The Athena Film Festival: Rocking Women in Film

BlogHer Original Post

There are not many movies that have left my hands trembling long after the end credits have rolled, trembling both with raw physical emotional response and pure ecstatic inspiration. But writer/director Larysa Kondracki’s film The Whistleblower did just that at the Athena Film Festival Friday night in New York City. 

I couldn’t formulate or even remember the questions I had crafted before the film to ask one of the cofounders of the Festival, Melissa Silverstein from Women and Hollywood and Kathryn Kolbert, Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. Immediately following the film was a Q & A session moderated by Annette Insdorf, Tanya Domi (a US Veteran who actually served in Bosnia from 1996- 2000 and helped break the story) and one of the film’s three female producers, Celine Rattray (The Kids Are Alright). But the discussion was not just on the film but about human trafficking as an organized crime involving military officials, UN diplomats and NATO soldiers, the importance of making and screening films like The Whistleblower, and the courage it takes to do the right thing.

The Whistleblower stars Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Straithern yet finding the funds for this meager $8 million budget was an uphill struggle. Why? As Rattray put it,  “People don’t want to finance films like these.”  But from the stories Rattray shared about director Larysa Kondracki, she is not one to be shrugged off. Perhaps that is why she made such a compelling film about Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer who takes a job in the UN just after the war in Bosnia. The film is expertly shot with the cadence of a thriller film but the emotional core of an Oscar-worthy drama. 

The story follows Kathy played by a much inspired Weisz who upon exposing that a UN official (who has international immunity) may be profiting from brothels where young girls are enslaved in the sex trafficking business, earns the trust of two badly beaten and abused women who escaped their captors. Kathy befriends Raya, (another gut-wrenching performance by newcomer, Roxana Condurache) and promises her that if she testifies she will make sure she is safe. While transporting Raya, the van is crashed into, the driver beaten and Raya taken back into captivity. We then journey with Kathy as she tries to find Raya while exposing this grueling and violent underworld connecting it to top Military Officials, State Department and UN workers who are not only profiting from human trafficking, but involved in the industry’s orchestration. 

The film is not for the weak of stomach for what happens to Raya is nothing short of deeply disturbing.  Having been in Bosnia during the time the events transpired, when Tanya Domi was asked how accurate the film was, she responded, “The film is quite accurate except the end because I broke the story.” After an unrelenting investigation into the corruption at the very highest levels of the international community, Kathy was terminated and left the country. But along with Madeleine Rees (played by a stellar Vanessa Redgrave) who worked at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as the gender expert and Head of Office in Bosnia and Herzegovin, Tanya broke the story in a local Bosnian paper.  She wanted the people to know that they knew the international community had been involved in the abduction, rape and enslavement of their daughters, sisters, and wives. On the importance of making this film, Domi added, “It calls on our humanity to call out for justice.” She also commended Kathy and Madeleine as her “true heroes” because “they did not blink,” she said. “They took on that moral quandary and said I need to confront this.”

Perhaps taking a page from her lead character's playbook, Larysa recently screened the film to a room full of UN delegates.  After Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to conclude the film with a panel about how the UN has cleaned up some of the staggering corruption from that time, Larysa grabbed the microphone, thanked them for their words and for screening the film, but then spoke for twenty minutes about a list of corrupt activities that have taken place in the UN over the last five years. Right on! According to Rattray, the film is currently being screened to UN workers and, I believe, at military bases around the nation. And that’s why Athena Film Festival is important.

Without even opening my mouth, all of my questions that had to do with the inspiration and mission of the Athena Film Festival were answered. The force of these determined and morally courageous women to take on a film about sex trafficking, one of the most lucrative and exponentially growing crime industries involving an estimated 32 million cases (according to Domi) is why the Athena Film Festival rocks my world. It gives a platform not just for women but women who are fearless leaders, women who are out there making a difference, women who teach us all to be better people. The films screened at Athena are about gutsy women who are making risky films and creating art for the purpose of discussion (A Marine Story; The Rescuers), to honor and remember the many unseen or underappreciated women who have influenced history (Daisy Bates: The First Lady of Little Rock; Gloria: In Her Own Words; The Lady) and furthermore, a call to action (The Whistleblower; The Naked Option). What other film festival can boast a film about Gloria Steinem, a film about Aung San Suu Kyi, a film about a female whistleblower in post-war Bosnia exposing a sophisticated sex trafficking ring aided by the UN, a film about a forgotten female African-American civil rights activist in 1957 Arkansas, and  a film about the journey of iconic feminist band Le Tigre? And furthermore, why aren’t there more film festivals like this? Why aren’t we seeing these kinds of movies in the Oscar lineup? Why is War Horse up there and The Whistleblower is not? And on personal note, Rachel Weisz, you totally deserve a best actress nomination.

I spoke with co-founder of the festival, Kathyrn Kolbert who shared,

“One of the things that’s so important to me is, I kind of follow in the school of Marie Wilson here who says, You can’t be what you can’t see. And I think that it is important for women, particularly younger women, to have models in their lives, to have other people who have gone before them who have not only challenged conventions but have been willing to give back to other women.” 

Kolbert also explained the structure of the film festival, which also showcases films by male directors.

“We honor women who have been successful in the industry, who’ve really broken barriers and at the same time honor both male and female filmmakers who tell stories of courageous women because the only way to jumpstart a conversation about women in leadership is to ensure that our culture makes that real and can engender emotional response to women who do the right thing like the women in this film.”

We ended our conversation with a talk about how the blogging community, especially BlogHer, can impact the spread of these stories, with Kathryn telling me --

“What I’d love to see is closer collaborations between the bloggers and the tweeters and the films that we show.”

If there is anything I have found to be true about the blogging community it is that it really has a we’re all in this together vibe. While film festivals like Athena are not only inspiring and courageous and entertaining at the very least, but in collaboration with the blogging world, they can be dangerous weapons, they can be powerful and they can make a serious difference in the world we live in and the world we hope to raise our daughters in.

So blog it up, tweet it up at #athenafilmfest and see these films to keep the dialogue going, to keep on fighting the good fights, and to reach the young girls aching to become leaders in their own right.

You can check out information on the films as well as watch some of the panels following the films at http://athenafilmfestival.com/.

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