The Athena Film Festival at Barnard College facilitates an annual AFF Documentary Pitch Program (formally named the Works in Progress) as part of our Creative Development Program to support filmmakers. The program is an intensive pitch training and storytelling strengthening opportunity that will take place during January and February 2024 and will culminate with the pitch during the Athena Festival on Friday, March 1, 2024. Each filmmaking team will work with Peabody Award-winning filmmaker/teacher/Co-Founder of Chicken & Egg Picture, Judith Helfand. This program is underwritten by Secret Sauce Media, whose Founder, Julie Parker Benello, is a Barnard Alumna.
2023 Works-in-Progress Filmmakers
Iris Chang: Power of One explores the intriguing life, unexpected suicide and lasting legacy of Iris Chang, the Chinese American activist and best-selling author of “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” illustrating the ripple effect one person can have and raising critical questions about achievement, self-care and mental wellness in modern society.
Birth Bestie (s)
Amira Williams, Director
An intimate look into life on the frontlines of the maternal mortality epidemic through Brooklyn-based community doula, Simone Colbert, and her fellow doula sisters as they support Black mothers not only throughout their pregnancies, but long after childbirth––becoming more like family along the way.
After years of suffering rape and abuse of power, a former nun reports a high-ranking priest to the Vatican for sexual assault. The case is covered up, but a fearless feminist journalist releases an explosive interview with the nun and ignites the #nunstoo movement within the Catholic Church.
Te Shima Brennen and Rajvi Desai, Directors
An ailing Black trans matriarch struggles to inculcate the values of education and survival in her community before she runs out of time.
2022 Works-in-Progress Filmmakers
Running with the Prime Minister
Lexi Leban, Director; Producers, Leo Chang, Violet Feng, Betsy Tsai
Filmmaker Lexi and her teenaged daughter Sóla leave the U.S. for the “best place in the world to be a woman” to follow the woman who seems to have figured it all out: Lexi’s sister-in-law and Sola’s aunt who just happens to be leftist, feminist, and environmentalist Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland.
Running With the Prime Minister is a first-person documentary from a queer American filmmaker with a teenaged daughter, an Icelandic wife, and sister-in-law, who happens to be the leftist, feminist, and environmentalist Prime Minister of Iceland: Katrín “Kata” Jakobsdóttir. This transnational exploration between the filmmaker and her sister-in-law is a dance between the personal and the political, revealing an insightful consideration of the state of contemporary feminism across borders and generations.
Pallavi Somusetty, Director; Debra A. Wilson, Producer
Coach Emily follows Emily Taylor, an Oakland-based Black and queer rock climbing coach, who loves the freedom that comes with climbing as much as she values racial justice for her community. Through her Brown Girls Climbing program, Emily supports young girls of color as they grapple with discrimination in the climbing world and work to define their identities.
With candor, humor and some unexpected and very rocky twists, the film unfolds chronologically from 2019-2022, before and during the isolation, fear, reckonings and revelations of the pandemic. We trace Emily’s evolution as a coach in a racist rock climbing industry, her preteen daughter’s assertion of her mixed-race identity and growing feminist ideals, and the push and pull of screens vs the wilderness, as a group of Black and brown girls, their families, and their coach find their footing on the rock, in their city and the wilderness they are traversing.
In Plain Sight
Sarah McClure, Director/Producer; Jessie Deeter Co-Director/Producer
In Plain Sight tells the story of Minnesotan Amish farm girl-turned-activist Lizzy Hershberger as she confronts her past abuse and becomes a leader of Amish and other sexual assault survivors. Growing up in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community, she cooked on a wood stove, milked cows, dressed in Amish clothes that emphasized modesty, and traveled in a horse and buggy when she wasn’t walking barefoot. But at 14 years old, she was raped by an Amish farmer she worked for. Afterward, she faced threats and intense pressure by her Amish community to stay silent.
Thirty years later, having escaped that life, Lizzy breaks her silence and reports her rapist, now an Amish church deacon, to the authorities. In Plain Sight follows Lizzy’s journey as she leads a growing movement of Amish and Mennonite sexual assault survivors bringing awareness and justice to isolated communities across the country.
Normal Never Worked
Soraya Sélène, Director/Producer ; Cat Deakins, Producer
Normal Never Worked explores a crossroads we are facing in education. It is the story of filmmaker Soraya Sélène, a single mother, on a journey across America, exploring education in this disruptive moment and providing experiential learning to her 6-year-old children, Kaia and Diego, while seeking answers to family mysteries and healing childhood trauma.
On their journey, they encounter and commune with other BIPOC families, exploring shared frustrations and shared hopes for new pathways and solutions. Throughout California and Arizona, from Chicago through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama to New Orleans; they meet homeschoolers, unschoolers, roadschoolers, and activist families fighting for change within the failing public school system.
The underlying contemplation throughout this film is, WHAT IS A GOOD EDUCATION? Why return to “normal” when normal never worked? The experiences Soraya and her children amass on their journey, and the wisdom learned from the brave women and families they meet on the road, provide answers we look forward to sharing with the world.
The Story of Amy Goodman
Tia Lessin & Carl Deal, Directors; Karen Ranucci, Producer
In an era of corporate news media consolidation, where divisive voices incite racial violence and entertainment trumps facts, Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! take us to the frontlines in the battle for truth and independence in journalism in this feature documentary.
The Story of Amy Goodman follows Amy over 25 years as she builds Democracy Now! from a modest election-year broadcast, carried by just nine community radio stations, into an award-winning daily live news show, airing on more than 1,500 public radio and television stations — more stations than NPR (1,000) and PBS (300) combined. This successful non-commercial news model is placed in the context of the current attacks on our democracy and demonstrates why independent journalism is essential to provide the public with the information they need to be informed and active citizens. We go behind the scenes to learn how Amy’s history gives her the courage to confront power by bringing voices long excluded by corporate media to her audience of millions. Dramatic verite footage makes vivid Amy’s mantra, “Go to where the silence is.” This documentary will inspire us all and encourage new legions of independent journalists to be the ultimate check on unprecedented power — the truth.
