The 2020 Athena Film Festival (AFF) will open on Thursday, February 27, with the New York premiere of “I Am Woman.” The film, directed by Unjoo Moon and written by Emma Jensen, stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey as singer-songwriter Helen Reddy, whose song “I Am Woman” became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s.
The festival will conclude on Sunday, March 1, with “Rocks,” co-written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette” and AFF ‘16 Ensemble Award winner). Created in collaboration with the teens portrayed in the film, “Rocks,” starring newcomer Bukky Bakray, is an intimate, honest portrait of a British teenage girl struggling to take care of herself and her younger brother after being abandoned by their mother.
The 10th annual festival, a joint program of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies and the initiative Women and Hollywood, will take place February 27 to March 1, 2020, at Barnard College in New York City.
AFF announced its Narrative, International, and Documentary Centerpieces, including the New York premiere of the Narrative Centerpiece, “Lost Girls,” directed by Academy Award-nominated director Liz Garbus. The film, both a true crime story and a strong character piece, follows Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) as she relentlessly drives law enforcement agents to search for her missing daughter, shedding light on a wave of unsolved murders of young female sex workers on the South Shore barrier islands of Long Island in the process. The International Centerpiece is the New York premiere of “The Perfect Candidate,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and written by al-Mansour and Brad Niemann. Al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to direct a feature, and the film was Saudi Arabia’s first Oscar submission after a long-standing religious ban on cinema in the kingdom was lifted in 2017. It centers around a determined young Saudi doctor (Mila Al Zahrani), whose surprise run for office in the local city elections sweeps up her family and community as they struggle to accept their town’s first female candidate. The Documentary Centerpiece, “For Sama,” directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, is the Emmy award-winning filmmakers’ first feature documentary. The Academy Award-nominated film is a love letter from a young mother to her daughter, portraying a personal and epic journey into the female experience of war.
“We are so proud to share our 10th anniversary lineup of films — diverse stories of women leading in different places, across time and around the world. These films will entertain, educate, and inspire our audiences to amplify the extraordinary and sometimes hidden work of women leaders,” said Melissa Silverstein, co-founder and artistic director of AFF and founder of Women and Hollywood. “We are more committed than ever to inclusion and doing our part to redress the gender and racial imbalance that is still pervasive in the global film industry.”
The festival will feature a curated program of narrative, documentary and short films. Narrative features include “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (AFF ‘14 honoree); as well as the New York premieres of “Kuessipan,” directed by Myriam Verreault; “Military Wives,” directed by Peter Cattaneo; “Sea Fever,” directed by Neasa Hardiman; “Stars by the Pound,” directed by Marie-Sophie Chambon; and “The Long Shadow,” directed by Daniel Lafrentz. Documentaries will include the world premiere of “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman; New York premieres of “Butterfly,” directed by Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman; “Objector” directed by Molly Stuart; and “Power Meri” directed by Joanna Lester, as well as screenings of “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” directed by Yu Gu; and “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, featuring the late Toni Morrison. Shorts include the world premiere of “Welcome Back,” directed by Tiffany Kontoyiannis; and New York premieres of “A Normal Girl,” directed by Aubree Bernier-Clarke; “Une Soeur,” directed by Delphine Girard; “Couper Was Here,” directed by Nicole Foley; and “Mothers Of” directed by Ross Lai.
The 2020 festival co-chairs include J.J. Abrams P’22, Amma Asante, Julie Parker Benello ‘92, Debra Martin Chase, Geralyn Dreyfous, Paul Feig, Sherry Lansing, Kasi Lemmons, Jon Levin P’13, Katie McGrath P’22, Vernā Myers ’82, Pat Mitchell, Sheila Nevins ’60, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Regina K. Scully, and Rachel Weisz.
A Regular Woman
Director: Sherry Hormann Writer: Florian Öller
“A Regular Woman” tells the story of 23-year-old Hatun Ayhrun Sürücü, a Turkish-Kurdish woman living in Germany who in February 2005 was shot dead at a Berlin bus stop in an “honor killing” by her youngest brother. Ayhrun narrates her own story as she leaves her abusive marriage and struggles for a free, self-determined life in the face of her family’s opposition.
Antigone – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Sophie Deraspe
Inspired by the Greek tragedy of the same title, multi-award-winning filmmaker Sophie Deraspe centers her adaptation around a brilliant teenage girl who chooses to live by her own standards of justice, love and loyalty rather than society’s.
Carmen & Lola – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Arantxa Echevarría
The love story of two Roma women: bride-to-be Carmen and street artist Lola find themselves in a secret love affair, having to hide it from their families and their community.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writers: Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard
Directed and co-written by 2014 Athena Award-winner, Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
I Am Woman – OPENING NIGHT FILM & NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Unjoo Moon Writer: Emma Jensen
For the first time on screen, “I Am Woman” tells the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s. The film is a story of fearless ambition and passion, of a woman who smashed through the patriarchal norms of her time to become an international singing superstar.
