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Wonder Women: Inspiring Leadership at the Athena Film Festival

The From Outrage to Power Town Hall panelists at Athena Film Festival. Left to right: Zainab Salbi, Saru Jayaraman, Gillian Thomas, Jehmu Greene, and Malika Dutt. Photo courtesy of author.
It has been a wild, wonderful, enlightening Women’s History Month. As we spring forward, we take a moment to reflect on everything we’ve learned and shared during this special time. Here, Managing Editor Jaime Lubin (who earlier brought you an interview with producer Gale Anne Hurd on the documentary Mankiller) shares her thoughts on this year’s Athena Film Festival.

As a student at Barnard College, I was taught above all that women are powerful, capable innovators; several years post-graduation, it’s incredibly inspiring to see that thinking manifest in diverse, captivating projects at the Athena Film Festival. Celebrating “extraordinary stories of strong, bold women leaders from all walks of life,” Athena’s 2018 program at the end of February brought together fact and fiction with commentary from figures such as tennis legend Billie Jean King, iconic activist Gloria Steinem, Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, and former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, among others. It was the perfect entryway into this year’s Women’s History Month, and its ripple effects will continue long afterward.

If you weren’t gifted with teleportation, you had to make some tough choices. With 46 films and 17 special programs and panels scheduled into four days, it was impossible to experience everything that Athena Fest had to offer. You could go from the opening night film Chavela, the eye-opening documentary on Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, to an exploration of New York’s LGBTQ nightlife in Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Or celebrate coming-of-age narratives where young women discover the magic inside themselves (literally or metaphorically), such as I Am Not a Witch, the debut feature of Zambian-Welsh director-screenwriter Rungano Nyoni, and The Breadwinner, an animated tale directed by Nora Twomey (adapted from the bestselling novel by Deborah Ellis) about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to survive under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Even recent blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Moana were given their due for pushing the big-budget envelope. That’s all without mentioning events like the two virtual reality sessions, the illuminating conversation on the female gaze, a panel on women in STEM following the screening of Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story (famous Hollywood beauty Lamarr was a scientific visionary who invented the basis for modern wifi), and the master class by acclaimed screenwriter and producer Alexa Junge (Friends, Grace and Frankie, The West Wing et al). Here were a few highlights that particularly moved me:

Wilma Mankiller gives a speech, circa 1985. Photo courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation and Valhalla Entertainment.

Mankiller, a documentary chronicling the life of Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, served as Athena Fest’s centerpiece film this year. Directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Mankiller tells a true story of success against impossible odds, while at the same time shedding light on a disenfranchised community whose matriarchal traditions, which could contribute so much to our culture today, have been largely forgotten. We follow Mankiller’s life from a “Trail of Tears”-esque childhood relocation to early activism in the 1969 Alcatraz protests, to humanitarian achievements such as spearheading the Bell Community Revitalization Project in Bell, Oklahoma. In 1981 the small town, a mostly Cherokee population, was in dire straits; nearly 200 families had no access to running water. Not only did Mankiller garner a federal grant to establish a water line, she also convinced Bell’s residents to build and install the line themselves, fostering a spirit of self-reliance that would come to be one of her trademarks as a leader.

“In a just country,” her friend Gloria Steinem proclaims in the film, “she would have been elected president.”

Steinem joined Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and Gale Anne Hurd for a panel discussion, moderated by Washington Post journalist Ann Hornaday, after the documentary’s screening. Speaking of the inspiration she drew from her years of friendship with Mankiller, Steinem said, “I owe it to a sequence of events, as it always happens. The National Women’s Conference in Houston in the late ’70s, it was huge and representative of every state and territory, and was the kind of constitutional convention for women because it was the single, only representative meeting. There were hundreds of women from Indian country there. And that was the first time that I realized, wait a minute, they have a memory of what we’re looking for in the future.”

Hurd revealed that the documentary has enjoyed strong support from The Walking Dead fandom. As producer of the hit show, Hurd had reached out to cast and crew members to help with Mankiller’s initial fundraising. Many came onboard, participating in the first Kickstarter video and pledge rewards. “That really raised our profile,” she commented. “When we screened the film for the first time in the Atlanta area at the Carter Library, Norman Reedus and Lauren Cohan and Christian Serratos and a number of other cast members showed up for a public screening.”

It’s fascinating that what we are seeking in fiction (self-made female leadership) still seems so remarkable in real life. “I’ve been telling stories about powerful women going back to The Terminator and Aliens,” Hurd asserted. “The Abyss and Aeon Flux [too]… They’re generally stories of ordinary people who don’t realize the strength and leadership abilities they have within themselves, and that was very much Wilma.”

