Athena Film Festival: A Celebration of Women and Leadership
February 10-13, 2011 (notes here reflect February 12 events)
Barnard College

I have been reading about the developing program for this inaugural outing of the Athena Film Festival since Fall 2010 on web sites and blogs such as “Women in Hollywood”  As it turns out, I am able to attend only selected events on Saturday, February 12th.  Despite my schedule limitations, each event I am able to attend gives me something special, something unexpected, something restorative, something energizing.  And all on the campus of a beautiful Seven Sisters school, among many beautiful woman of all ages (and yes some men) — well.  Lovely.

Leslie Bennetts (left) interviews Greta Gerwig. Image: Martha Wade Steketee

I check in at the Barnard campus in plenty of time to settle into the gorgeous new Diana Center for my first event — a conversation between Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts and the lovely actress and filmmaker Greta Gerwig, Barnard ’06, who receives a festival prize.  Gerwig is known for independent films and more mainstream features, including the soon-to-be-released remake of Arthur with Helen Mirren (gasp) — Gerwig plays the Liza role.  I learn about this young talent for the first time in this exquisitely conducted 90-minute interview by veteran interviewer Bennetts.  I’ll indulge in simply quoting or paraphrasing some of the extensive charming and brilliant words of the talented pair.

On the label “mumblecore”. When asked whether the group working on films that now carry this label named themselves or consciously are creating a new aesthetic, Gerwig has a few responses.  “By the time it has a name it’s not happening anymore.”  She ascribes the credit for the name to a New York Times reporter who wrote of their work that involves a healthy dose of nudity: “It’s not hard-core, it’s mumblecore because I can’ t understand what they’re saying.”

On the pleasures of doing indie film amidst Hollywood expectations. Gerwig: “When you make film when no one is looking you can do whatever you want.”  And by extension, look more like a real woman.

On sustaining a  career and personal perspective. “It’s a lifelong thing.  You have to focus on what you’re working on (what I’m writing, what I’m making)…. Immersing yourself in what the role is and not looking at the playbacks.”

On “the Liza Minnelli role” in Arthur and Mirren. She downplays the coup of scoring the role: “They tend to hire me if they don’t want someone cookie cutter.”  Gerwig then shared a delightful comment by co-star Mirren after she watched Gerwig suffering the ministrations of makeup and hair people during a break in filming or an interview: “One of the lovely things about getting older is they stop caring.”

On Gerwig’s hopes for her own career. Gerwig, a writer and actress, wants to keep her hand in both.  Studying at Barnard, where she felt her writing was encouraged for the first time, she learned the power of exercising many sides of creativity at once.  “I want a Clint Eastwood career.  [At Barnard] I became a better actor when I was writing, and a better writer when I was acting.”

On her current writing projects.  She has written both plays and films, and is focusing on films currently.  She is energized/aggravated by the lack of films about female friendships, a gap she seeks to fill.   Female friendships are “the most incredible thing that can happen to you in the first third of your life”.  She dismisses many attempts at existing female friendship movies as male visions of how women interact with each other.  Gerwig does seem to refer to women of any age as “girls”, which sounds in context as a uniformly inclusive term.  When pressed, she says she is interested in directing what she writes, but more out of concern for controlling the direction of the storytelling than concerns with specific shots and cuts.  Thematically, she is interested in projects that allow for “negotiating public and private self … roles that have inner life.”

On managing her financial life between big paydays and smaller paydays. “I try to live my life like a non-profit organization”,  close to the bone, keep the overhead as low as possible.  “You are working all the time, and sometimes you get paid” — in this way, she said, she keeps her excitement alive.


Audrey, in Audrey Superhero by Amy K. Jenkins

From this event, I go downstairs to the Diana Center’s Black Box Theatre for a program of short films that are about identity and female empowerment in a range of ways.  Narrated and assembled from primary footage and images of the camps and of the author — Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn about a woman who gave up a career as a costume designer to write about the Japanese camps in her 1976 book Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.  Audrey Superhero is a documentary more out of the style of Frederick Wiseman — no narration, carefully cut, following the story of a 6-year-old girl who dresses at all times in a Superman costume, is inspired by the character, and talked about her gender identity in fascinating ways.  A piece all in dance, Fao, is more image than storytelling.  Finally Bismillah tells the story of Farheen Hakeem from Minnesota, a Muslim Girl Scout leader who decides to run for public office — as role model, as proud Muslim, as politically active American woman.   I am haunted most by Audrey Superhero, filmed (I learn in the talkback) by her mother, who actively considers any further filming until Audrey is old enough to give active consent.  The issues and themes are stunningly provocative.


Second Stage Artistic Associate Jade King Carroll (left), Lynn Nottage (right). blurry image: Martha Wade Steketee.

And finally, the treat that kept me at the Diana Center rather than wandering to other venues for other adventures this day: Sneak Preview: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.  We are treated to a scene between aspiring African-American actresses Vera and Lottie from the newest creation by Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Award winning playwright Lynn Nottage soon to be produced in its world premiere at Second Stage Theatre.  It is difficult for me as a dramaturg who loves dialogue and a critic who would love to talk about the plot and development of this piece in fact NOT TO do so here, but I will say that I can’t wait to see this luscious creation on stage.  The story spans 70 years (1933 to 2003, with action in 1933, 1973, and 2003), inspired by the pre Production Code possibilities for actors of color thwarted by the Hays Office. (See for more on that theme.)

A conversation with audience members takes place afterwards, moderated by Jade King Carroll.  Nottage notes that she began writing this play following a late night inspiration watching the 1933 film Baby Face and marveling at its primary and rarely depicted interracial friendship between Barbara Stanwyck and Teresa Harris.  She began work on this play for some respite from the themes in her violent and powerful and ultimately prize-winning play Ruined.  Vera Stark uses projections and exciting production values and a challenging swath of time in American history.  Nottage hopes that people take away from the adventure a new appreciation of many details in movies of the 1930s and particular the Pre-Code era, and the lives of the actors populating those movies.

Nottage is very quotable, and two moments stand out for me.  When asked about her creative process, she says, enchantingly: “I am a binge writer.”  And finally, when asked whether she used a dramaturg on this research heavy piece, Nottage reflects on prior working experience at Center Stage.  During this process (which may have been a reading), she recalled that at one point three dramaturgs were in the room, giving her notes.  It was for her “a dramaturgy gang bang”.  Sometimes the dramaturgs, she noted, can push the playwright off her path as a playwright, seeking the line of her own story, allowing it to develop in its own time.  I introduced myself to Nottage after the session as a dramaturg who loves Nottage’s work, and noted when she expressed chagrin at what she said that I too would find a room with three dramaturgs giving notes a bit overwhelming.  [For more information on By the Way, Meet Vera Stark see:]

It was a day of joy and connections and delights and new acquaintances and re-acquaintance with a campus I haven’t visited in many years.  What a grand start for a new arts festival.  Cheers to all involved.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 14, 2011)

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