TUTV’s ‘The Athena Project’ highlights female, transgender, non-binary voices

The creators of The Athena Project, Amanda Rose (left) and Rachel Sobel, pose for a portrait in Tisch Library on Jan. 29. Hailey Gavin /The Tufts Daily

Disclaimer: Ray Bernoff is a former staff photographer and Emma Damokosh is a former features editor at The Tufts Daily. Amanda Rose is a former assistant arts editor at The Tufts Daily. They were not involved in the writing or editing of this article. 

The first episode of Tufts University Television’s (TUTV) latest series, “The Athena Project,” was released on Jan. 11, after nearly a year in production. The anthology series features interviews with female-identifying, transgender and non-binary students at Tufts. The episodes, which come in at around 14 minutes each, are organized around a central theme, such as “home,” “family” or “confidence.” Creators Amanda Rose, a senior, and Rachel Sobel, a junior, said their goal was to create a platform for people of marginalized genders at Tufts to share their stories.

“We were thinking about whose stories are told on screen, and we thought it would be cool if the lens we put on our storytelling was gender,” Rose said.

Sobel added that while only female-identifying, transgender and non-binary members of the community were interviewed, the intent was not to make a series solely focused on gender.

“We didn’t go into this project saying we want to talk about gender. We went into this project saying we want to provide a platform for people of marginalized genders to tell stories,” Sobel said. “Once they have the mic in their hand, they can do absolutely whatever they want.”

Rose and Sobel said they wanted interviewees to feel comfortable talking about whatever they wanted.

“We asked people ‘What would you be disappointed if you didn’t say?’” Sobel said.

The individual themes of the series’ 13 episodes came later, once filming wrapped up. Rose and Sobel intended for the interviews to be personal and far-reaching, and as a result, they relate to the theme but do not feel constrained by it.

The finished product results from a long creation process. According to Rose and Sobel, they first came up with the idea over brunch in November 2017. Sobel suggested they do something similar to the Humans of New York (HONY) documentary series, which consists of interviews organized around different themes.

“We both really liked documentaries and storytelling,” Rose said. “Rachel [Sobel] mentioned the HONY documentary series, and we thought ‘I guess we could do something like that at Tufts.’”

Their next step was to bring the idea to TUTV. Receiving support from TUTV allowed The Athena Project to access equipment and crew members, as well as receive support with editing and promotion. Junior Rachel Napoliello, an executive board member of TUTV who was interviewed in the series, was present at the series’ initial pitch.

I think it was a project that we needed at the time, especially with the political culture,” Napoliello said. “We had never done anything like that before, so it was just a great opportunity to get the voices of people of marginalized genders heard and to build community as well.”

After receiving support for their idea, Rose and Sobel put the word out to the Tufts community to find interviewees.

“We reached out to every identity-based group on campus and asked them to forward our general interest form to their e-list,” Rose said.

Junior Molly Lipman, who was interviewed for the series, remembers seeing the interest form posted in the Class of 2020 Facebook group.

“They seemed like they were willing to take anyone so I thought I’d reach out,” she said.

Lipman added that she was initially receptive because “it wasn’t a club, it was a project individuals were doing.”

According to Rose and Sobel, 37 members of the Tufts community were interviewed as part of The Athena Project. The creators met with each interviewee before filming, to make them feel as comfortable as possible.

“We wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding the mission of the project [and] people’s rights on set,” Sobel said. “We told everyone, ‘This is your space, you can choose not to answer any question you don’t want to answer, you can only talk about the following things if you want.’”

Rose and Sobel added that making sure interviewees felt safe and comfortable was a top priority both on and off set. Before each interview, they sent the interviewee a list of the questions they planned to ask. They allowed interviewees to choose if there would be men on set and offered the possibility of anonymity, in which the face of the speaker would not be shown and their voice would be altered. Before publishing each episode, they also let those featured know which of their stories would be used and allowed them to decide if they were comfortable having those stories air.

Filming for the series took place last spring. Rose and Sobel filmed five interviews a week, each of which took two to three hours.

Additionally, interviewees were allowed to decide where on campus they were interviewed. Lipman, who chose to be interviewed in her dorm, said she was impressed by how professional the shoot felt.

“There were two cameras and bright lights and all this sound equipment and they had one of those clackers and they would be like, ‘Take 4!'” she said. “It felt official and like they were doing [a] high-level production.”

Napoliello added that the atmosphere on set made it easy to share stories.

“One of the things I saw on set when I was there was that it was such a warm and welcoming environment, because that can be very stressful,” she said. “It was more about how the interviewee was feeling; were they comfortable [or] were they not? I think that’s how they got so many interviews, because people would talk about it and then other people would want to do it.”

“They were super accommodating and kept me informed the whole way,” Lipman added, “[This] was really helpful because if I didn’t know what was going on it would have just been all these bright lights.”

Rose and Sobel wanted to use the project to involve new people in the filmmaking world. They reached out to different groups for help with shooting the project, from both within and outside of existing filmmaking communities on campus. As a result, they noted that the experience levels of their crew varied widely.

“We had a lot of people who had never done this kind of thing,” Rose said. “We had people who had made whole TV series and people who had never turned on a camera.”

To help initiate crew members who were new to production, two experienced Tufts filmmakers, Kerry Crowley (LA ’18) and Ray Bernoff (LA ’18), were present on set to teach new members skills when needed, according to Napoliello.

Rose and Sobel also pointed out the involvement of their assistant directors, junior Emma Damokosh and senior Charlotte Warne, as essential to the project.

In the end, Rose found the process very fulfilling.

“We … created a community,” she said. “We had tears, we had laughter and we had really scary intense moments.”

Lipman said she was impressed by how much work went into the project.

“There [are] like 40 interviews and three hours for every interview that they had to go through and transcribe and edit and put together,” she said. “It’s really cool they just did this out of their own curiosity for the project.”

New episodes of The Athena Project are released every Friday on various social media platforms, and there are 13 episodes in total.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article did not include information in the disclaimer about Amanda Rose’s previous experience with The Tufts Daily. The article has been updated to reflect that Rose was an assistant arts editor. The Daily regrets this error.