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Through the Gates: Women in Film

The Inaugural Athena Film Festival

The directors, writers, and producers who came to Barnard’s Athena Film Festival February 10-14 have had firsthand experience with the challenges women in the movie industry face—and the difficulties of breaking through the so-called “celluloid ceiling.”

The festival’s organizers—Kathryn Kolbert, director of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, and Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, a women’s film news and advocacy Web site—had a twofold agenda: to recognize the critical contributions that women have made to the film industry, as well as to provide a forum to showcase their work. “This is truly a great moment for Barnard,” said Barnard President Debora Spar, who added that the College, with its long tradition of supporting women’s advancement in the arts and sciences, was also the perfect venue to celebrate women’s achievement in films. Especially since, as she noted in her remarks at the opening night’s awards ceremony, there had never been a major women’s film festival in New York. “Where better to launch this than at Barnard?” asked Spar.

The festival kicked off with the ceremony to honor the contributions of nearly a dozen women in the film industry, including cinematographer Nancy Schreiber; producers Abigail Disney and Debra Martin-Chase; directors Chris Hegedus, Debra Granik, Tanya Hamilton, and Gini Reticker; as well as two Barnard alumnae: Greta Gerwig ’06, who starred in the 2010 film Greenberg, and Delia Ephron ’66, who has written seven films, including You’ve Got Mail and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, based on the book by Ann Brashares ’89.

Even as women have continued to make significant headway in other industries, the film business has remained a heavily male-dominated shop. Numbers compiled by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University tell a discouraging story. For instance, in the past 83 years, just four women have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, and only one woman has won— Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s critically acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Likewise, the Center found that in the 250 top-grossing films of 2010, women accounted for just seven percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 15 percent of executive producers, and only two percent of cinematographers.

“The statistics are incredibly bleak,” admitted Spar, as she welcomed a full crowd at the Diana Center on February 10 for the Athena Awards presentation. The good news? Despite those odds, she noted that women filmmakers have not only persevered, but in recent years they have been the driving force behind some of the industry’s most powerful feature and documentary films.

The four-day festival was billed as a “celebration of women and leadership.” In keeping with that theme, organizers presented a mix of approximately 20 features, documentaries, and short films—almost all illustrating the courage women across different cultures and countries have shown in the face of tremendous challenges, and the impact of their courage and resilience on individual lives, the wider community, and the world.

Among the festival highlights was Winter’s Bone, Granik’s feature about the quest of a teen in rural Missouri to save her family from being evicted, which was recently nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 2010. Documentaries included Chisolm ’72—Unbought and Unbossed, a look at the late African- American congresswoman’s campaign for the presidency in 1972; and Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, which chronicles the struggle of a group of Roman Catholic women fighting to be ordained as priests and for women’s rights within the Catholic church.

Along with the films, the festival program also featured a wide range of Q&A sessions and panels during which women screenwriters, directors, and producers talked about the various projects they’d worked on and the challenges they overcame to get their films made.

In a conversation following the February 11 Winter’s Bone screening, Granik recalled that raising the $2 million in financing she and her co-writer and producer Anne Rosellini ultimately needed to make the film was a major struggle. “The subject matter we tend to be interested in is not easily financeable,” said Granik, who was told by prospective backers for Winter’s Bone that the story was “too heavy” and “too dark.”

On the bright side, she pointed out that having to make do with a tight budget actually made for a more authentic film. Forced frugality allowed them to connect to the rural Ozarks community where the movie was shot in a way that she said wouldn’t have been possible if they had a huge film crew and super-expensive equipment and gear. “Our relationship with people would have been very different,” affirmed Granik.

For all the critical acclaim small independent features like Winter’s Bone have received, Granik cautioned that women filmmakers interested in doing those sorts of projects should be prepared for an uphill battle—especially on the fund-raising front. “The money part will always be ... draining,” she said. Yet she pointed out that women filmmakers can also opt to work in television as well as in documentary films, where she noted, women writers, directors, and producers have recently been making real headway. “There’s a gorgeous tradition of women doing great work in documentaries,” noted Granik.

In another festival session, Greta Gerwig spoke with Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts, also an Athena Award winner, about the trajectory her acting career has taken so far—from tiny indie films to starring roles in big budget romantic comedies such as No Strings Attached and Hollywood’s recent remake of Arthur. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,” said Gerwig, who won rave reviews for her breakthrough performance in 2010’s Greenberg, with one New York Times critic commenting that she “may well be the definitive actress of her generation.”

Despite her success, Gerwig said that she’s still drawn to roles that try to capture ordinary conversations and moments that reflect what people’s lives are really like—which, she contends, doesn’t typically happen in big-budget studio films, particularly when women characters are involved. To wit, she said the roles she’s been offered recently have mainly been in romantic comedies. “Romcoms are the girl thing still,” said Gerwig, who added that the women characters in those films tend to be fairly one-dimensional, especially compared to some of the female leads in older romantic comedies, such as the big-city reporter played by Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ 1940 film His Girl Friday. Now that more women are writing and making films, Gerwig is hopeful the pendulum will swing back. “There may be enough girls that don’t want to be poured into a plastic stamp,” said Gerwig.

- by Susan Hansen
-illustration by Jennifer Lew