Two weeks ago I attended Barnard College’s second annual Athena Film Festival, which definitely exceeded my expectations, especially in their ability to invite the actual makers and main characters of the films to come and speak to the audience. The films were of genuine high quality, and  I definitely had a few sobbing moments during all of the films I watched.

The Naked Option: A Last Resort (2010)

Directed by Candace Schermerhorn

*Watch it online at SnagFilms

The Naked Option is a wonderful documentary about women from the Niger Delta educating and organizing themselves in an effort to gain more political rights, especially in environmental issues caused by the arrival of huge oil companies such as Chevron and Shell more than 50 years ago. Like one of the main characters said, Nigerian women are “double victims”–the victims of an environmental disaster and of a strongly sexist society. The documentary effectively depicts how this deeply disadvantaged group of people came to educate themselves in their political rights and skills through grassroots workshops and eventually organized protests that made a difference. It highlights the importance of leadership, which is a highly abstract idea so ubiquitously promoted on college campuses and yet rarely fully understood. The Naked Option reveals how America is complicit in the exploitations of the Nigerian people, since the U.S. consumes almost 60% of their export in oil, which makes up about 13% of U.S.’s total consumption of oil. The bleak environmental condition of the Niger Delta due to frequent oil spills and unregulated industrial practices, along with similar situations across the globe, calls for much, much stronger incentives to encourage alternative energy resources . We are committing far too many crimes against nature, which is simply another form of collective suicide.

The Education of Dee Dee Ricks (2011)

Directed by Perri Peltz

The Education of Dee Dee Ricks is a breast cancer story. And Dee Dee appears to be, frankly speaking, the stereotypical, obnoxious, shallow, and rich white girl character in mainstream chick flicks. Rich indeed, Dee Dee Ricks has led an ostensibly luxurious life as a successful Wall St. businesswoman–until, at around age 40, she discovered she had early stage breast cancer. Luckily, she has all the money in the world to go through surgeries and chemotherapy that will likely lead to a full recovery. But the loss of her beautiful breast, the realization of the price, the complexity and ambiguity of the health care system, and the friendship with a poor, late-stage breast cancer patient Cynthia who later died comprised Dee Dee’s “education” that turned her into a breast cancer activist today. I think the documentary is worth watching for its straight-forward juxtaposition of Dee Dee, the %1, and Cynthia, the %99, which reveals the deep inequality in America. But going beyond the obvious and actually delving into Dee Dee’s transformation, I am not sure how much I am convinced that Dee Dee’s transformation is a significant one. I am more overwhelmed by the disgust I got from the sneak peaks into the lives of the rich, whose vanity, shallowness, and arrogance–often a result of their engagement in socially unproductive and disconnected businesses like Wall Street firms–out-shadowed their meager philanthropy. But I could just be a hater.

The Lady (2011)

Directed by Luc Besson

The “Lady” is the Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been held in house arrest for 15 years by the Burmese military junta until recently. The cinematography was breathtakingly beautiful and the actors and actresses’ delivery was very convincing. My favorite scene comes from very early on in the film, when Ang Sung Suu Kyi returned to Burma for her dying mother, and she saw the students protesting on the street with posters of her father, Aung San. I think that was a great moment, one that connects the past with the present, and is far better than the over-extended, melodramatic scene of the Nobel Peace Prize award. The Lady is, in two words, too long. Similar scenes and emotions were used over and over again, and the last conflict was rather anticlimactic. In fact, there were probably too many medium to major conflicts in the film that really diluted the story’s intensity. Many of the repeated arrivals and departures of her family members, especially their children, did not contribute much to the plot and I think it’s one of those perhaps historical truths that could be omitted for the sake of story-telling. The Nobel Peace Prize award was, again, overdone and Pachelbel’s Canon was definitely not the right choice of background music in that scene. If I were to rate this film out of five stars, I would probably give it 2.5 stars for only half of the film captivated me but add one for the actors, actresses, and cinematography. I would still recommend the film to people as a quick, historical sneak peak into modern Burmese history that would perhaps incite more interest in this troubled country.