Wonder Women! Superheroines with the Allure of Attractive Women, the Strength of Powerful Men!

April 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

This is our second report from this year’s Athena Film Festival, a banquet of feature films, documentaries, and shorts celebrating women’s creativity and accomplishments. At this year’s festival, held every February in New York City, our veteran contributor Diane Vacca was particularly engaged by three films—Hannah Arendt and Wonder Women! and Brave, the films she reviews below.

 

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Boys look to Superman, Batman, Spider Man . . . but in the mid–twentieth century, daring, resourceful, powerful fantasy females were few and far between. With one exception: Wonder Woman.

She sprang into action in 1941, around the time the Pearl Harbor attack was precipitating the U.S. into World War II. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, a psychologist, with promptings from his wife, imagined “a character who would be ‘psychological propaganda’ for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” She was to be an Amazon princess, leader of the fierce female warriors of antiquity.

Marston proposed to DC Comics that “America’s woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip. By this I mean a character with all the allure of an attractive woman but with the strength also of a powerful man.”

Wonder Woman would become the oldest, continually drawn female superheroine of all time. She led the way for all the conspicuously brave and incomparably competent heroines of cartoon, movie, and television to come, from Supergirl, 1959; Barbarella, 1960s; Charlie’s Angels, 1976-81; Princess Leia (Star Wars), 1977; She-Ra: Princess of Power, 1985-86; Xena: Warrior Princess, 1995-2001; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997–2003;  Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, 2001; to the Pixar princess, Merida, in Disney’s 2012 Oscar-winning animated film Brave.

Now we can trace the evolution and impact of the first superwoman. Director Kirsty Guevara-Flanagan’s one-hour documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, will be broadcast by PBS at 10 p.m. EDT on Monday, April 15, as part of its “Independent Lens” series.

Guevara-Flanagan spent four years researching, interviewing for, and editing Wonder Women! “I loved the idea of looking at something as populist as comics to reveal our cultural obsessions, and in particular, how women’s roles have changed over time,” she notes. “The narratives of our most iconic superheroes, told and re-told over decades, boldly outline our shifting values. . . . We all need those iconic heroes that tell us we have the power to slay our dragons and don’t have to wait around to be rescued.”

At first, Wonder Woman was a radically new vision of feminine power, one capable of standing up to and battling male villains. Guevara-Flanagan compares her to Rosie the Riveter, a symbol for the newly empowered women who took their absent husbands’ places in the factories during World War II. Like them, Wonder Woman did a “man’s job.”

Eventually, of course, the war ended and the men came home. They took back their jobs, replacing their wives and returning them to their lives of unremarkable domesticity. By the 1960s, Wonder Woman too had been enervated and diminished. Her superpowers and provocative costume were stripped away, and she was given a fashion boutique to run. No more daring exploits.

But in the 1970s, as the women’s movement fired up, Gloria Steinem brought Wonder Woman back with a bang. Steinem put her on the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, dressed in her original red bustier and star-spangled briefs. Under a red banner trumpeting “Wonder Woman for President,” the heroine towers over the city, snagging bombers from the sky.

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Wonder Women! is an entertaining and enlightening tour through women’s history of the last 70 years. The clips and stills of the female champion in her various guises convey changing attitudes toward women and the female body. Wonder Woman’s form-hugging outfit is undeniably sexy—“patriotic lingerie,” in the words of culture critic Jonathan Curiel—but her actions are inspiring. So—is she a role model or an object? Depending on the reader, she is either or both. (Wonder Woman was ostensibly a comic book for girls, yet editor Sheldon Mayer has commented that Marston “was writing a feminist book, but not for women.  He was dealing with a male audience.”) Little known is the fact that the bodacious and busty, provocatively clad heroine has always had a readership that is about 90 percent male. No wonder!

I enjoyed seeing participants in the struggle for women’s rights reminiscing about and engaging with the battles waged. Television stars Lynda Carter (she played Wonder Woman in the 1970s) and Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman), writer Gail Simone (the first woman to write full-time for the Wonder Woman comic books, in 2007-10), the comic Wanda Sykes, other artists, and Second Wave feminists are polemic and thoughtful as they speak with Guevara-Flanagan. They unravel the skein of images and actions that send contradictory messages in a culture that is still ambivalent about powerful women. Sociologist Kathryn Gilpatric, for example, reports that in her study of 157 female action characters in 2010 she found that half of them were evil, and 30 percent of the rest were killed off, mostly in acts of self-sacrifice.

Later incarnations of superwomen, like Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, are fiercely determined and courageous. They may have superpowers as well, but many are not protagonists in their own stories; they are ancillary characters in the stories of men.

The second half of Wonder Women! is devoted to today’s fans. Wonder Woman’s influence on young readers is embodied by Katie Pineda, a fourth-grader who has been an avid fan for years. She tells Guevara-Flanagan why she reveres the superheroine: “Not all superheroes have powers, like, most of them are just regular people, but they became something more, and that’s how they inspire me . . . . Sometimes I get picked on at school, but I just tell myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you’re going to be more.’ Because some day they’re going to be wishing that they treated me better.”

Second-Wave feminists are contemporaries of Wonder Woman. Gloria Steinem grew up with her. “She was irresistible,” she tells Guevara-Flanagan. “She was the only game in town, the only hero that made you feel good about yourself.”

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A much younger heroine is Merida, the princess protagonist of the Pixar film Brave, which won the Oscar for best animated film of 2012. She is, in fact, the first female lead in a Pixar film. Her free-spirited and rebellious nature manifests itself in her emblematic exuberant red curls. When she gallops away on horseback, she feels the freedom and independence that so many women and girls have longed for. She’s not a superhero, but she’s the kingdom’s best archer, and she defeats the forces that pressure her to conform to the docile and ladylike model of a queen-in-waiting.