2021 Works-in-Progress Filmmakers
Coexistence My Ass!
Amber Fares, Director/Producer; Rachel Leah-Jones, Producer
COEXISTENCE MY ASS follows Noam Shuster, a bilingual Hebrew- and Arabic- speaking Israeli comedian who crafts a daring act out of the wild and wonderful identity politics she embodies. When #BLM-inspired protests reach Israel, Noam realizes it’s time to push her compatriots to unlearn their racism, one joke at a time.
It is a feature-length documentary that explores how humor can be used to challenge inequality and injustice from within. From a Harvard fellowship to pop-up stand- up shows, the film chronicles the journey of comedian Noam Shuster from somebody to somebody-even-bigger. Blending cinema verite and live performance with an intimate character study, this is a story about a woman who not only finds her own unique voice, but gives voice to other multicultural, multidimensional, multilingual and transnational women of color as political allies and agents of social change.
Bridget Besaw, Director; Adetoro Makinde, Co-Director & Producer
Germaine Jenkins—urban farmer, activist, and a Black mother—is dismantling power structure norms in North Charleston, SC, to save her cooperative venture, Fresh Future Farm (FFF), and end the food apartheid that has ravaged communities like hers for decades. The farm blossoms from a radical idea to garnering national attention thanks to a dynamic mélange of mostly young, gifted and Black team members. ROOTED tracks Germaine’s coming-to-power journey as she learns the survival strategies necessary to sustain herself and grow more leaders.
In 2014, Germaine Jenkins convinced the North Charleston City Council to lease her a .8 acre vacant lot to grow shiny food and open a small grocery store for a community that hadn’t had access to a traditional grocery store in over a decade. She garnered a five-year lease on Success Street to create the farm, and now that lease is up. Yet despite raising funds to buy the farmland, a clean deed is evasive, forcing her to confront the harsh realities Black women leaders face in America.
The Untitled 19th* News Film
Chelsea Hernandez, Director; Heather Courtney, Director; Diane Quon, Producer
n 2020, a fearless group of journalists, including founder Emily Ramshaw and reporter Errin Haines, seek to upend the status quo by launching an all-women news start-up. Building a diverse newsroom that reflects the women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people they’re writing about, The 19th* News could be a model in these changing times – IF they can survive their tumultuous first year.
THE UNTITLED 19TH* NEWS FILM, is an observational feature which follows The 19th*’s first 18 months. With exclusive access to The 19th*’s team, we embed with Emily and Errin and the team of their reporters located across the country as they set out to tell stories of the women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people who are ignored by legacy newsrooms. Some of the more groundbreaking stories will form the spine of our film, showing how this newsroom is changing the narrative of our country one story at a time.
They Tried To Bury Us
Bree Newsome Bass, Director; Jacqueline Olive, Executive Producer
THEY TRIED TO BURY US picks up where news coverage left off when artist and activist Bree Newsome Bass made headlines with a historic act of protest in 2015, scaling a 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina capital to lower the confederate flag following the racially-motivated shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church. In her feature directorial debut, Bree shows how that event permanently altered her life, giving audiences a nuanced and intimate view of what it’s like to be a grassroots organizer on the frontlines of change where individuals must constantly weigh their desire to challenge power against the risks it poses to their safety.
Bree quickly learned that the fame and notoriety that comes with making history had altered her life forever, creating new dynamics she now has to carefully navigate as she continues grassroots organizing in her local community. THEY TRIED TO BURY US picks up this revolutionary story where the news left off. As she returns home to Charlotte, North Carolina to organize locally, this first person documentary tells the story of Bree’s leadership in building movements for long-term systemic change. Newly married to another movement organizer and now mother to an infant son, she strives to find balance between her obligations to family and her commitment to the modern civil rights movement.
Rough Cut Stage
Set in the cutthroat, male-dominated world of high school debate, where tomorrow’s leaders are groomed, GIRL TALK tells the compelling and timely story of five girls on a diverse, top-ranked Massachusetts high school debate team as they strive to become the best debaters in the United States.
In LITTLE SALLIE WALKER, four Black women from across the generations recount how they once discovered pleasure, refuge, and power in childhood play. As they continue to navigate a less than idyllic American landscape, each contemplates if play is magical enough to save them now.
I of the Water (The Unwritten Life of Sia Figiel)
Acclaimed Pacific writer Sia Figiel is heralded for her groundbreaking work exposing violence against women, yet she struggles to find peace in her own life. It’s not until she embarks on a walk across America that she begins to uncover the true source of her pain.
Women of Valor
At first glance Esty Shushan seems like a regular Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) woman: a daughter of a Rabbi, an elder sister in a family of 12 siblings, whose children grew up in Ultra-Orthodox schools. For years, she wrote articles for Haredi newspapers under a pseudonym of a man, and kept silent in the face of a society that doesn’t allow Haredi women to run for the Israeli parliament. However, one day she realizes she has to speak up and act, and along with her fellow Haredi sisters goes to raise the flag of their struggle.
UPRISING follows three women in three different countries, telling the stories of revolution, change and empowerment through their own singular lens. The viewer is immersed into their lives of protest, planning and campaigning for better futures for themselves, their families, and their countries.
WHEEL QUEENS is a docuseries that examines the intersection of disability, race and socioeconomic status through the lens of 6 women in wheelchairs who are Disability Rights Activists and beauty pageant queens.