I was recently honored to talk at TEDxGrandRapids to an amazing audience of forward-thinking and socially conscious West Michiganians. It was an incredible experience, taking the stage with twelve other innovative and creative speakers; sharing ideas and hearing the ongoing conversations on the breaks and after the event.
The talk will be available on video soon, but many have been asking about what I covered in my talk, so I am sharing the transcription here, then will post the video once available. As always, I value your ideas and feedback, so please feel free to respond in the comments to the ideas I shared about how we can all become culture-changers.
Here is my talk:
In India, China and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they are girls. This female genocide, or as many are calling it, gendercide, has resulted in the elimination of as many as 200 million women from the world’s population. It’s a staggering statistic! Just to put it in perspective, more girls have been killed over the last 50 years– simply because they are girls– than all of the deaths of World War l, World War ll and all the major battles of the 20th century combined. More girls have been eliminated through gendercide in the last decade than the number of people killed in all of the major genocidal events of the 20th century combined.
Making It’s a Girl is a journey that has led to more questions than answers for me.
This was my first feature length documentary film. I have spent the last nearly two decades traveling the world capturing stories of human need for humanitarian aid and development NGO’s and non-profits; helping them to mobilize support for their work.
During these years, I have seen a lot of injustice, but nothing quite prepared me for standing on the edge of a field in Southern India, looking at a row of graves and listening to a mother casually talk about strangling eight of her own newborn baby girls in her quest for a son.
How can a mother perpetrate such violence against her own daughters? How can women who have endured subjugation and devaluation on the level of the women of India, participate in the very same system by killing their own daughters?
I gained a little perspective on this question when, later in the day that we filmed this Indian woman, she sang a song for us. It was a song about the plight of a woman given in marriage at a very young age. It was her story.
You see, this woman, when she was 15, was excelling in school and had high hopes for her future. But it was determined that she would be given as a second wife to her sister’s husband, because her sister could not bear children. It was to be her primary purpose in life to bear her husband a son. It was then that I realized that this woman that stood before me was simply a product of the culture in which she lives.
This is a culture that is driven by centuries old traditions that say boys are more valuable than girls. This is a culture in which millions of girls every year are selectively aborted simply because they are girls. This is a culture in which the mortality rate of girls under the age of five is 75% higher than that of boys and one out of four girls don’t live past puberty. Many of those fortunate enough to survive childhood, like the woman in our story, have no control of their own destiny. Her father can give her away in marriage at any age– even as young as 6 or 8 years old. Once her guardianship is passed on from her father to her husband, he may rape her, beat her, sell her or even kill her if he desires, with no real danger of consequences.
As I work to educate and mobilize a movement to end gendercide in India and China through the It’s a girl campaign, the greatest question I face is, how does change even begin when it comes to such deeply engrained cultural beliefs about the value and roles of women?
And may I interject here, that my passion and desire as a filmmaker, and my goal when making It’s a Girl, was to give voice through the film to Indian and Chinese women and activists to address the need for change in their own culture. And when you see the film, you will see their stories and hear their pleas and demands for change. I just hope to do their sacrifice and commitment justice as I advocate on their behalf.
But this is a question they are asking as well: how does culture change occur on this scale?
Anthropologists and other behavioral scientists define culture as the full range of learned human behavior patterns. And for the large part, culture is a very positive thing. Indians practices many cultural traditions that are beautiful. For instance, I love how extended families stay together, often with three and four generations living together in the same home, where their children directly care for elderly members of the family. They share a very strong family tradition.
And we all have our cultural blind spots. I think of materialism and the driving need to acquire here in the West, and the destructive impact on the environment. There are times when it is appropriate to confront culture and we can all learn from each other as members of the world community.
Every one of us is a product of the culture in which we live. I was defined by the very unique family culture in which I grew up. For instance, my passion for social justice stems from a lifetime of watching my father and mother serve people in need– in their case, helping people overcome drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness– at great personal sacrifice.
