Saturday, February 12, 2011

Barnard College: Athena Film Festival (116th Street and Broadway)

This is the inaugural year of the Athena Film Festival (, a four day festival featuring 25 films that highlight women's stories of leadership, struggles and triumphs from around the world.  Tickets for individual films run $10 (cheaper than a typical movie) and a festival pass is a bargain at $50 (

While women purchase 55% of all movie tickets, it seems that representation of true women's stories (films with heroines not fixating on men) are sorely lacking.  The brochure for the festival (see photo at right) published some sad although not surprising statistics: (a) in the 83 years of Oscars, only four women have been nominated for Best Director (only 1 has won), (b) as of 2007, women had less than 30% of the speaking roles, and (c) in 2009, in the top 250 top grossing domestic films, women made up only 7% of directors, 8% of writers, and 17% of executive producers.  From these statistics, it is no wonder that women's stories are not often told.

Last night I saw a very moving and inspirational story, Desert Flower, about Waris Dirie, a London-based supermodel, who on the eve of her child marriage fled from her nomadic Somalian family and crossed a desert in search of her grandmother in the capital city of Modadishu.  That story would have been enough, but the story goes on to describe how she becomes the maid of the Somali ambassador in London, becomes homeless when a coup occurs in Somalia and all the embassy staff is ordered home, and then is discovered by a famous photographer while working as a cleaner at a McDonalds.  With that summary, many might be tempted to seek out this film when it is released in March in the U.S. by National Geographic Entertainment, however, there is more.  Waris Dirie was the first person to speak publicly against female genital mutilation, which is a common practice in many African countries (thought to keep women pure until they are married, women without this procedure are considered unclean, not respectable and only fit for prostitution).  Waris Dirie's work in this area led Kofi Annan (then Secretary General of the U.N.) to name her as the United Nations Special Ambassador for Women's Rights in Africa in 1997.  Now this description may have turned some of you away from this film with doubts that perhaps this is a poliltical movie that is depressing or really heavy, but PLEASE don't dismiss this film.  It is warm, filled with humor, heart, and bravery.

After the film, the star of the movie, Liya Kebede, an Ethopian-born supermodel turned actress, stayed around for an interview with Elle film critic, Karen Durbin (see photo above) and also answered questions from the audience.  We had the opportunity to learn about the actress and her work with the U.N., Waris Dirie's reaction to the film, and other aspects of Waris Dirie's life and family that were not fully reflected in the film.

Unfortunately due to prior commitments I am not able to attend more of the festival events, but I will certainly be on the look out for this again next year.  The other films like Miss Representation, Pink Saris, and Real Women Have Curves (which I saw several years ago and thought was fabulous) and the panel discussions like the one about how so few films pass the Bechdel Test (a film that (i) has at least 2 main character women (ii) who talk to each other (iii) about something other than men) seem like they would have been interesting and entertaining.

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