Celebrating Women In Film: 10 Best Films To Watch At New York’s Athena Film Festival

February 5, 2015 | Christopher Inoa

When headlines proclaim that “Hollywood is the most sexist place in America” and studies find that only 7% of those directing top grossing films are women — a number that has actually declined over the past 17 years — a film festival that exclusively celebrates the work of women in film is not just refreshing, but essential. Thursday marks the beginning of the fifth annual Athena Film Festival, highlighting the accomplishments and leadership of female filmmakers and characters. Taking place at Barnard College, the festival will host screenings, panels, and other events for four days. Here are the top 10 films, including documentaries, feature films, and works in progress:

1. Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher
Having its New York premiere at the opening night of the festival, Dreamcatcher is a documentary that follows the life of a former prostitute, Brenda Meyers-Powell, who now tries to help younger women emerge from a cycle of sexual abuse and exploitation. The powerful film first opened in Sundance in 2014.

2. Erin Heinderich’s The War to Be Her
As part of the festival’s Works in Progress series of films, this film follows Maria Toorpakai Wazir, “a girl who, disguised as a boy, lived a life unlike that available to any girl in Pakistan.” A talented squash player, her identity was revealed as she gained global attention, which lead to threats from the Tailban. Her like her sister, the youngest woman elected to the Pakistani parliament have to live constantly under fear of attack for being a female in a society where their gender makes them second class citizens.

3. Joe Piscatella’s #chicagoGirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
In his directorial debut, Joe Piscatella’s documentary follows Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old Syraian girl from Chicago who is taking part in the Syrian Revolution, not with guns or bombs, but with her laptop. Six thousand miles from the warzone, Basatneh “orchestrates an impressive array of social media to coordinate and protect the Syrian protesters from President Bashar al-Assad’s rule of terror.”

4. Dean Peterson’s Stop Telling Women To Smile
This documentary short showcases the art series created by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. The series tackles gender issues such as street harassment. The art consists of “portraits of women, complete with captions that speak directly to offenders, in outdoor public spaces.”

5. Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child
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Written and directed by native New Yorker Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child is her first full feature after a career as a documentarian. The comedy stars Parks and Recreation star Jenny Slate as a young, abrasive stand-up comedian Donna Stern who winds up getting pregnant after a one-night stand. It opened nationally to stellar reviews this summer; the festival offers a change to see it on the big screen (and potentially meet Robespierre) one more time.

6. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights
From the director of Love & Basketball comes this melodrama about the pressures of both fame and love. The film was a financial success here in the U.S as well as a critical one as well; Manohla Darlis, film critic for the New York Times, featured the film on her personal “Best of 2014” films list.

7. Leesie Von Pless’ Flying Solo: A Widow Fights Discrimination
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In this seven-minute short doc, Lambda Legal strategist Leesie Von Pless interviews a 92-year-old WWII veteran. The former pilot tells her story life as a transgender woman.

8. Doris Dörrie’s Que Caramba es la Vida
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Famed German director Doris Dörrie captures the lives of female mariachis. In Mexico, being a mariachi is more than just making music, it’s a lifestyle — and it’s male-dominated.

9. Lukas Moodyson’s We Are The Best
Three Swedish grade school girls decide to form a punk band. They have no instruments, experience and its the 1980’s. All of that isn’t going to stop them. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film “is a paean to DIY culture and the power of rebellion.”

10. Justin Simien’s Dear White People
A satire on race relations, Dear White People stars Tessa Thompson as Sam White, a mixed raced woman and the host of a popular radio show called “Dear White People.” Her show consists of pointing out the minor racial transactions that take place at her predominantly white, Ivy League school and her activist nature causes problems with both the school’s administration and student body. The film, which premiered at Sundance last year, was critically acclaimed when it opened in the fall.

(Photo: Que Caramba es la Vida)