Michal Aviad, explored sexism in the workplace and the insidious ways that it can affect the lives of the women it touches. It was the last film that I was able to attend at Athena Film Festival. I left Barnard College feeling renewed and more inspired than ever before to bring my own art into the world. Now I know for sure that there will always be a host of incredible women willing to support me as I go.
© Anika Guttormson (3/19/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Still from Rafiki (2018)
Top Photo: Still from Sister Hearts (2018)
Middle Photo: Still from Life Without Basketball (2018)
Bottom Photo: FF2 Media team at dinner, from left to right: Stella, Dayna, Anika, Farah, Jan, and Kimi