Feminism, Film and the Academy Awards Q+A

A pre-Oscars Q+A with Melissa Silverstein of the Athena Film Festival and the Women and Hollywood blog.

Two weeks ago I swung by the amazing Athena Film festival and watched Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair have a fascinating conversation with Greta Gerwig about all of the Hollywood double-standards we feminist are well aware of–from the need to be red-carpet ready to the dearth of movies that explore female friendship, to the way Hollywood’s pre-packaged narratives which ignore daily life can hurt women’s stories. I thought I’d keep the conversation going, pre-Oscars, with the festival’s co-organizer and the internet’s resident expert on feminist critiques of the movie biz, Melissa Silverstein. I hope this interview becomes an annual tradition!

Rewire: What inspired you to organize the Athena Film Festival?

MS: Well, it came out of en event that I worked on for the director Jane Campion over a year ago. There were a lot of women directors talking about not having forums for their works. Kathryn Kolbert had just created the Athena Forum for Leadership at Barnard, so we put together seed grant applications and that’s how it started. 

What were some highlights? I know “Miss Representation” was sold out in a pretty big theater.

There’s like 600-some-odd seats in there. It was every exciting. We were thrilled people wanted to see that movie, be part of its conversation, learn about the topics. Everything at the festival was under the rubric of women’s leadership but we covered all different kinds of issues [from Catholic womenpriests to anti-violence activism in Harlem to Israeli and Palestinian girls at camp together].  One of our goals was not to have too many downer movies. Instead we got people going, thinking, and figuring out the next steps.

A lot of people came who were really interested in the films. I think we did a great job on outreach. 

It was interesting to see this feminist-minded film festival followed in short order by the Oscars which everyone has sort of said this year is a backslide in terms of representation of women and people of color?

I find the whole thing really bittersweet. There’s a real lack of visibility of women–Kathryn Bigleow was everywhere last year. We had a really interesting narrative about woman outside the system who had put in her dues and was finally embraced by the system. There were lots of questions abut “how did she get where she was?”which led to interesting cultural conversatations. This year it just feels like that didnt even happen. It feels like it’s completely gone.And with Lisa Cholodenko’s movie (“The Kids Are All Right“) and Debra Granik’s movie (“Winter’s Bone”) they’re pigeonholed by being talked about in terms of their scripts, not their direction. They wrote these movies, and they directed these movies. Not too many guys write and direct (Christopher Nolan is one exception). But in Hollywood they really like their directors for hire.  

Are there any moments we should watch for during the Oscars–aside from the big categories–that might highlight women in an interesting way?

I do think a woman is going to be up on that stage: Susanne Bier, the director of “In a Better World” which is the front-runner for best foreign film. And she has a long history of making really good movies out of Denmark. People should really take a look at her movies. I’ve watched almost all of them and I find them terrific.

There are strong  young women nominated; there are Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld’s performances.  It’s funny about “True Grit”–it made 150 million dollars, and it’s movie about a girl. But they sold it as a western starring Jeff Bridges. 

And what about documentaries?

Lucy Walker’s Waste Land has continued to be part of the conversation the whole year–although it has been overshadowed by Banksy. There are other documentaries like “Inside Job” and “Restrepo” about our economy and our wars.

We were lucky enough to have Poster Girl, which is nominated, at the Athena Film Festival. This is a very moving film about a young woman who joined the army because she had that desire. But now all her war injuries are making her fight to rebuild her life and it was fascinating to see that perspective from a young woman. There are several women nominated for documentary short-subjects.

Your blog, Women and Hollwood, has been picked up by IndieWIRE, which gives you a bigger platform. Clearly there’s an appetite for discussing the issue of diversity in Hollywood.

What’s so interesting for me is I never know what is going to provoke a reaction. There was one post on Emma Watson’s hair, how she feels like she has to grow it long to get new roles. It wasn’t a big deal post. But it brought out nasty trolls. And it also brought people who wouldn’t maybe normally find my stuff, or be interested in the feminist conversation about Hollywood. I hope people look around the site and see what else is there. That’s part of adjusting to IndieWIRE: I want it to be a safe place for people who come by.

Do you think there’s connection between nurturing women at the ground level like at the Athena Film festival and the diversity we eventually see at the Oscars?

One can only hope. One problem is that women’s stories and women’s experiences are really not valued in the same way that men’s are. It doesn’t always come down to people winning awards. It comes down to valuing a piece of humanity as equal. We still have this conversation where what goes on for men is seen as norm while what goes on for women is seen as “other.” If we normalize what women experience and it’s shown on the big screen and little screen in profound way, and accepted in our culture as normal, things change all over the place. Movies do have those kinds of effects.

Right now, on Monday morning–people still talk about the big blockbuster. That’s how we’re indoctrinated to talk about movies. Women’s stories are not going to always be the stories about blowing things up. There will a couple of those each year, but that’s not the narrative of women’s lives. We need to be valuing other kinds of narratives, accepting them as equal.

Don’t you think that all the fashion snarking and the policing of people’s comments has made the Oscars more sanitized and boring?

Someone asked me, ‘are you going to live-tweet the Oscars?’ But I always feel like if I was doing it I would end up saying something really obnoxious about something someone’s wearing. I don’t want to think about that way. It’s always the women who do the risky things anyway [fashion-wise], and always the women who pay the price. It’s too much. We can’t pay all the prices.