The Disney tale ends before reality can set in: we don’t know whether Merida marries (we assume that as a sovereign she must), or whom, or how effective a monarch she will be. It is a fairytale, after all. It wouldn’t do to show the princess established within the very tradition she rebelled against. That would hardly constitute the requisite happy ending.

But reality isn’t a problem for Wonder Woman—by definition, she is a superwoman who cannot be defeated. Her strength, her power, her rejection of gratuitous violence, and her quest for peace will continue to make her a model for young girls.

The Provocations of Hannah Arendt

March 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers, Politics

The Athena Film Festival is a four-day banquet of feature films, documentaries, and shorts that celebrates women’s creativity and accomplishments—both in the world and in film as actors, protagonists, directors, writers, and producers. The festival’s mission is to put a spotlight on women’s leadership in both real life and in the fictional world.

We’re very proud that WVFC has been attending the festival, held in New York City every February, since its creation in 2011. Each year, our correspondent Diane Vacca goes to as many films—and sits in on as many workshops—as she can in those four days. This year she has chosen two Athena films to review for us.  Here is the first: the story of a tough passage in the life of Hannah Arendt, a distinguished political thinker whose emotionally detached account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann provoked a furious debate about the nature of evil—and made Arendt suddenly notorious. —Ed.

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Trailer for “Hannah Arendt.”

What happens when a woman thinks rather than feels? When she investigates an unbearably painful event but seeks to explain it logically, at a time when a woman was expected to be overcome by emotion?

The woman is Hannah Arendt; her subject was the Holocaust; and her objective reporting and analysis made her a pariah in many quarters.

The world knows Arendt as one of the most influential and respected thinkers of the 20th century. Renowned director Margarethe von Trotta tells her story in Hannah Arendt, a stirring biopic that was screened at last month’s Athena Film Festival. 

When Adolf Eichmann, a former officer in the Schutzstaffel (the infamous SS) was captured in Argentina and taken to Jerusalem, The New Yorker tapped Arendt to cover his trial, one of the most sensational of the century. Arendt was a German Jew who had experienced firsthand the pain of exile and was compelled to flee the Nazi regime first in Germany and later in France. No one anticipated that her reportage would result in a third exile—ostracism by most of the Jewish community.

When the trial began in 1961, Arendt was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was a leading intellectual, a philosopher and political theorist well known and respected in Europe and the United States.

ArendtTo explore the complexity of her subject, director von Trotta focuses her lens on a four-year period of Arendt’s life that culminated in a firestorm of controversy and notoriety. Through that lens, the filmmaker explores the conflict between public and private and reveals the flip side to Arendt’s hard brilliance, her manifest arrogance and conviction that she was always right (annoying, but usually true). As Arendt, the accomplished German actor Barbara Sukowa brings to light a kinder, gentler side not usually associated with Arendt: her loving relationship with her husband, her easy camaraderie with her assistant, her long friendship with Mary McCarthy, her concern for her students, and her sense of humor.

Hannah Arendt doesn’t specifically raise gender issues. Nevertheless, it provoked me to wonder if Arendt’s ideas would have been so inflammatory and so maligned if they had been presented by a man. Was it because she was a woman that she offended so many with her analytical thinking and lack of emotional fervor?

In the film, von Trotta intercuts the widely televised documentary footage of Eichmann sitting in his protective glass booth, calmly facing his accusers, with shots of Arendt intensely following each actor in the courtroom drama. Eichmann’s bland face and his emotionless voice marked him as one of those faceless bureaucrats who grind mindlessly away at their jobs.

Von Trotta and her co-screenwriter, Pamela Katz, meet the challenge of translating Arendt’s thought into cinematic terms. Arendt parsed Eichmann’s defense. “What he had done,” she reasoned, “was a crime only in retrospect,” because he had followed Hitler’s orders, which were the law of the land in the Third Reich. Who can argue with this logic? It was, of course, the standard Nazi defense, but one that the Nazis’ victims seeking justice could hardly be expected to accept. Arendt’s critics called her a “self-hating Jew” and much worse.

Eichmann’s dispassionate demeanor, his mediocrity, and his obvious lack of curiosity and imagination led Arendt to formulate her famous thesis of the “banality of evil.” Her cool analysis of Eichmann not as a diabolical monster, but an ordinary man who unthinkingly did what he was told, set off a flaming controversy that dogged Arendt for the rest of her life. No matter how well she had argued her case in the New Yorker articles and the book based on them that followed, the survivors of Auschwitz found it impossible to accept Arendt’s formulation that “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

For Arendt, nothing excused “thoughtlessness,” the failure to think. She posited a “strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil.” She understood that Eichmann “knew quite well what it was all about. . . . .  He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”

Though she was by no means the first person to ponder the “inexplicable readiness of the German Jewish community to negotiate with the Nazi authorities,” she effectively accused Jewish community leaders of collaboration with the Nazis.

It is easy to see how these remarks would enrage her peers. Arendt’s analytical thinking, divorced from her personal views, confounded the expectations of a community whose suffering was still acute. They were not listening to rational arguments.

The film gives Arendt the last word—an opportunity to confront her accusers—to explain, but not retract, her analysis. The occasion—a talk she gives to her students and intractable opponents in the audience — is fictional, but the stirring words are hers, culled from her writings.

A film by women about an exceptional woman, Hannah Arendt is definitely worth seeing when it is released in the United States in May.

Image of Hannah Arendt via Wikipedia.

The Wednesday 5: Athena Film Festival, Rosie Schaap’s ‘Drinking with Men,’ Hillary and the Mansplainers, and More

This week’s Wednesday 5 went to the source about women in combat, cried at a sweet love story from an old friend, found an authoritative guide to perfect local bars, took some lessons from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and got excited about this year’s Athena Film Festival.