I grew up in what many would call poverty because my parents preferred to volunteer the majority of their time, helping the down and out, than work traditional jobs. We lived, as a family of six, in small travel trailers throughout most of my childhood. While I was in High School, our travel trailer was parked in a trailer park behind the No-tell Motel off of Miracle Mile, the notorious red light district of Tucson at that time.
But you couldn’t have convinced us we were poor. The rich life of purpose and helping others may have been at the cost of many comforts and financial security, but, to this day, I wouldn’t trade it for wealth, because I know it was part of the culture that formed who I am today.
Every experience we have defines who we will become, whether good or bad. One of the greatest defining moments for me was a knife accident that left me without my right eye at the young age of nine. I now have a prosthetic eye.
But here’s another great example of how our fundamental mindsets influence outcomes in our lives, because my parents refused to believe the loss of my eye would be a handicap, as many others considered it. The doctors warned I probably wouldn’t have a normal life like other boys because of my lack of depth perception. I would have trouble riding a bike and other similar activities.
So how did my parents respond to this dire prediction? They bought me a unicycle! And yes, I learned to ride it. They refused to accept that I would be limited in any way by the loss of my eye and as a result, I didn’t believe it was a limitation either. I’ve grown up like any other normal, adventurous guy; hiking, camping, riding motorcycles. Today I am an avid mountain biker and love adventure, and would never even consider not trying something because I only have one eye.
I remember one of the many defining moments of my life occurred while standing on the playground, surrounded by classmates, shortly after returning to school with my first newly made prosthetic eye.
It happened when someone asked if I could take it out. I said, sure, and popped it out. An amazing thing happened: the girls shrieked and ran away screaming, and I might as well have had super powers as far as the boys were concerned, and suddenly, every boy in school wanted a fake eye too.
This is the first lesson I can remember on becoming a culture changer– albeit an accidental culture changer. Because I witnessed, first hand, how events can begin to influence mindsets that can lead to a shift in the communal perspective on, in this case, disability. You see, what had been an environment of mourning and loss– poor Evan and his tragic knife accident; he’ll never be the same– I had become the primary example for every kid in the area on how not to use a knife; “you don’t want to end up like Evan do you?” And suddenly, I’m the envy of every boy at school. It was a life-altering realization that what was for all intents and purposes a major loss, could suddenly become a significant asset!
And I took it and ran, figuratively and literally, after the girls. Soon, I discovered lots of ways to capitalize on this newfound talent. It was great fun when playing hide and seek, because I could take it out and look around corners, or behind the couch or in the closet and say, “I see you!”
It wasn’t long before everyone learned not to say things like, “Evan, can you keep an eye out for so and so,” or, “Evan, can you keep your eye on my briefcase while I go to the bathroom?” I realized at that moment that culture could be changed and that I could become a culture changer.
My life was never the same after that; I took life as it came, even to the point of becoming a one-eyed filmmaker! How does that work, huh? That’s a whole nother talk, but suffice it to say, living in a two-dimensional world is actually an asset when working in a two-dimensional format like film and television.
But back to culture: some people have challenged me about my supposition that culture can be bad and need changing. Some insist that cultural traditions are above moral judgment. For instance, there are indigenous tribal groups in the Amazon Basin in South America that commonly bury infants alive when they are born with a disability, or born twins. Their religious beliefs are such that these disabled infants could bring a curse on the tribe. The tribe is protected through a ritualistic burial of the offending child. And the parents are required to perform the rite or be cast out of the tribe.
Coming from a culture that considers those with disabilities as equally valuable and deserving of every opportunity, my inclination is to call this practice in the Amazon murder.
But there are tribal advocacy groups who insist that these ancient tribal cultures are above reproach; that these practices are representative of ancient dying cultures that must be protected. Others insist that these disabled infants should be rescued, and many have.
I would suggest that a society that values and protects those with disabilities is morally superior to one that does not. This assertion is supported by examples of “alternately abled” people living amazing lives and contributing significant good to the world. People like Helen Keller and Joni Erickson-tada. People like Jessica
Cox, a woman who overcame significant disability — she was born without arms — to become a pilot. She now travels the world serving as a mentor, motivational speaker, and advocate for the alternately abled. And there are numerous other similar examples of those overcoming physical limitations to accomplish great things, like the amazing Lori Schneider who we will be hearing from soon!