Kuessipan – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Myriam Verreault
Writers: Naomi Fontaine and Myriam Verreault
Mikuan and Shaniss grew up as best friends in their Innu community. While Mikuan has a loving family, Shaniss is picking up the pieces of her shattered childhood. As children, they promised to stick together no matter what, but at 17 their friendship is shaken when Mikuan falls for a white boy, and starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.
Lost Girls – NARRATIVE CENTERPIECE & NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Liz Garbus Writer: Michael Werwie
When 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert mysteriously disappears one night, her mother Mari embarks on a dark journey that finds her face to face with hard truths about her daughter, herself, and police bias. Determined to find her daughter at all costs, Mari Gilbert retraces Shannan’s last known steps and her discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers, young lives Mari will not let the world forget.
Military Wives – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Writers: Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard
With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a band of women form a choir on the military base and quickly discover that they can rely on each other for more than beautiful harmonies. The women, who must confront the challenges of having a partner at war and acknowledge how much of their identity is wrapped up in their marriage, find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.
Sea Fever – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Neasa Hardiman
Siobhán is a marine biology student who prefers spending her days alone in a lab. She has to endure a week on a ragged fishing trawler, where she’s miserably at odds with the close-knit crew. But out in the deep Atlantic, an unfathomable life-form ensnares the boat. When members of the crew succumb to a strange infection, Siobhán must overcome her alienation and anxiety to win the crew’s trust before everyone is lost.
Directors and writers: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann
In 1926, the world’s most famous evangelist, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, fakes her own death in order to run away to Mexico with her married lover. Once on the road, and equipped with new identities, they find themselves chased by the very person Aimee so desperately tried to kill. They hire Rey, a former Mexican Soldadera turned smuggler, to help them cross the border, as detectives, the world, and Aimee herself all pose the question, “Who is Sister Aimee Semple McPherson?”
Stars by the Pound – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Marie-Sophie Chambon
Writers: Marie-Sophie Chambon and Anaïs Carpita
In this heartwarming story of friendship, acceptance, and the importance of loving yourself, Lois, 16, dreams of becoming an astronaut. Although gifted in physics, she has a big problem: she weighs over 200 pounds. When all seems lost, Lois meets three other teens who, like her, are shattered by life’s tough breaks yet ready for anything in order to leave with her for outer space.
The Long Shadow – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Daniel Lafrentz
Writers: Daniel Lafrentz and Stephen Peltier
A sheriff’s deputy takes on her Louisiana town’s old-money establishment when the woman she loves – an attorney fighting a corporate land grab that will displace the poor – is found murdered.
The Perfect Candidate – INTERNATIONAL CENTERPIECE & NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Writers: Haifaa al-Mansour and Brad Niemann
Maryam is an ambitious young doctor working in a small town clinic in Saudi Arabia. After she is prevented from traveling to Dubai in search of a better job, a bureaucratic mixup leads her to stumble on the application for her local city elections and she decides to run. She enlists her two younger sisters and while they face the restriction of women’s traditional roles in the Kingdom at every turn, Maryam’s audacious candidacy starts to build momentum and challenges her conservative community.
Rocks – CLOSING NIGHT FILM
Director: Sarah Gavron
Writers: Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson
In east London, teenager Shola is known as “Rocks” after protecting her childhood friend from bullies. Rocks has big dreams, but one day she returns home from school to discover her life is radically altered: her troubled, single mother has disappeared, leaving her responsible for her younger brother. In 2016, Sarah Gavron and her team received the Athena Film Festival Ensemble Award for the film “Suffragette”.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem
Director: Yu Gu Writer: Elizabeth Ai
Football and feminism collide in this documentary that follows former NFL cheerleaders who are battling the league to end wage theft and illegal employment practices that have persisted for 50 years.
Butterfly – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Directors: Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman
Irma “The Butterfly” Testa, a talented 18-year-old, is the first female Italian boxer to be selected for the Olympic Games. “Butterfly” is an intimate portrait of this determined athlete in the run-up to the games and thereafter, when she has more time to be with her best friend and family.
For Sama – DOCUMENTARY CENTERPIECE
Directors: Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts
“For Sama” follows the incredible story of Waad al-Kateab, a journalist/filmmaker who filmed her life for over five years during the conflict in Aleppo, Syria. Waad documented her personal journey as she married a doctor who operated the only functioning hospital in their besieged area, gave birth to a daughter (Sama), and continued filming the cataclysmic events unfolding around her. At its core, this documentary serves as a love letter from a mother to her daughter, as Waad captures deeply moving scenes of love, laughter, loss, sacrifice and survival.
Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing – WORLD PREMIERE
Director: Paula Weiman-Kelman
Rachel Cowan was a civil rights activist, a community organizer, the first female Jew by choice ordained as a Rabbi, a beloved and influential mindfulness teacher, a grandmother, and a wise elder. And then she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Living each day fully, she turned dying into an opportunity to experience gratitude.
Objector – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Molly Stuart
Like all Israeli youth, Atalya is obligated to become a soldier. Unlike most, she questions the practices of her country’s military and becomes determined to challenge this rite of passage. Despite her family’s political disagreements and personal concerns, she refuses military duty and is imprisoned for her dissent.