 

1.

Contrare has embedded into Afghanistan three times, over a period of one and one-half years. She has gone into several provinces, with different factions and divisions of the armed forces, to research her book "Bullets in My Pocket.'When the Defense Department announced this week that it was going to declare servicewomen eligible for combat classifications, we thought instantly of WVFC’s Mare Contrare, who has spent years talking to women in uniform who have been serving on the front lines. Contrare has embedded into Afghanistan three times, over a period of one and a half years. She has gone into several provinces, with different factions and divisions of the armed forces, to research her book Bullets in My Pocket. She writes at her blog Write Softly:

“I’ve been speaking to several women who are Veterans and Active Duty service members as well as some male counterparts on their reaction to the US allowing women assigned combat duty. The response actually surprised me. While the press is celebrating, the people I spoke to agree the positions should be open, but were not quite as thrilled about it. I believe it’s because we had all seen combat. . . we wonder why anyone would want to go there.” 

 

2.

images-1 If it weren’t for Laura Beck at Jezebel, we might not have seen so quickly that Eve Pell, author of We Used to Own the Bronx, had brought her stunner of a late-life love story to the pages of The New York Times’s sometimes-anodyne “Modern Love” section. The story of Pell’s romance with her husband, Sam “just set my tear ducts into overdrive,” Beck writes, “and although I’m incredibly exhausted today (STFU, hormones!), I’m positive I’d still sniffle if I wasn’t.” She then quotes one of the story’s most compelling sections:

Sam and Eve met at a San Francisco–area running club, and she quickly became interested in getting to know him better. She devised a plan to get Sam to ask her to the movies, and it worked. It became a regular thing. One evening at the movies, after we had been seeing each other for several weeks, I felt his hand on mine. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can recapture the moment: the dark of the theater, the warmth of his hand, my happiness.

The article itself is well worth a read. One of our favorite bits:

Sam and I often ate at Chinese restaurants where I received some fortune cookies that truly lived up to their name. Two of our favorites:

“Persevere with your plans and you will marry your love.”

“Stop searching forever. Happiness is just next to you.”

 Read the Jezebel summary here, and Pell’s passionate memory piece here.
 

3.

schapp-drinking-with-men-w724Edith Zimmerman checks in this week at The Hairpin with author Rosie Schaap, whose book Drinking with Men shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s Tribeca. Zimmerman asks about drinking as a problem, and Schaap says it’s complicated:

“I tell some pretty dark drinking stories in Drinking With Men, but I tell some really happy ones, too. My focus is much more on bars than on drinking—and though they work as a team, they’re not the same. A bar gives you community, at least when you’re a regular. Drinking alone doesn’t give you that, and that’s why it never interested me.”

The whole Q & A at The Hairpin is here. You may also like Schaap’s story “My Biker Initiation,” in The New York Times Magazine.

 

4.

Clinton demonstrating Maxwell's Step 8: When the rant continues on and on look at the mansplainer with a *blank stare* and put your hand on your chin like, “Are you still talking?”

Clinton demonstrating Maxwell’s Step 8: When the rant continues on and on look at the mansplainer with a *blank stare* and put your hand on your chin like, “Are you still talking?”

Our own Diane Vacca was among those of us who delighted in Zerlina Maxwell’s (at Feministing.com) take on last week’s interaction between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. The entire conversation, also memorably spoofed by Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, reminded Maxwell of the term “mansplaining,” used so memorably by Rebecca Solnit in her essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” For Solnit, it was her own work being explained to her. In this case, Clinton’s face suggested that this was exactly what she was experiencing. Check it all out at Feministing.

 

 

 

 

 

5.

We’re very proud at WVFC that we’ve been following The Athena Film Festival since its start. We’ll be reporting from this year’s festival (whose films focus on women as “thinking change agents”) next week—always a highlight.  The main festival video, available at the link, showcases some of the wildly diverse films on this year’s program, including Oscar nominees like Brave. 

Not sure why the festival’s needed? At the Huffington Post, Feminist Wire writer Soraya Chemaly gives a strong case, in a wide-ranging essay that touches on Sandy Hook, the Bechdel Test, and how power disparities in the culture magnify our challenges in the real world.

“In a culture absolutely sodden with images and messages of male aggression and violence conflated with leadership and heroism, our mainstream stories are made almost exclusively by men, for men with a hyper-gendered, outdated idea of what masculinity means in society. And white, to boot. I mean, really, isn’t it just bizarre that the male-to=female ratio in family films remains unchanged since 1946? And, arguably, the representation of women has gotten worse, not better? Gender ratios and communications styles, and how we portray them, make a difference in how we understand influence and power. Before men and women can really trust women as leaders, we need to reflect women’s abilities and competence in our media.”

Read Soraya Chemaly’s piece at the Huffington Post. Then, if you like, buy your ticket to one of the festival’s films, panels, and special-awards ceremonies.

Women’s History Month: The Unchainable Pancho Barnes

March 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Profiles

“Why isn’t ‘Pancho Barnes’ a household name?” demanded a viewer at Athena Film Festival’s screening of a new documentary on the life of Florence Lowe. Gun-runner, stunt pilot, proprietress of a notorious bar, the woman who was to become Pancho Barnes was a lifelong rebel against the social shackles binding women in the early twentieth century. There’s a recurring theme in The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club: Barnes didn’t fit  standards for women of the time, in her behavior or in her appearance. “If she had been a man, she wouldn’t have had to reinvent herself,” notes the film’s director, Amanda Pope.

Legend is a carefully researched documentary and a feel-good movie introducing us to yet another daring, boundary-pushing woman—this one from the early days of flight.