There are many diverse expressions of culture around the world that are a-moral. But there are other’s that cross the line and create human rights violations and gendercide is one of those.
As I’ve looked at a number of examples of major human rights violations, like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; or Apartheid in South Africa; or genocides, like the Jewish Holocaust, I have noticed a some similarities:
- The victims were reduced to non-citizen, almost sub-human status by the oppressing class
- Surrounding nations and members of the world community turned a blind eye and avoided getting involved for far too long before intervening
- Ending these atrocities required significant intervention by the world community, including sanctions, boycotts, and sometimes war.
- Without intervention from those who were willing to fight for justice, millions more would have died or have been exploited.
The historical accounts of the Jewish Holocaust are full of those who lived in Germany and surrounding countries, and who later expressed great regret that they didn’t act to help the trainloads of people heading for concentration camps and worse. And there are many others, like Oskar Schindler as depicted in the movie, Schindler’s List, whom we celebrate because of their extraordinary courage and bravery in helping many escape the Holocaust.
Which side of history do you and I want to be on when accounts are taken of the final end of gendercide?
Recently, in India, a number of high profile gang rape cases of women and girls, some as young as 4 and 5 years old, have resulted result in major protests and demonstrations throughout Delhi and other parts of India. The Indian government has promised reforms, but what has been done so far is more symbolism than substance, and India has proven a tendency to create laws then fail to enforce them. For instance, sex-selection and female feticide is illegal, as is dowry, yet they continue to occur on an ever-increasing scale.
Many are calling for education and women’s empowerment, hoping that with an elevated status, the plight of women in India will improve. But with the highest skewed sex ratios occurring in the regions of India with the highest level of education and income, and with a woman sitting as president of India throughout the past few years and woman in positions of influence throughout the government– all while conditions worsen for women, education and women’s empowerment does not seem to be the silver bullet solution.
The movement in India is at a critical stage– a stage at which it might flounder and usher in decades more of the subjugation and killing of millions of girls if not for the support and action of the world community. This is when it’s up to culture changers like you and I, to join with the culture changers in India and China, and together demand change. The It’s a Girl campaign has mobilized nearly half a million people from all over the world to join our cause to end gendercide in India and China so far. But imagine if we had tens of millions of people demanding world leaders take action!?
I know the reality is that culture change is much more complex than this. But it is a start towards restoring dignity and value to girls and women who desperately need help now.
And when it comes to violence against women, I would be remiss to not mention our ongoing challenges right here at home, and in many other parts of the word. Each of us can eliminate violence against women by honoring and respecting the women in our lives first; by teaching our sons to do the same and our daughters to expect nothing less; and then by adding our voices to those, like the women of India and China, who are calling for change. We can become culture-changers, and together, create a whole new future for the girls of India and China.
In a recent Huffington Post article, Soraya Chemaly said, “I’m thinking that it shouldn’t take gendercide and gang rapes of children and women to motivate good men to act against pervasive injustice that all women and girls are subjected to in one degree or another.” She goes on, “Women are not perpetrating widespread violence against one another or against men — in homes or in war. And yet, whenever I go to meetings, seminars or schools to discuss this topic, I enter rooms full of women. This is immensely frustrating.”
I have often been asked at film screenings by audiences of 99.9% women why so few men are involved in the movement to end violence against women. I can’t speak for other men, but my journey to becoming an VAW activist began with a life-changing experience while filming a woman sharing how she killed eight of her own newborn daughters in India, then learning about the underlying culture of misogyny that drove her to such desperate measures. I felt intense anger towards the men perpetrating this violence on women. But I also imagined my own wife and daughter (who was 11 at the time) suffering the same fate and felt anger at the thought of good men who might be in a position to defend them, but chose to stand passively by.
Previous to my life-changing experience filming It’s a Girl, I believed that loving and honoring the women in my own life was enough. But I no longer believe that. More men need to take action and add their voices to the movement. I challenge men every chance I get to not remain silent.
