I love a good film festival — especially one that focuses a spotlight on and elevates voices and works of those underrepresented in the industry! The Athena Film Festival — a joint project of Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership and Women and Hollywood — does just that.
This year’s festival was virtual and ran for the entire month of March. The 2021 festival was the festival’s largest program in history including, 79 films, 19 pre-recorded panels, and 10 Live Q&A events. The program lineup included some great international features (Quo Vadis, Aida?), rousing documentaries (How It Feels to Be Free) and lots of other great works. Although the festival ran for a full month, I still wasn’t able to catch everything — between work commitments, other festivals, and writing deadlines (and it being my birthday month), there was a lot going on. Luckily, some of the films I had already caught at other festivals.
So let’s take a look at some highlights (for me, at least). I loved that their “Opening Night” selection was Tracey Deer‘s Beans. I had the privilege of screening Beans at TIFF last year and even interviewing Deer herself (she was a delight to talk to and I’m so happy that her work is getting out there). You can check out my review of Beans here and my interview with the director here. I appreciate the fact that the industry (or festivals at least) is doing more to shine a spotlight on indigenous voices and stories because they are definitely underserved (the fest also screened End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock)! Beans is a touching, frustrating and heartfelt coming-of-age story that is a definite must-watch.
Some of the other films that screened during the festival included Quo Vadis, Aida?, which is a gut-punch AND nominated for an Oscar this year. This is one of those films that once you watch it, it stays with you. Based on true events, this film is a first-hand look at a mother’s (who’s also a UN translator) frantic fight to save her family in the midst of a genocide. If you get a chance to watch this one, please don’t hesitate, but make sure you have a palate cleanser for afterward.
Another great film that screened at the festival was the documentary Underplayed. This doc gives voice to female DJs who are often overlooked and not given the same shine and credibility as their male counterparts. Unless you are into EDM or house music (or other tangential genres), you’d probably be hard-pressed to name more than one big-time DJ — and that’s a damn shame! We need to do better and give these hardworking, creative, and dope women their props — ladies like Alison Wonderland and TokiMonsta. This doc does a great job of informing (the dance music industry is fraught with gender, ethnic, sexuality equality, and beauty standard issues) and entertaining while letting these ladies’ true talent and genius shine. Hopefully, Underplayed will help change the culture and bring out more equality in the industry. Another one well worth the time.
Belly of the Beast was another infuriating documentary that I screened at the festival. I had the opportunity to screen this prior to the fest, but I had been avoiding it — as a black woman, sometimes I get overwhelmed by the trauma and injustice on display in many of the films and documentaries that have been released (especially in the last couple of years) — sometimes you just need a break, I don’t always want to be mad and/or sad. But I finally sucked it up and watched — and just as I expected, this doc was maddening. We already know that the criminal justice system (and prison system in particular) is fraught with inequities, systemic racism, and depravity and just needs to be overhauled, if not done away with entirely…but that’s a conversation for another day. Belly of the Beast tells the story of an unlikely duo who discovers a pattern of illegal sterilization in women’s prisons as they wage a near-impossible battle against the Department of Corrections.
Test Pattern was another film that screened at the festival and I’ve previously reviewed it here on the site. I highly recommend watching this one — writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford is definitely a voice to keep on your radar. Another documentary that I saw (and was utterly blown away by) was How It Feels to Be Free. This film highlights some of the most iconic Black female figures in entertainment and definitely instilled a lot of pride while watching it. My full review on this one will be here on the site shortly.
Overall, Athena Fest was an amazing experience — it was inspiring, insightful, educational, and still entertaining. Their programming was diverse and high-quality. And they also had some amazing panels (I didn’t really talk about them here, I was only about to catch a few during the actual festival) on subjects ranging from “Decolonizing Documentaries” to “Black Feminist Future.” All of their panels and talks are available on YouTube and I highly recommend checking them out, I know I will be! Although in its 11th year, this was my first time “attending” and can’t recommend it more — it is a testament to what we, women, are capable of, how talented we are, and how our voices need and deserve to be heard! Now that it’s over, I already looking forward to next year’s festival!