Frances Lowe, born at the turn of the twentieth century, seemed destined to seek adventure. She idolized her grandfather, an inventor who had flown a fleet of surveillance balloons in the Civil War. Her parents married her off at 18 to a clergyman, hoping that life with Reverend Barnes would civilize her into a genteel woman of the upper class. Unhappy and stifled, she left her husband eight years later, in 1927.

Thirsting for adventure, she disguised herself as a man and joined the crew of a banana boat bound for Mexico (and, as it turned out, running guns into the middle of the Mexican Civil War, possibly more adventure than even the thrill-seeking Barnes could have desired).  When she came back from that enterprise, she had acquired her nickname.

In 1928, Barnes flouted convention again, signing up for flying lessons. When her instructor tried to scare her with a speedy first flight full of swoops and rolls, she just laughed. She took special delight in flying low over Reverend Barnes’s church during services.

“Flying is my escape from the conventional me,” Barnes once said. Early aviation was a dangerous and daring business—for both men and the few women who flew. Barnes and her fellow pilots would gauge whether they were level by hanging a keychain in the cockpit: If it hung straight, they were flying straight.  In the picture for her pilot’s license (signed by Orville Wright himself), taken by Barnes’s friend, Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, Barnes cuts a sleek, dashing figure-—all traces of femininity obscured.

The documentary radiates warmth. Talking about Barnes seems to make almost everyone in the film smile. Friends and family grin, remembering Pancho’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure. She beams from countless photos, next to planes or surrounded by merry crowds in her club. Even as the film’s historians bring Barnes’s story into the larger context of gender roles and aviation history, the warmth of her personality comes through.

Barnes, who loved speed, was especially focused on beating records set by media darling Amelia Earhart. In 1930, in the latest and fastest plane money could buy, the Travel Air Model R Mystery Ship, Barnes became the fastest woman pilot, at 196 miles an hour. She was also the first female stunt pilot, flying in a number of Howard Hughes films. Flying stunts was a risky and underpaid business. Barnes helped unionize stunt pilots for safer conditions and a fair wage. In 1930, Barnes pioneered new air routes into Mexico; some sources maintain that this is how she got her nickname.

After retiring from flying, Barnes stayed close to the cutting edge of the aviation world. She founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a raucous bar/restaurant/ranch in the California desert, near Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base.  There she could trade stories with young test pilots who loved speed and daring as much as she did. In photos and reminiscences of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho looks like an feisty den-mother figure to the uniformed men surrounding her. She promised a full steak dinner to the first pilot to break the sound barrier.

Director Amanda Pope with astronaut (and Barnes's protege) Buzz Aldrin.

Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who earned that dinner, became a close friend of Barnes’s; he speaks of her with a fond smile in the film. Yeager wouldn’t tell Pope a particularly juicy story he remembered, she noted after a recent screening, because he deemed it too racy for a woman to hear.

Pancho’s story wasn’t always a happy one: In the 1950s,  the Air Force wanted to shut her ranch down (it was in the way of an expansion of the base) and the FBI wanted to investigate her business practices. The ensuing lengthy court battle included attacks on her character, and drained her financially and emotionally.

One of the ways the film creates Barnes as a character is through excerpts from her letters and interviews, with voice-over by actress Kathy Bates. Why voice-over, when Pope had access to some taped recordings of Barnes? It seems that the exuberant, larger-than-life pilot sounded quavery on tape. Her print interviews were more candid, and earthier. Kathy Bates, Pope declares, “really got who Pancho Barnes was.”  And this boundary-breaking woman was, as Pope told viewers at the Athena screening, “as outrageous in her personal life as she was professional in her flying life.”

The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club is available on Netflix Instant, as well as available to purchase on DVD. It has been screened on public television as well, though some of Pancho’s pithier observations had to be censored.


International Women’s Day: A Salute to the Three Women of “The Whistleblower”

March 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers


It took until early this year for the United Nations to screen Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower, even though the film had been out for nearly a year; had its theatrical release last September after winning numerous film-festival kudos; has an all-star cast that includes Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, and Vanessa Redgrave; and takes place in United Nations territory, on the grounds of the U.N. Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason for the delay isn’t hard to guess: In the film, many in the U.N. system do not come off well.

Whistleblower, a harrowing account with the pace of a thriller, is based on a 2001 scandal involving human trafficking in Bosnia—a scandal in which some employees of a U.S. private military contracting firm are accused of providing sex slaves for numerous U.N. personnel, including peacekeepers.

That criminality was exposed because of the efforts of three fearless women, of two nationalities, who defied power to stop the abuse of thousands of younger, more vulnerable women from all over Eastern Europe.

Kathryn Bolkovac, the whistleblower of the title (played in the film by Rachel Weisz), is a former Nebraska police officer who was told on her arrival in Bosnia—where she was to serve on the  U.N.’s International Police Task Force (IPTF)—that she’d be helping the battered nation recover. After successfully investigating domestic-violence cases, Bolkovac became a “gender investigator” in the U.N. Mission; she  stumbled on a network of not-very-undercover brothels while investigating rape allegations. As the film illustrates, Bolkovac kept on investigating despite the apathy of her supervisors—U.N. officials who minimized the significance of what she was learning—and of her male colleagues. (In the film the latter tell Weisz’s Bolkovac not to be surprised: “Bosnia is the capital of stuff that’s f**ked up.”)  According to the film, she learned that U.N. monitors, including employees of the private military contractor for which she was working, were not just patronizing the brothels: They had bought, sold, and transported at least 2,000 girls from throughout the former Soviet Union. But ITPF shut down her investigation after she discovered its extent, and Bolkovac was expelled from the U.N. compound.

