The Athena Film Festival Celebrates Strong, Female Stories

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

Throughout the history of Hollywood, female-driven films haven’t been given priority, and directors, producers, and screenwriters for most major motion pictures have been almost exclusively white and male. In addition to the lack of female representation, rampant sexual harassment and assault against women in the film industry has been occurring at an alarming rate. Movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have given women a platform to share their stories and start discussions on how to combat sexism, sexual harassment, and abuse in the workplace. Founding movements like these encourage more women to speak up about their experiences and are fantastic steps towards tackling these serious issues. Another great way to help improve the current state of gender inequality in films is to create opportunities for female-led and created films to have center stage. The annual Athena Film Festival at Barnard College in New York City is doing just this, by showcasing inspiring films that tell the amazing stories of women from across the globe.

This year, I attended The Athena Film Festival with Berklee’s Women’s Film Initiative (WFI). The Women’s Film Initiative is a community of female students who have an interest in and desire to pursue careers in the male-dominated field of film scoring. The club hosts weekly meetings that help to prepare members for their future careers by learning more about the industry, hosting interviews with female filmmakers and composers, outlining the skills that are required to become successful, and raising awareness of challenges members may face as female film composers. WFI selects a small group of its members to attend the Athena Film Festival each year, in order to network with women in film and enjoy the full film festival experience.

We attended the festival for two days (February 23-24) out of its total four (February 22-25). This was a decent amount of time to ascertain the essence of the festival and watch a number of fantastic films. Anywhere from three to four films were shown at the same time throughout the different venues. For my first film, I selected Te Ata. Based on the true-life story of Mary Thompson Fisher, it recounted her fascinating journey to become of one of the greatest Native American performers of all time. The emotional and heartfelt movie handled her story with grace, and while at times it was a little slow paced, it held my attention from start to finish.

The second film I saw that day was Thelma. The unusual Norweigan film tells the story of a shy, religious college student who begins to have violent seizures. She later learns that the seizures are triggered by suppressed emotions as a result of falling in love with a girl at her college. The seizures also trigger supernatural abilities that lead to disastrous outcomes. The premise of this mysterious thriller was interesting and the acting felt natural throughout the film.

The following day, I watched two sets of short film programs that consisted of 8 shorts each. The short film program was definitely my favorite part of the festival. They ranged from documentaries to narratives that each told captivating and engrossing stories of courageous women and girls. Many of these films were either directed or written by females, many of whom were either in college or recent graduates. After each of the programs, a few of the filmmakers came on stage to talk about their process and answer any questions the audience had.

That same day, I also watched the film I Am Not A Witch. The film follows the story of an orphaned 8-year old girl in Zambia who is accused of being a witch. She is sent to an unpaid work camp in the desert, where she joins a group of older women who were also accused of witchcraft. The story was, at times, hard to follow because of a number of ambiguous plot points. The film also utilized a strange sense of satire that didn’t seem to fit the horrible situations that the “witches” had to endure. Overall, I appreciated that the film brought awareness to the real world problems associated with witch camps, but I wish that it was executed in a more focused and clear manner.

In this crucial time of reform within Hollywood, having a female-centric festival like Athena is apropos and necessary. It serves as an uplifting way to showcase the unique stories of women from a variety of backgrounds and provide a multi-faceted glimpse into the female experience.







About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting