The Athena Film Festival: 10 Movies That Can Change The World

Talented, persistent individuals from around the world are telling their stories in films that span an array of interests and issues -- and you can see the results at the Athena Film Festival.
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This week, ten movies were nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Pictures. Many media critics have pointed out that the nominated movies notably harkened back to an older Hollywood. We aren't nostalgic for a bygone era ... we are, Hollywood movie-wise, stuck in a bygone era: the representation of men and women, both in front of and behind the camera, is actually exactly the same as it was in 1946.

Once again, the movies nominated for Best Picture, with the exception of "The Help," were all boy's and men's stories. They featured little boys, teenage boys, warriors, dads, sportsmen and writers with variously existential, redemptive and exuberant messages about war, boyhood and fatherhood. I enjoyed a lot of these films, I just wished they were more diverse and included balanced representations of girls and women. There is no denying that Hollywood is a man's world. Literally. Despite the fact that women make up half the world and more than half of domestic movie ticket buyers, men make up 96.4 percent of directors, 86.5 percent of writers and 78.4 percent of producers in the industry.

Women cannot get their stories funded, produced, sold, distributed and marketed in this environment. So it's hard for people who are interested in those stories to see them. And yet, all over the world talented, persistent women and men are telling their stories, writing, directing, producing and acting in films that span a diverse array of topics, interests and issues. So, where are they and how can you see their movies?

The Athena Festival. This is where to go if you are interested in what the world actually looks like today and will look like in the future. They are movies that change the world in two ways: one, they are literally about women who are changing their communities and two, they provided a gender-balanced story-telling counterpoint to the Hollywood man-boy model.

The Festival, which runs from Thursday, February 9 through Sunday, February 12 in New York City, celebrates the stories of women who have made a difference across the globe. "We hope the festival will encourage more filmmakers to tell these remarkable stories," says Melissa Silverstein, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival and head of Women and Hollywood, one of the most respected websites focused on women's issues and popular culture.

Here are ten highlights from the more than 35 offerings at the Festival. And, yes, tickets are available. (At $65.00 for an all-access pass. you can't go wrong!)*

1. "Oranges and Sunshine"
Director: Jim Loach. Cast: Emily Watson, David Wenham and Hugo Weaving

Emily Watson compellingly portrays Margaret Humphrey, an English woman who, almost entirely independently, brought authorities to account for the mass deportation of 130,000 children from British orphanages and group homes to Australia, where they were subject to sexual and physical abuse. As a result of her work, many of these children were reunited with their families and the authorities responsible were held accountable.

2. "Circumstance"
Director: Maryam Keshavarz Cast: Sarah Kazemy, Nikohl Boosheri and Reza Sixo Safai

"Circumstance" is visually ravishing story of illicit love between two Iranian teenage girls. The movie, which was banned by the Iranian government, illuminates the effects of a fundamentalist regime's policies on the lives of these 16-year old lovers who navigate two radically different worlds: the rigid, conservative, school girl culture of their days and a secret, rebellious nighttime life of hidden clubs and rebellious love.

3. "The Lady"
Director: Luc Besson Cast: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis and Jonathan Ragget

"The Lady" of this film is the Nobel Peace Prize winning, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Based on the events of her life, the movie spans decades of her protests, imprisonment and familial sacrifice in the hame of human rights for her country. The intimate story of Aung San Suu Kyi, her husband Michael Aris and their family is intertwined with her lifelong public struggle for political freedom.

4. "The Naked Option"
Director: Candace Schermerhorn

The Naked Option is literally just that in this story of how women in Nigeria's Niger Delta become a potent political force by threatening to strip themselves naked in public. When the efforts of the men in the community fail to make change, the women effectively wield the threat of violating this cultural taboo as a serious weapon in their fight against multi-national oil companies operating with impunity in their communities.

5. "Black Butterflies"
Director: Paula van der Oest Cast: Carice van Houten, Rutger Hauer, Liam Cunningham

"Black Butterflies" is the true, rare story of a woman poet, South African Ingrid Jonker, whose poem, "The Dead Child of Nyanga," was read by Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his first speech to the South African Parliament. Known as that country's Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Jonker's life was rooted in 1960s Cape Town apartheid, where free expression was constrained, regardless of race - especially for Jonker whose father is a government censor.

6. "The Legend of Pancho Barnes"
Director: Amanda Pope

Who was Pancho Barnes? Since there is often room made for just one woman at the proverbial table it is easy to understand why not very many people have heard of this aviation pioneer. Barnes, an outrageous and gifted pilot, one of the earliest fliers of the 20th century, the first female stunt pilot in Hollywood and the founder of the "Happy Bottom Riding Club" - the center of social life for Edwards Air Force Base during the hey-dey of the early jet age.

7. "The Rescuers"
Producer/Director: Michael King

This tale of the friendship between Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert and Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire chronicles their travels over three continents to talk to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust and descendants of courageous individuals who saved tens of thousands of Jews. Their work together reveals heretofore unknown stories of personal sacrifice and heroism, as well as illuminating ways of addressing ongoing genocide in contemporary Africa.

8. "Tomboy"
Director: Celine Sciamma Cast: Zoe Heran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson Feature: 2011 [USA], French, 84 minutes

Mikaël, the quirky, endearing protagonist of this film is actually Laure, a young girl who quietly assumes the role of a boy when she moves into a new neighborhood in Paris suburb. This extraordinary story of the complex interplay between identity, gender and sexuality is work of Celine Sciamma who made her debut with the equally compelling "Water Lilies."

9. "Gloria: In Her Own Words"
Director/Producer: Peter Kunhardt

Like many feminist revolutionaries before her Gloria Steinem's words and work have not gotten the recognition they deserve. "Gloria: In Her Own Words," which was part of HBO's 2011 Summer Documentary series, addresses this mainstream cultural marginalization. Featuring a mix of interviews, historical press clippings and film footage, photographs and more, the film documents Gloria Steinem's role in the contemporary women's liberation movement.

10. "The Whistleblower"
Director: Larysa Kondracki Cast: Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci and Vanessa Redgrave

Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci and Vanessa Redgrave star in this dramatic, intimate and intense portrayal of human trafficking. The plot follows a former American police officer who joins a UN peacekeeping operation dedicated to Gender Affairs in post-war Bosnia. Hoping to fight the widespread incidence of violence against women, she finds instead widespread corruption within the community of peace keepers, private contractors and UN officials whose participation in a sordid, underground prostitution ring undermines enslaves the very women they are meant to be protecting.

The festival includes features feature films, documentaries, and shorts. A series of workshops and panels is also scheduled. In addition to the Athena Film Festival Awards, this year the festival will award The Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rachael Horovitz ("Moneyball," "Grey Gardens") is being recognized for her exceptional talents as a motion picture producer; Julie Taymor ("SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark," "Across the Universe," "Frida") for her vision and courage as an exemplary director; Dee Rees and Nekisa Cooper ("Pariah") for their impact as an emerging writer/director and producer; "The Fempire": Diablo Cody ("Young Adult," "Juno"), Dana Fox ("What Happens in Vegas," "Couples Retreat"), Liz Meriwether ("No Strings Attached," "New Girl"), and Lorene Scafaria ("Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," "Seeking a Friend at the End of the World") for their creativity and panache as screenwriters; and Theresa Rebeck ("Seminar," "Omnium Gatherum," "Smash") for her leadership as a playwright and author of films, books and television.

*Note: All film summaries are from the Athena Film Festival website.

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