For her part, Red-Horse Mohl felt “a complete, almost spiritual connection” with Mankiller; both women had Caucasian mothers and Native American fathers, both worked in development roles for the Cherokee Nation, and both grew up in the same relocation program in San Francisco. “I see this film as so much more than a biography,” she noted. “I believe it is actually a wake-up call.”

That view was shared by Steinem, who explained Mankiller’s approach to leadership as giving “power to [her constituents], not power over [them]… We are all linked, not ranked.”

One area where Mankiller has also raised awareness is its own distribution channel. PBS has aired the documentary throughout Women’s History Month, and Hurd takes every opportunity possible to remind audiences to support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (she did so on the panel as well). “There is no money for PBS, National Public Radio, or the National Endowment for the Arts in our current federal budget,” she stated. “Please continue to contact your representatives and give where you can. All these resources give voices to marginalized people and the voiceless… Once they’re gone it will be nearly impossible to bring them back.”

The MANKILLER post-screening panel. Left to right: Gloria Steinem, director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, and producer Gale Anne Hurd. Photo courtesy of the author.

After viewing Mankiller, I slipped into a screening of the classic 1980 comedy 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as pink-collar workers who take revenge on their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman). Various aspects of this movie still hold up, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement. It was thrilling to watch with an all-female audience, who applauded the expected triumphant moments – Fonda’s character throwing out her slimy ex-husband – but also reacted to smaller touches, such as the brief shot of a woman fired earlier in the movie being welcomed back to the office. Viewing 9 to 5 now makes you wonder: The technology has changed, the job descriptions have changed – but, given the cultural battles we are fighting on so many fronts, can we really say we’ve come that far since then?

One keynote event at Athena Fest, From Outrage to Power: Town Hall on Sexual Harassment and Violence, thoroughly examined the emerging progress on women’s rights in the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and of course, in resistance to the Trump administration. A truly impressive panel of speakers gathered to discuss how we can best turn anger into action: Malika Dutt, founder of the human rights organization Breakthrough; Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United; award-winning media strategist Jehmu Greene, a frequent Democratic commentator on Fox News; Gillian Thomas, attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project; and moderator Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International and host of PBS’s #MeToo, Now What?

I was gripped by the conversation, particularly when Greene recalled confronting Mark Halperin after the 2016 election and the journey to embracing her own personal anger, and Jayaraman’s description of the fight against “the other NRA,” the National Restaurant Association. She spoke compellingly about the legacy of slavery in restaurant work, how the first jobs for many young women are as tipped employees in the food service industry, and how their mistreatment in those jobs, at the hands of customers and colleagues, conditions them to accept harassment and violence in other industries.

“Have we been living in a culture of complicity?” Salbi asked.

The discussion, fairly intense throughout, ramped up at times, such as when someone suggested that white women did not fight against oppressive patriarchy the same way women of color did, because patriarchy had historically guaranteed them protection. I cannot properly do justice to these amazing figures in words alone, so I’ll suggest that readers watch the recording of the Town Hall for themselves and see where their opinions fall.

Shortly afterward, I went to Athena Fest’s final screening of the weekend, Steven Spielberg’s The Post. Meryl Streep stars as Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, who in 1971 faced the decision of whether to publish The Pentagon Papers, which detail decades of the United States government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Like 9 to 5, The Post raised questions about the nature of the society in which we’re living; the culture of years ago feels very close to the bone. (Recordings of President Nixon’s voice throughout the film, condemning the press and commanding loyalty, sound eerily similar to Trump’s tweets and public statements.) Yet the narrative gives us hope. After threats and struggle, marginalization and oppression, the truth comes out and the good guys – especially the good women – manage to come out on top.

Such is the power of Athena, the mythical wise warrior, and the festival that bears her name. We are dealing with a fractious, turbulent culture which seems to present more painful challenges in each passing day, but we have the ability inside ourselves to survive it. By listening to and sharing each other’s stories, we can find common ground. Even if the fight is protracted and brutal, we can be our own changemakers, getting the important messages through: Together, we can be queens that slay.

For more information on Wilma Mankiller’s life and the documentary, visit mankillerdoc.com. Follow on Facebook and Twitter

To see photos and videos from Athena Film Festival, or to learn more about the selected films, visit athenafilmfestival.com. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Jaime Lubin is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime is working on a solo show about Tarot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram  (both @jaimelubin).

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