A brief protest interrupted the Athena Film Festival's awards ceremony Saturday night, which honored four women for their contributions to the film industry.
Early in the evening, a group of Columbia and Barnard students gathered outside the Diana Center Event Oval to protest Sherry Lansing, this year's winner of the festival's Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award and the former chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures.
The students, known as United Students Against Sweatshops, chanted, “Sherry Lansing, step off it, put people over profit,” several times before being escorted off campus by Barnard Public Safety officers.
Lansing—who wasn't actually present at the ceremony due to concerns about inclement weather—sits on the governing board of the University of California system, which is currently involved in contract renegotiation disputes with over 30,000 workers.
According to Emilie Segura, BC '14 and one of the USAS protesters, some 99 percent of those workers qualify for public assistance and Lansing is fighting against a rise in their pay.
“While we have no issue with the film festival, we find it particularly unfortunate that Sherry Lansing is honored as a philanthropist,” Segura said. “These people are barely making a living wage.”
The award—which began in 2013—is given to women “whose leadership demonstrates vision and courage and sets a standard for other women to emulate,” according to the festival's website.
Tania Ortega, a nursing assistant at the UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, flew to New York specifically to protest Lansing at the film festival. Ortega and another UC system worker joined the USAS protest at the awards ceremony.
“We just want her to pay attention to us,” Ortega said. “This affects a lot of people. A lot of people need help.”
Requests for comment from the festival's co-founder and director of Barnard's Athena Center for Leadership Studies, Kathryn Kolbert, were not immediately returned.
After the brief interruption, the awards went on as scheduled, honoring Lansing and three female directors.
“I am delighted to receive this award, and honored to be sharing the evening with three such incredible women,” Lansing said in a prerecorded video statement.
Lansing—who has been involved in the production, marketing, and distribution of more than 200 films, including “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic”—also spoke about Laura Ziskin, the namesake for her award.
“This award holds special significance to me because it carries her name,” Lansing said. “Laura fought hard for all her movies. They were movies no one wanted to make and she just kept going. But most importantly, all of her movies featured strong female characters. These women weren't victims. They were empowered.”
Kasi Lemmons, a director and one of the night's honorees, said that she was glad to see women get acknowledgement for their work in the industry.
“It's very life-affirming for us,” Lemmons said in an earlier interview with Spectator. “We deserve it just as much as anybody else.”
Lemmons, whose on-screen credits include “The Silence of the Lambs” and Spike Lee's “School Daze,” has also spent time behind the camera, directing the recent film “Black Nativity,” which starred Jennifer Hudson.
Lemmons, who teaches at the NYU film school, is encouraged by the number of women filmmakers entering the program, but still sees a scarcity of females in the industry.
“We are seeing a lot of movement in that direction, but not as much as one would expect,” Lemmons said. “It's kind of a mystery why there aren't more female directors and filmmakers.”
Keri Putnam, another 2014 Athena Award winner, also noted a lack of female film executives.
Putnam, the current executive director of the Sundance Institute, was previously president of production for Miramax Films and an executive vice president of HBO Films, but she remembers having little company at the top.
“I did not find being a woman at either of the two companies that I worked for was a personal impediment,” Putnam said in an earlier interview. “But there weren't really many women mentors along the way, and I wished I had more, especially as I was having kids and trying to navigate my career.”
Despite the lack of women in upper-level positions, Putnam is hopeful about the future place for female voices in film.
“I think exciting voices will rise,” Putnam said. “I think it's our collective job to support the storytellers, not just in terms of mentorship and helping them improve their craft of their work, but also in terms of career stability and access to audiences. That pipeline has to be developed.”
Like Putnam, Lemmons is optimistic about the future of women filmmakers.
“I am incredibly encouraged as an educator because I see these wonderful, interesting stories being told, and the quality of work is so high,” she said. “So I think you're going to see more and more balancing of the scales between male and female filmmakers.”
Callie Khouri, the fourth 2014 Athena Award recipient, is well-known for the uniquely female perspective she has brought to film.
Khouri made her screenwriting debut with the 1991 film “Thelma & Louise,” which was nominated for six Academy Awards. She went on to direct “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and is currently an executive producer of her show, “Nashville,” which stars Hayden Panettiere.
Khouri, who has said she based parts of “Nashville” on her own experience as a woman in the entertainment industry, said she thinks it's especially important to represent the struggles of women in the business.
“It's always better to be recognized than not,” Khouri said at the awards ceremony. “But I'm especially honored to be recognized at this festival. I think it does a wonderful job of framing the issues faced by women in film. I'm happy to support it, and happy to be here.”
In her acceptance speech, Khouri spoke warmly of Gloria Steinem as the woman who had inspired her the most.
“Without her, I would never have learned not to keep my mouth shut,” she said.
In speaking about the award winners, Kolbert said, “We were looking for women with two characteristics: They had to be not only great leaders in their own right, but be dedicated to giving back to other women and helping them along.”
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