In it’s sixth year, the Athena Film Festival aims to be a celebration – and advocate – of women in leadership roles, fictional and otherwise. Four days of film screenings, panels, discussions and networking opportunities start February 18th and continue through the 21st at Barnard College in New York City. POV‘s Community Engagement and Education intern Emma Fiske-Dobell chatted with the founders of the festival, Melissa Silverstein, Artistic Director of Women and Hollywood, and Kathryn Kolbert, Director of the Athena Center at Barnard College.

POV: What inspired you to found the film festival?

Melissa: We were at an event and there were a lot of women directors in the room. They were talking about how difficult it was to make films and to get their films made, especially with female protagonists. Kitty had just gone on to Barnard to found the Athena Center, and I had been working on Women in Hollywood for about a year then, and we were looking for a way to partner together. The focus was always women in leadership – because we don’t have enough examples of women leaders in all of our culture – and how films can help influence people and make them think about the world a little bit differently.

POV: Now that the film festival is in its sixth year, what differentiates this year’s programming from that of past years?

Melissa: That’s a good question. I always am looking for more features that are directed by women. This is an area that I want people to understand – there’s a huge lack of features with women leaders in those roles that are directed by women. I can program an entire film festival that’s documentaries and shorts that are directed by women, but I cannot do that if I wanted to show features. There are amazing movies this year, and we’re so happy to have men involved in the festival, because you can’t change the world, and you can’t change the view of leadership, unless you have men involved in that conversation.

This year in our protagonists, we have a lot of women of color, which we always have. We are distinguishing the great Alicia Vikander. Alicia Vikander’s known this year for her fantastic role in The Danish Girl and Ex-Machina. But why didn’t people pay attention to Testament of Youth, where she is fantastic? It’s another opportunity to see these actresses who are getting acclaim for other roles. Carey Mulligan this year had Suffragette, as well as Far From the Madding Crowd. We’re showing both of those. This is the year of Carey Mulligan, I feel. We’re almost an antithesis to how the film business operates, because you can come to the Athena Film Festival for your whole weekend and never see a male protagonist.

POV: Kathryn, are there are any particular films that you’re most excited about this year?

Kathryn: I’m actually extremely excited about the fact that here in year six, the festival has really matured significantly. We are showing a range of films that’s broader than ever before, the number of submissions is really up, and I think that we have done a great job in picking films that show the breadth of women in leadership. I’m, of course, very excited about Trapped, because my background is I spent most of my career defending reproductive rights, so having a film that’s dedicated to these issues is very, very key to me. And of course, the Academy Award nominees, Mustang and Inside Out.

POV: The opening night film is Trapped, and the documentary Codegirl is closing the festival. Why did you choose those two documentaries to bookend the year’s program?

Melissa: At the Athena Film Festival, we want to be really relevant and in the conversation with culture. There is a Supreme Court case coming up related to abortion, which will be heard on March 2nd. So Trapped is one of these important movies about something that’s going on for women and women’s leadership in our culture, and it was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss. [Director] Dawn Porter is a wonderful storyteller, and she really relays these issues to the general public to understand women’s rights that are under threat.

Codegirl is important because we are at a point where we still have a lack of women in these types of roles in the science and technology field. Barnard is a place where there are a lot of girls who are working on this issue. Technology is so important in our world, in our lives, and there are not enough women in leadership positions.

Kathryn: I would just add that the entire festival grows from the Athena Center here at Barnard, and we are particularly concerned not only with advancing women to leadership, but with speaking to young women about the issues that affect their lives. Clearly, reproductive rights and the lack of women in technology are issues that our girls face every single day. The interesting part is that the demand from the audience for both of those films has been very strong, and so we think it not only speaks to the young women at Barnard, but to our audiences as well.

POV: This is the first year that you are giving the “Athena Leading Man” Award. What motivated you to create that award and to make Paul Feig the first honoree?

Kathryn: One of the unique parts about the Athena Film Festival is that, from day one, we have always shown films made by both men and women. Our goal is to tell stories about courageous, inspiring women who are making a difference in the world. We want women to make those films, but we also want men to make those films. We think Paul Feig has done a great, great job at breaking down the stereotypes of what is funny and propelling the careers of women comedians in a way that has really made a major impact, not only at the box office, but in our culture. Spy and Bridesmaids and The Heat, the upcoming Ghostbusters with women, are all films that have captured the fancy of Americans, and frankly, solidified the view that women are equally as funny as men.

POV: What changes have you seen in terms of women’s representation in the film industry since the festival started?

Melissa: We haven’t seen that much change behind the scenes for women. I think one of the things we have noticed over time is that we are seeing more women onscreen. Those numbers are still incredibly low, compared to men, but even this past year, as you probably have noticed, the conversation has become incredibly robust about the need for more diversity and gender diversity behind the scenes and onscreen. I think with certain successes of women protagonists at the box office, like The Hunger Games and all of Paul Feig’s movies and Star Wars with a female protagonist, the powers that be are getting a message that women leads can be a success.

We are really stalled and making incremental progress with women behind the scenes, in a variety of areas: storytelling, writing, producers. Women producers have been at 25% for fifteen years. Women directors fluctuate between 2%, 5%, and 7%. Women composers are 1%. These numbers are not just about women directors, they’re about women in all positions behind the scenes, and we need to keep pushing for more diversity.

POV: What do you think the reason is for those disparities? What do you think are the greatest obstacles facing women in film right now?

Melissa: Sometimes it’s a lack of will. People hire people who they know, who they’re comfortable with. What the Athena Film Festival tries to do through The Athena List – which is a group of scripts that are ready to be made into movies – is say, there’s so much more out there, just think outside your box, your comfort zone, your list of friends. The stories are out there, you just need to try harder and look to the amazing stories that are available to you.

Kathryn: I would just add, though, that Hollywood is perhaps a little bit worse, but not all that different from a number of other industries in which women are stalled from advancing to leadership. Frankly, the bigger the budgets of organizations or companies, the less likely women are to ascend to the CEO level. I think that Hollywood is reflective of the broader view, or the broader disturbing trend, that women are still unable to shatter the glass ceiling and still unable to advance to leadership despite huge numbers of women in the pipeline. For many, many years, there was this myth that if you just put more women in the pipeline, we’re going to get more women to leadership, and that hasn’t been the case.

Melissa: We have a conversation at the festival on gender and shorts movies, and that is based on research that has been done by Stacy Smith at the [University of Southern California] Annenberg Center. Really, what that talks to is how the pipeline, even when you’re making shorts, it’s full of leaks. When women are making their shorts and when men make their shorts, and that’s usually your calling card into film school or to your next gig, women don’t get the same opportunities that men get after that. The objective of that panel is to discuss how women fall out of that pipeline and how to fix some of these leaky spots so that the pipeline continues to have women go up and be successful at the top of the industry.

* * *


Live in the NYC area and interested in attending the festival? Our friends at the Athena Film Festival are offering a free ticket to POV readers to a selection of the incredible films taking place at this year’s festival. They are also offering 15% off additional tickets to workshops, master classes, and films. Learn more about the festival and claim your free ticket by visiting

Emma Fiske-Dobell is an intern in POV’s Community Engagement and Education department. She is a recent graduate of McGill University.

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

Published by

POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.