But I also think it must be acknowledged that many men may not become involved because the women’s empowerment movement can often feel like a hostile place for men. For instance, if men express their desire and commitment to defend women and their rights, we can be accused of suggesting that women are weak and need us to defend them. I’ve been told by feminists that men do not have a right to an opinion about issues like reproductive rights because we can never know what it is like to experience an unplanned pregnancy and need to stay out of it. The hostility towards men in general by some of the women commenters on our trailer on YouTube is almost violent. The message this sends to the majority of good men who honor and respect women is that we really can’t win in this, we are going to be lumped in with the bad men anyway, so why try.
I was honored to join a select group of speakers at the December 2nd, 2012 TEDxGateway event in Mumbai, India. The largest TEDx event in South Asia, TEDxGateway draws an audience of nearly 1000 leaders and influencers from India and throughout the region to hear short talks on “ideas worth spreading”. The talks cover innovative and engaging topics ranging from new technology to social and medical concerns.
I presented some short scenes from the film along with hard-hitting statistics from India and China that provided the audience with an astounding picture of the scope of gendercide and it’s impact on millions of girls throughout the world today, and then challenged all present to join in the fight to end it.
It was a great privilege for me to stand on that prestigious red circle on the stage in Mumbai and connect with influencers from throughout India about what we can do to work together to end the social evil of gendercide. Judging by the collective gasps coming from the audience when I showed segments from the film, they seemed to have been deeply impacted.
You can see my TED talk here:
We are so excited to be the first to share with you the It’s a Girlmusic video!
After seeing just the film trailer, Omékongo Dibinga was inspired to lend his voice to help end gendercide. Omekongo – a rapper, trilingual poet, CNN contributor, motivational speaker and the Director of UPstander International – put pen to paper and wrote this amazing hip-hop song.
“I wrote this song because hip-hop is a global force. Yet too many hip-hop artists do not use their powerful skills and influence to speak on issues like these. I want to use my talent to make a positive change in this world.” – Omékongo.
After writing the lyrics, Dibinga shared them with the film’s director, Evan Grae Davis. “When Omékongo approached us with the lyrics to this rap song he had written, I was deeply moved with how he expressed his heart for the victims of gendercide around the world. I’m sure having two daughters of his own makes it personal. His words reflect a deep passion against the injustice of gendercide in a way we wanted to share, so we asked him if he would record the song!” Davis said.
Omékongo recruited Lindsay Samakow, a talented debut vocal artist, to provide the backdrop as he recorded his song titled after the film, “It’s a Girl.”
“I was so inspired when I heard the song for the first time,” says Davis, “that I wanted to produce the music video to bring it alive in a new dimension. We filmed Omékongo performing the song on the streets of New York City and in Central park with his two beautiful daughters and niece. We added in several clips from the documentary, and now have a music video that truly captures his heart for justice.” Davis concluded, “The result is a haunting and compelling expression of one man’s reaction to one of the greatest human rights issues of our time. If more people responded as Omékongo has, we could truly change the world!”
Previously posted on It’s a Girl Movie blog
As the Shadowline Films team welcomes a new year, we can’t help but be excited and humbled by the success of It’s a Girl and response of the international community to this film. When we released It’s a Girl in September of 2012, our hope and desire was to educate and mobilize a movement to end gendercide in India and China. Your incredible support for the film and advocacy for those who share their stories have far exceeded our highest expectations and we want to thank you for lending your voice to the growing movement demanding dignity and equality for the women of India and China.
In the few short months since It’s a Girl hit the world stage, over 400,000 people have joined the cause, with thousands more adding to that number every week! Nearly 1 million actions have been taken, ranging from signing petitions to donating to our partners working to combat gendercide in India and China on the frontlines. Our community on facebook and twitter has exploded, and you have brought the film to over 130 locations around the world so far, with another 100 possible screenings in development.
It’s a Girl has screened before high-level government officials and world leaders, including the British and European Parliaments. It has been a valuable tool for reputable universities and respected NGO’s around the world to engage everyone from students to influencers and leaders in the battle to end gendercide.
It’s a Girl has been acclaimed worldwide in articles, reviews and on radio and TV, including The Independent, Emirates Women Magazine, The Current on CBC Canada, NPR, and The New Internationalist to name a few. It has been featured and recognized at leading Human Rights Film Festivals like Amnesty International’s Reel Awareness Film Festival and the “this human world” human rights film festival in Vienna.
As director I was invited to give a TED talk in Mumbai, India, where he engaged 1000 influencers and leaders from the region about gendercide and was able to challenge them to lead the way to change.
But above all, we are most proud of the many of you who have responded to the call to action and become culture changers and activists in your own spheres of influence as a result of seeing It’s a Girl. Besides the ongoing dedication of organizations like Women’s Rights Without Frontiers and Invisible Girl Project, some people who have stepped up and taken action deserve special mention.
People like Deesh Sekhon, a wife and mother from Abbotsford, BC who, after seeing the trailer, launched GirlKind Foundation, which is advocating and educating for change in cultural beliefs and taking a stand against Gendercide in India. Deesh and GirlKind Foundation have become champions for the cause, holding screenings of It’s a Girl throughout Canada.
People like former UN diplomat Michael Platzer and his team, who, after seeing It’s a Girl, organized a one-day symposium at the UN in Vienna on fighting femicide (gendercide), where ambassadors, social scientists, NGO representatives, statisticians, lawyers and feminist activists had the opportunity to speak about gendercide, explain its meaning and causes, and present examples of best practice in fighting gendercide. The symposium culminated with the release of the Vienna Declaration on Femicide, a document urging UN member states, UN organizations and civil society to join forces and take responsibility to put an end to gendercide. The declaration was signed by the participants of the symposium as well as by Austria, Slovenia, the Philippines and Norway and plans are underway to bring it to the UN Commission on the Status of Women this March!
And people like Omékongo Dibinga – a rapper, trilingual poet, CNN contributor, motivational speaker, TV Talk Show Host and the
Director of UPstander International who, inspired by the It’s a Girl trailer, decided to lend his voice to the cause by writing and recording a hip-hop song. Omékongo captured so well the inner conflict so many of us experience when learning about gendercide, that we decided to produce a music video of his song. We are so excited to be the first to share with you the It’s a Girl music video! Please take a minute right now to watch it and share with your friends.
Deesh, Michael, Omékongo and all of you who have joined them in the fight to end gendercide are the reason we made It’s a Girl. You have taken this film and run with it, and together, we are putting gendercide front and center on the world stage of human rights concerns.
As we embark on another year of fighting for the end of gendercide, we wanted to say thank you! Thank you on behalf of the millions of women in India and China who need our voice. Thank you on behalf of millions of girls, yet to be born, who will draw their first breath, and go on to fulfill their destiny because of you. We look forward to 2013 being a year that history will look back upon as a turning point in the battle to restore value and equality to the women of India and China.
As India grieves the death of the young medical student who was brutally gang raped on a moving bus December 16th, 2012, a historic movement continues to develop demanding justice and action from the government. But leaders and legislators have come across as indifferent, unresponsive and out of touch with the reality of violence against women as thousands turn out to demonstrate and march in the streets of Delhi. “The incident has raised the issue of declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city,” a National Human Rights Commission statement said, “… Especially, in its capacity to ensure safety of women as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past.”
Groping and sexual harassment of women is often referred to as “eve-teasing” and is attributed to the natural response of men to the behavior of women.
Some policy makers and government leaders have made statements revealing their traditional bias against women and their acceptance of all that eve-teasing implies. Statements like, “Skirts should be prohibited keeping in view the rise of social crimes against women.” or “I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere. This way rapes will not occur.” and “One of the reasons behind the increase in incidents of eve-teasing is short dresses and short skirts worn by women. This in turn instigates young men.”
These attitudes are deeply engrained in the fundamental social expectations of men towards women throughout India, to the point that women at demonstrations demanding equality and protection have been victims of groping by men attending the same demonstrations.
