Mallika Dutt

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Latara Isom, a single mother of four kids, took up a video camera to document her daily life among the boarded-up houses and garbage-strewn vacant lots in her Milwaukee neighborhood, she revealed her struggles–and her strength. When human rights activist Mallika Dutt set out to produce an MTV-budget pop-music video celebrating women’s rights, she encountered skeptics–and proved them wrong. These two unlikely filmmakers harnessed the camera’s persuasive power to tell women’s stories. And people are listening.

Both women’s films were selected as entries. for this year’s Media That Matters Film Festival, which showcases the best short films that inspire viewers to take action for social change. The festival debuted in New York and Washington in June, and its films are available online for the rest of the year.

Telling It like It Is

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families pushed for policy changes by hauling out reports and statistics to make its case–until now. In an effort to connect policy to daily experience, the council loaned video cameras to Latara Isom and three other low-income women and asked them to document life in Milwaukee’s Metcalfe and Washington Park neighborhoods. The result is the one-hour documentary, "My Family, My Neighborhood, My Story." A shortened version, focused on Isom, made it into the Media That Matters Festival.

"What we really wanted to show is low-income families have the same goals as any other family. They just have more obstacles," says Tamara Grigsby, who oversaw the film project for the council. "We wanted to show there are a lot of strengths in these families that are often overlooked."

Ten years ago Isom fled an abusive relationship and loaded her "two babies and 12 boxes" on a bus bound for Milwaukee. She now works as a Head Start teacher and hopes to open a shelter for teen mothers. Toward that end, she’ll graduate with an associate degree in business management later this year. In the film, she delivers straight talk about teen pregnancy, domestic violence and the problems in her community. When she saw the film’s finished version, she cried when she realized how far she had come.

"I was touched because you don’t realize you can have an impact," she says. "I look back and see it’s a success story . . . I’m overjoyed by it."

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funded "My Family, My Neighborhood, My Story," shows the film at neighborhood gatherings in Metcalfe and Washington Park as a way to elicit information and ideas about what people in the communities need. The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families sends Grigsby out to show the film in workshops it hopes will encourage people to advocate for change on a policy level. "We can take this film and say these are real people and this is what they’re saying their needs are," says Grigsby. People are more receptive to that message, she says, when they hear the women in the film telling it like it is.

Taking the Real World to MTV

After 20 years as a human rights activist, Mallika Dutt came to the conclusion that she was "preaching to the converted." A graduate of New York University’s Law School and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs Dutt served a stint as the associate director for the Center for Women’s Global Leadership before she became program officer for human rights and social justice at the Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office. In 1999, she founded Breakthrough, a nonprofit human rights organization with offices in New York and New Delhi, to use pop culture to take human rights messages beyond U.N. agencies, nonprofits and policy think tanks and directly to people. She did just that.

Dutt’s first venture, a CD titled "Man Ke Manjeere: An Album of Women’s Dreams," presents women’s emotions and hopes in a series of nine songs. The album was released in September 2000 and reigned at the top of India’s pop charts for five months. Last year, Dutt produced a music video for the album’s title track. Besides its current place in the Media That Matters Film Festival, the video was nominated for an MTV award for Best Indipop Video, sparked thousands of letters and e-mails and generated 50,000 hits per day on the Breakthrough Web site.

"For me, it was an indication that there clearly was some way to do our work differently. I’d never had this kind of response before," says Dutt.

The video found its inspiration in the true story of Shameem Pathan, a single mother from Ahmedabad, India, who escaped from domestic abuse, braved discrimination and embarked on a career driving a mini-van taxi to support herself and her child. In the video, a woman steers down a dusty road in a heavy-duty truck, stopping to pick up women passengers on the way to a roadside celebration. It played daily on India’s six music video channels, reaching an audience Dutt places at close to 100 million people.

"It almost became like a cult thing," she says, "Everybody saw this woman driving a truck."

She knew the video made an impact when she started to hear young girls say they wanted to grow up to be truck drivers. Dutt says it also proved to the skeptics that "you don’t always have to go the mini-dress route . . . to sell something."

Now that’s she’s made that point, she’s not about to sit back and gloat. Dutt started "Mann Ke Manjeere" as a side project while working full time as a program officer for the Ford Foundation in New Delhi. Following its overwhelming success, she’s devoted herself to Breakthrough full time, determined to channel people’s reactions to the video towards actual change.

Breakthrough recently released a second video, "Babul." A departure from the exuberance of "Mann Ke Manjeere," the new video portrays the forms of domestic violence faced by middle-class women in India. With Dutt leading the way, the four-woman staff at Breakthrough also produced a film highlighting the issues presented at last year’s World Conference against Racism. Yet for Dutt, it’s not enough. She wants to see human rights as a permanent part of the pop culture lexicon.

"Look at Britney Spears: Do you think she would be a celebrity if she only made one video every three years?" Dutt says. "We want people talking about this stuff."

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida.



For more information:
Media That Matters Film Festival
"Mann Ke Manjeere: An Album of Women’s Dreams" and "My Family, My Neighborhood, My Story" can be viewed at this Web site:

Building Human Rights Culture

Connect for Kids
Guidance for Grown-ups
"Lights, Camera . . . Activism":