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A female gaze? Athena Film Festival asks, answers

Dorsett Sekiya
Sekiya Dorsett, director of the documentary The Revival: Women and the Word, speaking at the Athena Film Festival. Photo by Jo Chiang.

On a frigid, snowy four-day weekend in February, I joined nearly 6,000 other movie lovers as we descended on Barnard College to attend the seventh annual Athena Film Festival. Co-founded by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies and Women and Hollywood, a leading website advocating gender diversity in Hollywood and the global film industry, the festival has grown dramatically in prestige and influence, remaining the only festival in the country focused on women as leaders—behind the camera and on camera, performing, shooting, directing, penning, producing, and fighting for change in the world, their communities, and their own lives.

“The purpose of the festival is to get more recognition for the filmmakers, amplify their voices, create opportunities for them to come together, for young women to work with filmmakers with more experience, to open doors,” said the festival’s tireless co-founder, artistic director, and founder of Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein. A blur of boundless energy, Silverstein seemed to magically appear at the opening of every one of the festival’s 55 features, documentaries, shorts, animations, virtual reality films, panels, an award presentation, and a script reading—even though many events ran concurrently.

Certainly, the news about women and film continues to be bad. Women made up a mere 7 percent of directors and 13 percent of writers in the top 100 domestic grossing films last year, as well as 29 percent of protagonists and 32 percent of those who got to speak at all in the top 250 grossing films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Yet, this unique festival, with its focus on women making movies and women’s stories, provides a great opportunity to ask the most intriguing question: Do women do it differently?

Ironically, the first person I heard weigh in was a man: actor and producer David Oyelowo. Fresh from accepting the Athena Leading Man Award, Oyelowo climbed onto the stage to join Silverstein following the screening of Queen of Katwe. Directed by Mira Nair, the 2016 AFF Lifetime Achievement Award winner, this wonderful film tells the true story of a teenage girl, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), growing up in abject poverty in Uganda. With the help of a devoted coach (Oyelowo), an indefatigable mother (Lupita Nyong’o), and a supportive community, she goes on to become a chess champion.

As to what having a woman at the helm meant for this film, said Oyelowo: “When is [a 10-year-old girl growing up in a slum in Uganda] the protagonist of a story, anywhere, ever? The reason she is the protagonist is because Mira directed. I guarantee you if it had been made by a male director, my character would have been the protagonist.”

To further illustrate, Oyelowo harkened back to the path that brought Selma to the big screen. That film began with a white director focused on Lyndon Johnson, then had black directors focused on Martin Luther King (one of whom cast Oyelowo as King), then finally, Ava DuVernay, recruited by Oyelowo. “Before Ava came along, my interaction with Coretta Scott King was a phone call, and I never was in a scene with her,” said Oyelowo. “There certainly were no roles that would have been worthy of the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Lorraine Toussaint, Tessa Thompson.”

“Ava was interested in the emotional typography of these characters as well as the political,“ Oyelowo went on. “She wasn’t just interested in Dr. King as a man. She was interested in the movement, all the people involved. … I got to play someone who got into the politics of voting rights, but I got to be a father, a friend, and someone flawed, who didn’t have all the answers.”

“Women [directors] in my experience are far more ready to talk about emotion,” he continued. “Men at times are more preoccupied with what [the film] looks like than necessarily with what it’s saying. It’s not to say one is better than the other. It’s just that the more voices we have telling stories, the more sense of who we actually are, we will get to see in movies.”

The three women on the panel that specifically asked the question—Is there a female gaze?—concurred. Christina Kallas, an award-winning filmmaker, author, and Barnard film professor, believes the female gaze features “multiple perspectives” and “multi-protagonists.” The film structure is not necessarily linear, and the focus is on contrast rather than conflict. The story is not the standard hero’s journey, with one protagonist embroiled in conflict, triumphing against incredible odds, at the expense of others. The approach, she believes, “cultivates compassion.”

Sekiya Dorsett, director of one of the festival’s documentaries, The Revival: Women and the Word, inspired by the 1970s Black Arts Movement, sees the female gaze as being about “empathy, intimacy, trying to connect to the character’s inner emotions.” To Kiara C. Jones, writer, director, producer, and owner of Cultivated Films, an important aspect of the female gaze is attention to detail, making careful decisions about what is put in or taken out that will help define the female character. If her breasts are big, for example, why are they big? And all agreed about the importance of character development. Does the woman get just one line? Does she fight back? Who has the power? Is she killed off matter-of-factly in the end?

