Athena Film Fest founders Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert are building an artistic community

Every year, the FF2 Media team goes up to Barnard College for three days of women-centered films at the Athena Film Festival. You’ll be seeing all our individual takes on this year’s offerings in the first weeks of March, but before the festival happens two weeks from now, I sat down with the two founders of the festival to hear about what it’s like to spearhead a festival like Athena for 10 years straight. Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert have used the Athena Film Festival to support female artists like Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons, and Abigail Disney, often at phases of their career when they had not yet broken through into the mainstream. Read on to hear the lessons they’ve learned and the advice they have for young artists and activists!

Melissa and Kitty, you started the Athena Film Festival after you met in 2010 at an event honoring Jane Campion–what was it like trying to get the festival off the ground that first year?

K: In some ways, it was about many efforts. You just have to throw things against the wall and see what works and see who comes. We relied on Melissa’s very deep networks in the film community, and both of our networks in the women’s community, and a bit of help from Barnard. Both of us had a long history of organizing, so it was just a question of jump in and see what happens. And now it’s turned into what it has!

Is there anything about the festival’s 10-year run you’re most proud of?

M: We’re proud that we are growing our development program, with our Parity Pipeline Program to help emerging artists, give them information, give them training, give them connections and networking, so they can build their careers.

K: I would like to add that I think Melissa is very proud of the work she has done to raise the caliber of the films that we show, both the caliber of the smaller short films, but really the caliber of every film that’s on the lineup out there. It’s really just 100 percent better films in year 10 than they were in year one–though I thought they were pretty good in year one–and it’s good to see such progress in that arena.

Any advice you would give people who are starting out now, whether it’s in film or organizing a festival like yours?

M: Don’t make a festival [both laugh]. It is a lot of work to put on a festival of this caliber, and we continue to grow each year, and have more premieres, more standing in the industry and the community. I would say, make a plan if that’s something you want to do. But my best advice would be to persevere, to believe if you have a story to tell that your story is worth telling, and to continue pushing for that, and also to build a community. Find the people who are going to be the ones who are going to give you real, honest feedback, so you can become a better artist.

How do you feel like you’ve grown, as activists, as organizers, as artists, over the last 10 years?

K: I would say my stint at Barnard, which I left about a year and a half ago, allowed me to take skills that I had in a whole range of other arenas, particularly in the advocacy world, and pass them on to a younger generation of activists and young women who are looking to make a difference in the world, and that’s very gratifying to me, being able to be a mentor and a role model, and somebody who pushes young people forward.

M: For me, I’ve learned how to read scripts and understand what works and doesn’t work. I understand what our audiences are looking for at the festival, and can see what would work and what wouldn’t work; I just have a more discerning eye. And I feel like I’ve also grown in terms of my sense as a producer, and an artist, and the confidence I have developed.

Any highlights from past festivals?

M: We met Jodie Foster, that was good [both laugh].

K: To me, one of the amazing things is if you look back at the people who we have given awards to over the years, particularly in the first couple of years, it’s been a thrill to watch those women become international superstars.

M: I agree, we were ahead of the curve. And that is something that’s really clear in the industry. We really thought about women in a way the industry didn’t for a couple of years, and we were scouting [these women] and we honor people who are now hugely successful.

Do you want to talk about the new Athena breakthrough award, which is being given out for the first time this year?

M: So, one of the things I wanted to do was continue to grow our development program, and one thing that’s really hard is to give people money. That’s the key, you know, we want to give people money so they can grow as an artist, and we wanted to make the breakthrough award something that would really help someone, so that’s why we chose to have a first or second-time female-directed film, narrative or documentary, that did not have U.S. distribution. So we wanted to kind of give it a push in the world, in the industry, that this film is worthy of distribution.

Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Jodie Foster attends the 5th Annual Athena Film Festival opening night reception at Barnard College on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Where do you see the Athena film festival going in the next 10 years?

M: Great question.

K: Making it to 10 is a big anniversary for us, and we want to be thoughtful about how the festival evolves and moves forward. Two things that strike me as values are helping our audiences see what leadership looks like. And we’ve talked about women having influence in the world, being courageous and bold and sassy, and I think over the next 10 years, I’d like to see that change a bit and be able to show women in a whole range of ways–I think Brit Marling’s view that we want to be more nuanced about how women are strong, and how they exhibit their leadership, I think that’s really important. You know, for many years, the token women in a movie had to be perfect, and I think as we bring more women onscreen we no longer have to live up to the ideal of perfection, and be closer to who we are in all of our strengths and vulnerabilities.

M: And I think what we want people to understand, is that when you come to a festival like Athena it’s as important of a festival as other festivals. You get so much out of it by building a community, being part of a community.

Can you speak more about that community?