All of her findings might have remained buried were it not for Madeleine Rees (played in the film by Redgrave), who at the time headed the Women`s Rights and Gender Unit for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia.  When IPTF shut down the case, Rees—who had  promoted Bolkovac and assisted her investigations—decided to finally go public on what everyone had “sort of” known was happening.

Rees approached a third woman, former U.S. State Department official Tanya Domi, who until  2000 had been a human-rights and media-rights officer in Bosnia and had long been outraged by gender violence there.  By 2001, Domi had begun to work with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting; had testified before Congress; and had challenged former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke about U.N. inaction on gender crimes. ”If you want to go public,” she told her friend and colleague Rees, “I can help you do that.”

Domi, now an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, is not  represented in The Whistleblower. But when the film opened the Athena Film Festival last month, she was among those who spoke afterward to the crowd of about 400, along with Celine Rattray, one of the film’s producers, and  film historian Annette Insdorf, who is most famous for her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.

Rattray, well known for supporting women’s films such as The Kids Are Alright  and Grace Is Gone,  said she was proud of the film. ”When I read the script, I couldn’t believe this had gone on,” Rattray said. “And the main character—she was just so inspirational. But . . .  this is exactly the sort of thing people don’t want to finance!” Before filming, she added, first-time director Kondracki had to produce “a 100-page precis and a 15-minute short” of the film before funding was secured. “Even after we had signed Rachel Weisz.”

Weisz signed on, she tells Charlie Rose in the clip below, because “I like films about ordinary people challenging the system,” though she immediately admitted that Bolkovac is nowhere near ordinary.

Rattray added that Bolkovac’s life  hasn’t been easy, even after a judge awarded her compensation for unfair termination by the military contractor—but the reception of the film has buoyed her. “At Toronto Film Festival, when Kathy came forward after the screening, they gave her two standing ovations.”

Turning to Domi, Insdorf asked her,  ”Is this film accurate, from your experiences in the region and your part in the story?”

“Very accurate,” Domi said. Back in 2000, she added, at the U.N. Mission “there were very few women at the table. And therefore, there was very little sensitivity to the fact that 20,000 women had being trafficked following the war and it was still going on.” All of which, she added, made Bolkovac and Rees’s  bravery impressive indeed. “In that building, Madeleine was two doors away from that guy you saw in the movie, the ambassador”—Jacques Paul Klein, head of the U.N. Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina—”but she and Kathy did not blink. That is not always what happens” when institutions are faced with horrible crimes, she said.

 

 

About her own role, Domi explained that “When Madeleine told me that Kathryn wanted to go public, I told her, ‘Not the BBC first. I want to break it in Bosnia first; let me talk to Bosnian journalists I trust.’”  Only later did Bolkovac give the interview that is reenacted in the film, with the BBC confronting U.N. officials.

What has changed since then? For one thing, Domi pointed out, the revelations have sparked changes in international law: “The doctrine of universal jurisdiction allows for people to be arrested for trafficking” even if they would otherwise have diplomatic immunity, like the U.N. monitors in 1999. Still, she added regretfully, change has been slow. (That night, no one mentioned that Bolkovac’s former employer has lost little from her revelations, and still holds billions of dollars in U.S. and U.N. contracts.) Still, after that initial U.N. screening in January, all U.N. missions are screening the film—worldwide. “We hope that is raising mass consciousness,” Domi added.

All agreed that the film has only begun to have its full impact—and that The Whistleblower is a far more powerful tool than Bolkovac, Rees, and Domi had at their disposal when they first took the scandal public.

“What we weren’t able to communicate in 2001, this film communicates in the most graphic way,” Domi said.  It also, she added, has the potential to help women in conflict zones who have experienced abuse. ”Culture,” she said, “is a place where people can go and heal.”

In Tough Season for Women in Film, Athena Film Festival Empowers

February 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

“Most of us are creative because we saw another woman do it,” Lizz Winstead (right)  said last week at Barnard College.

Winstead, the acclaimed comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, was addressing a roomful of her peers. One was the first woman to win a Tony for direction in musical theater, one had just received an Academy Award nomination, another had created NBC’s newest hit comedy. It was  opening night of the Second Annual Athena Film Festival, and these women were about to receive awards that  ”recognize extraordinary women for their leadership and creative accomplishments.”

The festival, which ran February 9 to 12, came a few weeks after a disappointing round of Oscar nominations that featured no woman Best Director nominees and spotty results for women elsewhere; a panel in which a top Hollywood director was quoted by none other than George Clooney as refusing to cast an actress with whom he did not want to have sex; and the newest University of California study on gender inequality in Hollywood,  which reported that male roles far outweigh those for women, females are far more likely to be scantily dressed,” and the gender of films’ creators had an impact on all of it.  After the study’s release Stacy L. Smith, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, issued a call to action via the Los Angeles Times: ”Females represent half of the population and half of moviegoing audiences, but they don’t hit a third of the characters. Male consumers aren’t the only ones going to the movies, but our cultural storytellers today are male.”

It was to change that bleak picture that the Athena Film Festival was established last year by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, in partnership with the nonprofit Women and Hollywood. Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert and Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein were on hand at awards night, and WVFC favorites Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem were present to introduce the five inaugural awardees. Each so honored, in turn, was asked to name a woman whose inspiration and support had been key to her success.

Theresa Rebeck—whose “Excellence as a Playwright and Author of Films, Books and Television”  includes Seminar, currently on Broadway; co-authorship of  the Pulitzer-nominated  Omnium Gatherum;  and years writing and producing Law & Order and NYPD Blue as well as the current Smash—named another group of honorees:  Diablo Cody, Dana Fox, Liz Meriwether, and Lorene Scafaria. The group of friends and colleagues, known as “the Fempire, was honored for “Their Creativity and Sisterhood.” They couldn’t be present to receive the awards in person because “we are working our butts off in this male-dominated industry,” they wrote in a message.

Rachael Horovitz, honored ”for her Exceptional Talents as a Motion Picture Producer,”  from HBO’s Grey Gardens to the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, named as her inspirer 92-year-old Priscilla Morgan, who, with her husband, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, worked to bring the Spoleto Festival to the United States. As an agent in the 1950s, Morgan represented Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, and others on Broadway and NBC’s pioneering Philco Playhouse on TV. Horovitz met Morgan “when I was 5 years old and she came with my father to Spoleto,” Horovitz said. “She couldn’t be here, but she has inspired me ever since.”

Dee Rees, director of the new film Pariah and chosen with producer Nekisa Cooper for “Impact as Emerging Filmmakers,”  named her Liberian grandmother for her survival, while Cooper gave a shout to Ava duVernay, filmmaker and founder of AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. “She left a successful career in public relations, ” Cooper said, “has made TWO award-winning films already, and she has helped so many of us. She is not only my friend—she is really,  truly a model.”

Melissa Silverstein, Julia Barry, Katie Couric, Julie Taymor, Kathryn Kolbert, Debora Spar, Theresa Rebeck. (Photo: Barnard)

Next, honored for “Her Vision and Courage as an Exemplary Director,” was Julie Taymor,  introduced by Gloria Steinem as  ”the first person about whom I spontaneously used the word genius.”  Steinem added that Taymor “is a joy to work with” and that “she has brought the world together”  with travels to create productions in Japan, Africa and elsewhere. Taymor herself named multiple inspiring women, including Frida producer Sarah Green and Lynn Hendee, who stayed with Taymor and The Tempest  and “was there in Hawaii when we ran out of money and couldn’t even afford to do the tempest!” Another was the late Laura Ziskin, “who pulled together the money for the movie I am working on now,” and was also the namesake for the evening’s last award: the “Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.”

To introduce the latter was Couric, who had worked with the venerable Ziskin on one of her last big productions, the creation of Stand Up for Cancer. ”Laura told me,” said Couric, that “‘in the 1980s AIDS activists brought all of their game to the fight. That’s what we have to do now.’  In September 2008,” Couric added.  ”we brought all three networks together and raised millions. That was Laura. She lived and fought until the day  she died.”

Accepting the award, Ziskin’s daughter reflected that when she started in 1978, Ziskin “was often the only woman in the room . . . she had to look a little deeper. That’s how she found Fight Club: she didn’t accept the word no.” 

For the next four days, the festival would continue in that same spirit, with panels, screenings, and brainstorming sessions in which veterans offered tips to emerging or aspiring filmmakers. BriAnna Olson, currently directing short commercial films like this GemGirls music video featured on NPR, was thrilled with Friday’s panel “From Script to Screen,” featuring Pariah’s Nekisa Cooper, Precious producer Lisa Cortes, and Mary Jane Skalski (The Station Agent), among others.

“It was fabulous,” Olson told me. “I learned a lot, and it was great feeling to be part of something larger—that there’s not this huge gap between me and the film world.”

 

Still to come: Film reviews and more festival details, including how Gloria Steinem stopped hating the HBO film about her.

Video Pick: Athena Film Festival is Coming!

January 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

As some of you know, we LOVED being able to cover the Athena Film Festival last year, bringing you advance word of films like Mighty Macs and Miss Representation as well as adding to Oscar buzz for women-directed films such as Winter’s Bone. We’re thrilled to announce that we will be there again at this year’s Festival. Check out the trailer below, via Women and Hollywood, and the festival schedule, and let us know which of those films you really want us to write about for WVFC—and/or whether you plan to join us!

 

 

 

(VIDEO) Can’t Miss Movies: “The Mighty Macs” and “Miss Representation”

October 25, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

We were thrilled this past spring to cover the Athena Film Festival, and to offer WVFC readers some sneak previews of some of the films. Last week, we noticed that two of the films we previewed are in general release: The Mighty Macs, based on the inspiring true story of a 1950s women’s basketball team, and Miss Representation, which documents much of the real-life consequences of media sexism. We’re thus reprinting our reviews of both, and hope you’ll let us know what you think after you’ve seen the films. – Ed.

 

Mighty Macs: Women, Sports and Personal Transformation

On the surface, Mighty Macs is a solid, goodhearted sports movie. It has all the ingredients: a brash, young inspirational coach; a down-on-its-luck but scrappy sports team; adversity from teams that tower over it; and funding cuts threatening to close the school. The team lifts itself up with a gradual evolution of belief, one win at a time. With nuns cheering in the bleachers, it plays on faith, too, whether religious or the more secular faith of fans in a team, as victories start to seem possible.

Especially in context of the Athena Film Festival—a weekend-long program of films by and about women, held at Barnard College in mid-February—Mighty Macs tells a bigger story about women and sports before Title IX. At times, it plays for the laughs that balance a feel-good sports movie. Coach Cathy Rush promises to turn the college girls into athletes. “No,” gasps the Reverend Mother (played primly, but with a certain restrained glee, by Ellen Burstyn). “Just calm their hormones.” The girls on the Immaculata basketball team play in dress-like powder blue uniforms, looking dowdy and short against the slick bright shirts and shorts of an opposing varsity team. Coach Rush has her team run passing drills wearing oven mitts, to learn how to control the ball even through the thick, unwieldy fabric.

This is a story of transformation. The girls’ bodies change as they get confident enough to move fast and fluently across the court. There’s a transformation on the sidelines too, as Coach Rush grows more confident, and forms a wonderful friendship with Sister Sunday, a wide-eyed and questioning young nun.

After the film, writer/director Tim Chambers stayed for a discussion, joined by Kym Hampton, a former New York Liberty basketball player.

“Great sports films are always about something else,” noted Chambers. “Cathy Rush is about the equality of dreams. When I was a young boy, Immaculata’s team used to practice in our gym,” he said.

The film’s theatrical release in October will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Mighty Macs’ 1971-1972 season. But members of the 1971 team (left) used the Athena preview screening as an opportunity for a reunion weekend. Beaming as the credits rolled, they crowed, “You got the uniforms right!”

 

 

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Miss Representation Asks, Where Are the Women?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom frames Miss Representation, her documentary about women in the media, around her anxieties about the world her baby daughter is going to grow up to face. After talking about the pressure she felt as a young girl to be completely perfect—athletic, smart, and beautiful—she unleashes a barrage of images from American media. Cleavage, reality show stars, guns, ads and music videos flash onto the screen insistently, showing how pervasive this limited vision of women has become.

This film is an ambitious undertaking, attempting to both portray and resolve the troubled position of women in the media. Be forewarned: it’s a lot to take in at once. Interviews with women in powerful positions, like Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric, and Nancy Pelosi make a thoughtful counterpoint to some troubling statistics. For instance, according to Newsom, women hold 17 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives; female representation in the equivalent legislative body in Rwanda is 56.3 percent. An even more disconcerting statistic: 25 percent of women in the U.S. are abused by a partner at some point in their lifetimes.

Though they present a sobering picture, these facts are displayed artfully. They come into focus against a stark white background, linger to make their point, and then transform into smoke, to be blown away. It makes a visual statement, transitioning worrisome numbers into a visual representation of hope for change.

Focusing on the far-reaching impact of the under-representation of women in positions of power in government, the film gives men their say as well. Interviews with Newark mayor Cory Booker and author/filmmaker Jackson Katz (Tough Guise and The Macho Paradox) highlight men’s efforts to be part of the solution. The filmmaker’s husband, former San Francisco mayor and current California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, contributed his thoughts to the documentary as well (though he declined to stay for the panel discussion after the screening I attended.)

Working to listen to and help mentor younger media consumers, the director also reaches out to middle and high school students. It’s wrenching to see these young men and women talk about their experiences–hating their bodies so much that they starve or cut themselves, and wonder if they can be loved.

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Bringing together these experiences and commentary from such a wide range of women highlighted a sense of community and responsibility. Condoleezza Rice spoke particularly eloquently to the issues of sexism and racism that extend beyond politics.

There’s so much that’s rich and urgently necessary in this discussion that some aspects of the film can be frustrating. At times, the montages of film clips felt overwhelming. Focusing on the clips (and wincing away from some of the more graphic ones) all but crowded out the thoughtfulness of the commentary and the sense of the film’s larger project.

Focusing exclusively on American media offers a wide range of problematic perspectives on women’s bodies. But the film demonizes the media as the sole catalyst for this skewed perspective, without taking into account the idea that the media can often be a reflection of a larger society’s constructs. There’s a brief nod to this, highlighting how few women hold positions of power in the major television network conglomerates.

The work of the film continues on the Miss Representation website. With the aid of nonprofits, screenings are scheduled to take place on university campuses. There are plans to bring an abbreviated version to high schools and elementary schools, and to screen the film for Congress and the FCC.

And now, perhaps, at a theater near you.

Sneak Preview: “Mighty Macs” on Women, Sports, and Personal Transformation (VIDEO)

March 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

On the surface, Mighty Macs is a solid, goodhearted sports movie. It has all the ingredients: a brash, young inspirational coach; a down-on-its-luck but scrappy sports team; adversity from teams that tower over it; and funding cuts threatening to close the school. The team lifts itself up with a gradual evolution of belief, one win at a time. With nuns cheering in the bleachers, it plays on faith, too, whether religious or the more secular faith of fans in a team, as victories start to seem possible.

Especially in context of the Athena Film Festival—a weekend-long program of films by and about women, held at Barnard College in mid-February—Mighty Macs tells a bigger story about women and sports before Title IX. At times, it plays for the laughs that balance a feel-good sports movie. Coach Cathy Rush promises to turn the college girls into athletes. “No,” gasps the Reverend Mother (played primly, but with a certain restrained glee, by Ellen Burstyn). “Just calm their hormones.” The girls on the Immaculata basketball team play in dress-like powder blue uniforms, looking dowdy and short against the slick bright shirts and shorts of an opposing varsity team. Coach Rush has her team run passing drills wearing oven mitts, to learn how to control the ball even through the thick, unwieldy fabric.

This is a story of transformation. The girls’ bodies change as they get confident enough to move fast and fluently across the court. There’s a transformation on the sidelines too, as Coach Rush grows more confident, and forms a wonderful friendship with Sister Sunday, a wide-eyed and questioning young nun.

After the film, writer/director Tim Chambers stayed for a discussion, joined by Kym Hampton, a former New York Liberty basketball player.

“Great sports films are always about something else,” noted Chambers. “Cathy Rush is about the equality of dreams. When I was a young boy, Immaculata’s team used to practice in our gym,” he said.

The film’s theatrical release in October will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Mighty Macs’ 1971-1972 season. But members of the 1971 team (left) used the Athena preview screening as an opportunity for a reunion weekend. Beaming as the credits rolled, they crowed, “You got the uniforms right!”




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Film Review: My So-Called Enemy (VIDEO)

February 25, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies, Politics

My So Called Enemy, a documentary film by Lisa Gossels, features six young Israeli and Palestinian women who, in 2002, went through an intensive leadership training program called Building Bridges for Peace. The film follows them for the next seven years, as they live their lives in their respective communities.

At a screening in mid-February at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College, Gossels spoke in conversation with three women from One Voice, an international organization focused on resolving the conflict in the Middle East.

One of the ideas expressed in the film and the discussion is that the point of the Building Bridges for Peace program is not for everyone to agree, or for a solution to be found or a fix to be made, but rather to create a safe space for teens to feel and express their thoughts and feelings about the conflict between Israel and Palestine that has shaped their lives. By encouraging their voices to be heard, the program’s creators believe, leaders are created.

Since the film’s subjects are teenagers, it’s no surprise that they go through many changes in those seven years. One young Palestinian woman becomes increasingly committed to her Muslim faith. Another continues to defy stereotypes with tattoos by her favorite Israeli tattoo artist. Two participants—Gal, an Israeli Jew and Razan, a Palestinian Christian—manage to maintain a close friendship, despite not always being able to travel across borders to see each other in person. In a key scene, after a new wall is erected along the West Bank, Razan takes Gal (who has changed out of her army uniform because it upsets her friend) to see it. Together, they write one of their favorite quotes on the gray concrete: “‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ – Mahatma Gandhi.” If indeed, these women are tomorrow’s leaders in the Middle East, the future of the area is much brighter.

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Sneak Preview: Miss Representation Asks, Where Are the Women? (VIDEO)

February 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Media, Movies, Politics

Jennifer Siebel Newsom frames Miss Representation, her documentary about women in the media, around her anxieties about the world her baby daughter is going to grow up to face. After talking about the pressure she felt as a young girl to be completely perfect—athletic, smart, and beautiful—she unleashes a barrage of images from American media. Cleavage, reality show stars, guns, ads and music videos flash onto the screen insistently, showing how pervasive this limited vision of women has become.

This film is an ambitious undertaking, attempting to both portray and resolve the troubled position of women in the media. Be forewarned: it’s a lot to take in at once. Interviews with women in powerful positions, like Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric, and Nancy Pelosi make a thoughtful counterpoint to some troubling statistics. For instance, according to Newsom, women hold 17 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives; female representation in the equivalent legislative body in Rwanda is 56.3 percent. An even more disconcerting statistic: 25 percent of women in the U.S. are abused by a partner at some point in their lifetimes.

Though they present a sobering picture, these facts are displayed artfully. They come into focus against a stark white background, linger to make their point, and then transform into smoke, to be blown away. It makes a visual statement, transitioning worrisome numbers into a visual representation of hope for change.

Focusing on the far-reaching impact of the under-representation of women in positions of power in government, the film gives men their say as well. Interviews with Newark mayor Cory Booker and author/filmmaker Jackson Katz (Tough Guise and The Macho Paradox) highlight men’s efforts to be part of the solution. The filmmaker’s husband, former San Francisco mayor and current California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, contributed his thoughts to the documentary as well (though he declined to stay for the panel discussion after the screening I attended.)

Working to listen to and help mentor younger media consumers, the director also reaches out to middle and high school students. It’s wrenching to see these young men and women talk about their experiences–hating their bodies so much that they starve or cut themselves, and wonder if they can be loved.

YouTube Preview Image

Bringing together these  experiences and commentary from such a wide range of women highlighted a sense of community and responsibility. Condoleezza Rice spoke particularly eloquently to the issues of sexism and racism that extend beyond politics.

There’s so much that’s rich and urgently necessary in this discussion that some aspects of the film can be frustrating. At times, the montages of film clips felt overwhelming. Focusing on the clips (and wincing away from some of the more graphic ones) all but crowded out the thoughtfulness of the commentary and the sense of the film’s larger project.

Focusing exclusively on American media offers a wide range of problematic perspectives on women’s bodies. But the film demonizes the media as the sole catalyst for this skewed perspective, without taking into account the idea that the media can often be a reflection of a larger society’s constructs. There’s a brief nod to this, highlighting how few women hold positions of power in the major television network conglomerates.

The work of the film continues on the Miss Representation website. With the aid of nonprofits, screenings are scheduled to take place on university campuses. There are plans to bring an abbreviated version to high schools and elementary schools, and to screen the film for Congress and the FCC.

And maybe, one of these days, at a theater near you. For now, check the site for upcoming events.

Athena Film Festival: Women’s Film is Alive and Making Some Noise (VIDEO)

February 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Media, Movies

With all the buzz about the Oscars and Sundance, WVFC was thrilled to learn about this week’s Athena Film Festival, which opens tonight and will feature, at New York’s Barnard College, many films usually missing from awards season.

Not that the festival, co-sponsored by Women and Hollywood, ignores the awards entirely: after its opening program, a “Celebration of Women’s Leadership,” one of the first films to be screened is Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone. And among the conference panels, chaired by Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein, is one on “The Bechdel Test,” about the marginalization of women in Hollywood films. But most of the festival is devoted to work that does just the opposite. Among its dozens of features and shorts, which will be accompanied by panels, presentation, and other special programs, are:

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  • Mo, BBC’s powerful biopic featuring award-winning actress Julie Walters. The Telegraph UK praised Walters’  “brilliant portrayal of an earthy, eccentric, stoical woman” as Mo Mowlam, the charismatic politician who in 1998 helped broker the historic Good Friday Agreement, a crucial step in the Northern Ireland peace process.
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Those attending The Athena Festival tomorrow through Sunday can catch other films we’ve awaited. We noticed  Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, about the relationship between media sexism and our lack of equal representation in government, when it screened at Sundance, and have already been    putting together a discussion of Desert Flower, Sherry Horman’s multifaceted exploration of fashion and African feminism. (Look for that piece on WVFC next month, when Desert Flower kicks off its theatrical run.) WVFC will have two reporters attending the festival, but if you go, let us know what you thought about about it in the comments below.