Among the works the panelists saw as illustrating the female gaze were Daughters of the Dust, Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Queen Sugar, and, ironically, Moonlight, written and directed by men but a deeply intimate film, illustrating the adaptability of the female gaze. Jones added her own film Christmas Wedding Baby (on Netflix) to the list. She described it as being about four women at four different stages of their lives, talking about things women care about.

That focus on intimacy and talking was one of the things that made acclaimed cinematographer and up-and-coming director Reed Morano think twice about whether she wanted to direct Hulu’s much-buzzed-about adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “The reason television sometimes doesn’t appeal to me is because it’s a lot of two people talking or four people talking. For me what’s interesting is when you can have great dialogue and also have a lot of action and things happening that are visual … and sometimes nonverbal.”

Convinced that the show, which stars Elizabeth Moss and will debut in April, would provide that opportunity, she set about directing the first three episodes. At the inaugural Athena TV event, we got to see snippets of her work on this dystopian tale of a society in which the only fertile women left are enslaved by the state and forced to reproduce.

As to her directorial voice, Morano said: “We expect women to be softer and more delicate in their approach. But to tell this story the way I wanted to tell it, I had to be aggressive sometimes and still be emotional. … You have to toe the line between sensitive moments and moments when people are shocked. … The book is shocking, and I didn’t want that to get watered down. When it was ugly, it should be ugly.”

The questions at the end of the female gaze panel got even thornier: Is there a difference between the female gaze and the non-Western gaze? The American female gaze and the Latin female gaze? The consensus was that we were getting carried away with categorization. Professor Kallas rescued us. “It’s a miracle if a film is made,” she said. “It’s even more of a miracle if a woman makes a film. So let’s keep making films. The more we make, the more people will not have to ask: What is the female gaze? Because it will be out there.”

The AFF is doing a yeoman’s job of getting those movies out there. Opening the festival was a smashing feature, Little Pink House, an Athena List finalist from 2015 (several finished but unproduced feature film scripts each year are selected by industry professionals for the Athena List and promoted by the festival). The film is the true story of a small-town nurse, Susette Kelo (two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener), trying to save local homes from a government-corporate land grab, an effort that led to a devastating 2005 Supreme Court decision on eminent domain. Showcased also was City of Hope, a documentary about a center in the Congo for women survivors of sexual violence, created with the help of the inimitable Eve Ensler, another honoree this year. Closing the festival was Dolores, a passionate documentary about the life of the fearless, unheralded co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the National Farmworkers Association (United Farm Workers)—and mother of 11—Dolores Huerta. While some of the selections, like Dolores, were directed by men, all the films had female protagonists.

And lest we further lose our history, one film made by the French documentarians and sisters, Clara and Julia Kuperberg, about women who ran Hollywood presented some astounding facts: more women produced and directed films before 1920 than at any other time in U.S. history; half of all films before 1925 were written by women; and Mae West wrote all her own material and discovered Cary Grant. Thanks to an audience member bemoaning the absence African-American female pioneers in the film, we were reminded of Euzhan Palcy, director of A Dry White Season, the only woman ever to direct Marlon Brando.

While Silverstein—like festival co-founder, Barnard professor Kathryn Kolbert—was buoyed by the festival, she doesn’t hide her frustration at the slow pace of change. “We are bombarded by male narratives,” she told me, “yet so many women out there have brave projects, scripts that don’t get into the pipeline.” Silverstein took a big step this year regarding that pipeline by recruiting Amazon Studios to sponsor the Athena List; Amazon agreed to read all the winning scripts and to host the writers for a symposium in June. And the festival is lauded by people like Dr. Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, for challenging Hollywood’s prevailing stereotype of the director as male by showing what women film directors are actually doing.

The change work to be done is complex and daunting, but the vision is simple. “We need women and inclusiveness in the entertainment business,” says Silverstein. For four days in February, we saw what that vision, realized, could look like.

For the complete 2017 Athena Film Festival program, go here; for live streams of the panels, go here.

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