Director and writer: Jo Ardinger
In this exploration of the rise of state laws that protect “fetal rights” at the expense of the rights of pregnant women, “Personhood” tells the story of Tamara Loertscher, a rural Wisconsin mother who was jailed after telling her doctor about her occasional drug use and her fight to overturn Wisconsin’s Unborn Child Protection Act.
Power Meri – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Joanna Lester
“Power Meri” follows the PNG Orchids, Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s rugby team, on their journey to the 2017 World Cup in Australia. Not only must these trailblazers win on the field, they also need to beat intense sexism, a lack of funding, and national prejudice to reach their biggest stage yet.
Queering the Script
Director and writer: Gabrielle Zilkha
Giving queer fandom a voice in the conversation about LGBTQ+ representation, from Showtime’s “The L Word” to FX’s “Pose, “Queering the Script” examines the rising power of the fans and audience shaping representation on TV, the relationship between fandom and activism, and what lies ahead for visibility and inclusiveness.
Director: Andrea Cordoba
Amanda Morales, a Guatemalan mother of three U.S.-born children, is the first immigrant to claim sanctuary in New York since President Trump took office, publicly resisting her deportation by taking refuge in a church. “Sanctuary” gains rare and intimate access to Amanda and her family as they fight to remain together and adapt to their daily life of resistance.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
An artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel
Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to book tours with Muhammad Ali, the front lines with Angela Davis, and her own writing room, “Toni Morrison” explores race, America, history and the human condition.
We Are the Radical Monarchs
Director: Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Set in Oakland, California, this film introduces the Radical Monarchs, an alternative to the Scouts for girls of color, and its founders, two fierce queer women of color who have inspired a new generation of social justice activists. The film follows the first troop and its co-founders as they respond to a viral explosion of interest in the troop’s mission while the girls complete programs on the environment, disability justice, and Black Lives Matter.
Abortion Helpline: This Is Lisa
Directors: Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater
At the Philadelphia abortion helpline, counselors answer nonstop calls from women and teens who cannot afford an abortion, demonstrating how economic stigma and cruel laws determine who has access to reproductive health care in America.
A Line Birds Cannot See
Director: Amy Bench
Separated from her mother by smugglers at the U.S.-Mexico border, a determined 12-year-old sets out across the desert to find her mother and a place where they both can be safe.
A Normal Girl – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Aubree Bernier-Clarke
Through the moving story of activist Pidgeon Pagonis, ”A Normal Girl” brings the widely unknown struggles of intersex people to light.
Ballet After Dark
Director and writer: B. Monét
By creating an organization that uses dance therapy to aid survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a young woman heals from her own vicious attack.
Bodies Like Oceans
Director: Kat Cory
A dreamy portrait of photographer Shoog McDaniel, a self-described queer, fat, Southern freak, whose work with fat bodies in nature finds beauty in new places.
Couper Was Here – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Nicole Foley
Couper Oroña, a former firefighter injured on the job, lives with disabilities on the streets of San Francisco and uses her paramedic skills to provide medical care to others living in tents or street encampments.
Director: Lizzy Hogenson
In this universal portrait of strength, love, and courage, 30-year-old Danielle Hernandez wears a brave face as she tells her mother about her breast cancer prognosis in a simple phone call.
Deborah Harry Does Not Like Interviews
Director: Meghan Fredrich
Blondie’s Debbie Harry endures years of superficial, tedious and demeaning questions from journalists until she devises a brilliant way to turn interviews on their head.
Director and writer: Anette Sidor
On a night out with friends, Alice steals a strap-on and challenges her boyfriend’s views about girls. Together they discover something new about themselves.
Director: Elaine Del Valle
A preteen Latina looks forward to her maturing body but must soon cope with the sexual misconduct of someone she trusts.
Mothers Of – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Ross Lai
The moving story of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who served 10 years in jail after suffering a stillbirth in her ninth month of pregnancy, brings to light inhumane abortion laws in El Salvador.
My Daughter Yoshiko
Director and writer: Brian Blum
Based on true events, a Japanese-American mother struggles to accept and cope with her daughter’s autism.
Director and writer: Valerie Schenkman
Despite being blind, isolated and insecure, a Brooklyn teen is determined to live life on her own terms and right some wrongs with her best friend and younger sister.
Director and writer: Alicia Harris
A young girl wears her Afro to school and must deal with the unexpected consequences.
The Shepherdess – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director: Katie Falkenberg
A Navajo shepherdess perseveres despite extreme drought in this poetic short film about a rapidly vanishing way of life.
Une Soeur (A Sister) – NEW YORK PREMIERE
Director and writer: Delphine Girard
A night. A car. A woman in trouble. To avoid danger, Alie must make the most important phone call of her life.
War Mothers: Unbreakable
Directors: Stefan Bugryn
As her country goes to war, 18-year-old Yana puts aside her dreams of becoming a doctor and creates a national movement, but she must find her deepest strength when she is in a life-threatening car accident.
Welcome Back – WORLD PREMIERE
Director and writer: Tiffany Kontoyiannis
After being deported to Venezuela, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Rosa and her daughter must find a way to escape to Colombia.