M: Artemis Rising is our founding sponsor, and what we’re trying to do with the Parity Pipeline Program is not just bring people in for a laugh for two days and then set them up on their own; we’re trying to develop ongoing relationships with the people who come through our program. For our 10th anniversary, we’ve invited back all the writers who were part of our labs previously, to have a kind of industry day where they can all reconnect with each other and continue to build communities. The key is that it’s a very isolating job being a writer or director, and it’s important to build a trusting community that you can access and support each other, and that’s the goal of Athena, that’s the goal of all of our work–the fact that we’re all in this together.

Aside from the Athena Breakthrough Award, and providing the platform, what other ways do you try to support emerging artists?

M: We have the Athena List, which is for scripts that have already been in a workshop or a lab. We’re trying to make people in the industry take a look at these scripts, so they can get bought and they can get made. And we want the scripts to represent the kind of female protagonists we’re trying to create in film, are moving our world and impacting the culture in some respect. Those are the stories we show at Athena and those are the scripts we want to see being made. We have a lot of panels, and activities that are all free at Athena, so it’s not like there’s any cost to people attending–we have incredibly low student rates so people can come see the films, and you don’t have to be a Barnard student, it’s for all students. Everything we do is really about impacting community and building the future.

What kind of external feedback have you been getting about Athena in the past 10 years?

K: People who come love it. Watching a movie, even a movie you’d see in a movie theater, with our audience is a different experience; they hang around and talk to other people both in the lines and afterwards. So we usually get very positive feedback. Probably the best hallmark is that the audience grows every year. That’s the guideline of how to do a good festival.

M: We have over 20 premieres this year, so that is an indicator that people are noticing it in the industry, and we really want to make it clear that Athena’s a destination, and that if you bring your film to Athena you’re going to get a lot of payoff.

Anything you’re excited about for this year’s festival specifically?

K: I think the films that have been picked out are really terrific–some of the films I’ve seen, a lot of the others I haven’t, so Melissa’s the better judge of that. The new abortion film Never Rarely Sometimes Always that we just got, I’m really looking forward to seeing that because it tells the story of work that I’ve done over many years. I think our work around women in animation, and the workshops there are going to be really terrific, and for the first time this year we are doing a sit down dinner to celebrate our 10th anniversary, and I am extremely excited about that … The presentation of Athena awards, the Breakthrough Award presentation, the announcement of the Athena List winners, so it’s just a great opportunity to celebrate all that we have done.

M: There’s a lot of really strong movies here, and the complaints I hear from people are that they don’t know which ones to choose to go see, and I think this year is absolutely the strongest one we’ve had. We are showing Clemency, which was on our Athena List several years ago and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award, we are opening with I Am Woman, which is the true story narrative feature of Helen Reddy, which was directed by Unjoo Moon, who is our Breakthrough Award winner. We are closing with Rocks, which is a film about girls in London and how they navigate the world that they are living in, and the writer will be here for that. We have our narrative centerpiece Lost Girls, which is Liz Garbus’s narrative directorial debut–it’s a New York story about women who went missing out on Long Island and were never searched for because they were sex workers, and the mothers who fought for them to be recognized as humans. Kitty mentioned Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which was one of the movies that came out of Sundance and was incredibly well received; it’s a dark look at the lack of access for young women and poor people in terms of reproductive rights. We are also having the New York premiere of The Perfect Candidate, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s newest movie about a doctor in Saudi Arabia who runs for office out of necessity because she needs to make change. So there are a lot of young women who are doing the work to change the world around them and the people who are in that world.

What kind of legacy do you want to have?

K: For me, the true test of creating great organizations is that they grow and evolve after your opportunity to contribute to them ends, and I think that is really a terrific thing. To see it continue for the next 10 years, or however many after that, whether or not I’m individually involved. That’s the best legacy, continuation and growth.

M: And for me, I really think that we need to see more stories of women in our culture. Storytelling is so vital to how we connect with each other, and because women and people of color have been marginalized in storytelling, our goal is to put women, women of color, front and center, and to take our rightful places in the culture. What’s unique about Athena, is you come up for a weekend and you see women onscreen; that is very different from the world we live in. It’s a moment where people can say, oh, the world could look like this. And so we want people to think about how we continue to change the world, evolve the world, and center different kinds of stories.


You can visit the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College from February 27th to March 1st. We’re sure to have a great time, and we hope you can join us!

Top Photo: Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert at the Athena Film Festival.

Middle Photo: Jodie Foster at the 2015 Athena Film Festival.

Bottom Photo: The Athena Film Festival logo.

Photo Credit: Athena Film Festival, Artemis Rising.

Tags: Athena Film Festival, Kathryn Kolbert, Melissa Silverstein

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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto is a journalist and copywriter living in Brooklyn. She especially loves writing about queer issues, period pieces, and the technical aspects of films.
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