Credit: Lisa Russell
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Stories are powerful. They define who we are and what we care about. When the stories that are told about us are positive, they can empower us. When they are desolate, they can make us feel insecure or question ourselves.
As a filmmaker whose job it is to capture and retell others' stories, I take my responsibility very seriously. Which is why as my career took off, I started to question whether I, as a Western filmmaker who produces many global health advocacy films, should be telling stories of women and girls living in such different realities than my own. Though I work to ensure that I retain the dignity of each woman or girl I portray, I wasn't sure I could do a non-"victimizing" documentary when my films focus on such serious topics as HIV/AIDS, obstetric fistula, unsafe abortions and the impact of war on young women.
This changed when I shot "¡PODER!"
"¡PODER!" (the Spanish word for "power"), my new docu-drama film, which has its online premiere today, showed me the value of involving young women in the storytelling process. This film tells the real-life story of how two indigenous girls in Guatemala -- Elba Velasquez and Emelin Cabrera, -- challenged the mayor of their small town of Concepción Chiquirichapa to create girl-friendly municipal public policies. These public policies ensure that the local government addresses girls' unique needs in the areas of health, education, HIV prevention and culturally-relevant family violence prevention. The mayor also allocated 0.5 percent of the total yearly municipal budget to open a Municipal Office of Childhood and Adolescence.
Young women in this Mayan community face numerous challenges, as only 10 percent of Mayan girls finish primary school and nearly half have babies before they turned 18, according to Let Girls Lead, a nonprofit with headquarters in Oakland, Calif., that works for a global movement to empower girls and their allies to lead social change. Despite this, with the help of their adult ally, Juany Garcia, Elba and Emelin (who were 14 and 11, respectively, at the time) managed to make great changes in their community.
To tell this story as authentically as possible, I knew I couldn't shoot the film as a typical documentary. I did not want to approach the story with a focus on the challenges, but rather wanted to examine what the girls did in spite of them. So I used a different method for the production process. I interviewed Elba and Emelin twice (before my trip by phone and then once I arrived in Guatemala) and used their interviews to draft the script. I then had them and Garcia act out their own story with the help of their male friend (Hector) and a government official (who played the mayor in the film). I bookended the film with animation, including a cameo by Jennifer Buffett, president of the Novo Foundation, to set the story up in a unique way.
For three days we traveled around their small town, shooting various scenes (sometimes by script, others ad-lib) in different outfits, to create different atmospheres for the film. We turned this small town, with around 20,000 inhabitants, into a film set and we had a lot of fun.
But what transpired during the shoot was the real revelation for me -- that having girls involved in telling their own story can add another element to girls-centered advocacy. The film production itself was an empowering process.
The ripple effect was incredible. The town residents started asking why we were making a film. The mothers started talking about what Elba and Emelin accomplished that was so worthy of a camera following them. The media came out to interview the girls. Recently, they had a special screening of the final film (translated in Spanish) in their town, where they were recognized for their work and their role in the film. The film gave them public recognition for the community work they did, which they so rightly deserved.
In Girls' Hands
On March 12, "¡PODER!" had its world premiere at the United Nations 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. Since the film is focused on girl power, it needed to be seen and placed into the hands of girls. So earlier in the day, "¡PODER!" was screened to 60-plus girls of color at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn. In an effort to ensure the message of the film reached girls who could benefit from it, I collaborated with a young poet, Chanel Dupree, who read a poem she wrote specifically for the film, and with the New York-based Queen Geniuses founder, Regine Roy, who led a short leadership workshop exercise.
Along with the online premiere of "¡PODER!," we are launching a new "Film Ambassador" program where the film – along with screening guidelines, a recording of the poem and "¡PODER!" swag such as stickers and pens – can be provided to girl leaders worldwide so they can host their own screenings and share the messages with their family and peers. Additional screenings are being arranged with girls' organizations in Chiapas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Seattle and other locations. With this film, I'm creating my first ever girls-focused distribution strategy.
As I reflect on my time in Guatemala shooting the film and the wonderful experience I had with Elba and Emelin and our cast, I realize that in order for us - as adult allies and as storytellers - to truly empower girls, we need to involve them in how their experiences and their problems are told to the world.
To watch the film and support the "Film Ambassador" program, visit http://www.PoderTheFilm.com.
Lisa Russell is an Emmy-winning filmmaker, global health advocate and teaching artist who has over 10 years of experience producing films and creative projects for the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations. She is the director, writer, cameraperson and editor for "¡PODER!" Follow her on Twitter at @lisarussellfilm.
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