As a result of these pervasive attitudes, survivors of rape are often blamed for the sexual assault. They are said to have brought it on themselves by being out alone, or dressing provocatively or becoming too “westernized”. In a recent article, Dr. Kumari, who is featured in It’s a Girl, said, “Normal changes in [Indian] society are seen as a challenge, and that’s why women are blamed more if they are expressing themselves freely, are mobile or wearing what they want to,” Kumari says. “This environment, sadly, is not seen as enabling women and making them strong but rather seen as reasons for such attacks.”
The shame associated with being a victim of sexual assault or violence in India often places women who have suffered injustice in a position of social ostracism. In one recent case, a 18 year old girl committed suicide 44 days after she was allegedly gang raped, and the three accused were only arrested after her death.
Women who suffer the violence of rape in India rarely receive justice. Only one conviction has resulted out of 635 reported cases of rape in Delhi in 2012. And when cases do make it to court, the victim often finds herself on trial instead of the perpetrator.
Human Rights Watch claims these attitudes towards women effect how rape victims are treated by authorities, citing the “Two Finger Test” as an example. They describe the test as follows: ”The practice, described in outdated medical jurisprudence textbooks used by many doctors, lawyers, and judges, involves a doctor inserting fingers in a rape victim’s vagina to determine the presence or absence of the hymen and the so-called ‘laxity’ of the vagina. These findings perpetuate false and damaging stereotypes of rape survivors as ‘loose’ women.”
Like gendercide, rape and sexual harassment are rooted in the devaluation of women and are simply different forms of violence against women – though equally horrific. As I have been closely following the events of the past month in Delhi, I have been enraged by the miscarriage of justice that is so often the plight of women who have become victims of sexual assault and violence. At the same time, I have been encouraged to receive requests to use It’s a Girl as an educational tool by those in India who are battling this injustice.
Here is a segment from one such recent email from Shobha, “…its high time for India to address violence against girls and women… Its important for us to develop programmes which will empower our teenage girls. You may heard about recent developments in our capital and also all over country. There is a huge demand on justice in the case of atrocities against women. rape, sexual assault or abuse has become very common in our capital cities as well as in rural suburban areas.”
We at Shadowline Films created It’s a Girl for Shobha and others like her who are fighting the battle for justice and equality for girls in India! We are excited to see the film becoming a crucial tool to educate and mobilize a new generation to demand an end to eve-teasing and the devaluation that underlies sexual assault and violence against women in India.
I invite you to join me in standing with the protesters in Delhi. Sign the petition by the 50 Million Missing Campaign demanding fast action from the government to end rape and violence against women. Also, Sign the petition demanding world leaders take action to end the female gendercide in India, and bring It’s a Girl to your community by hosting a screening in your home, church or local theater. Together, we can raise the level of awareness of the plight of women in India and bring an end to sexual assault and violence once and for all.
I know most of us are occupied by enjoying the holiday season, but there are momentous events happening in India that need our attention if the plight of women in India is to be improved. Please read this note from Rita Banerji, then sign the petition:
New message about THE PM MUST IMMEDIATELY ACT ON THESE RAPE/ VIOLENCE RELATED DEMANDS
Posted by Rita Banerji
The last 10 days have been historic in Indian democracy. A brutal gang rape of a 23-year old woman set a revolution off in motion, like never seen before in independent India. Women and men in the thousands, mostly young college students occupied the center of the capital city, Delhi, protesting not just this rape, but the large scale rape and violence on women that has become systemic in India! It is the 4th most dangerous country for women in the world today, after the Congo, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to a 2012 global survey.
The government initially remained silent, and then sent out hundreds of policemen in battle gear who attacked the unarmed students with water cannons, batons and tear gas. Then the government shut down metros and blocked roads and essentially implemented martial rule in parts of the city to force the protests to die down when they saw that even police brutality would not stop it!
The western media has been extremely silent about these protests, and it is up to the pubic both in India and the rest of the world to not let the spirit and momentum of this revolution die down. We must force it to move forward by public will and power. So please empower this revolution by lending your voice to it.
We want to start by presenting the Prime Minister with 3 specific demands that can be met very rapidly, instead of broader demands which will be forgotten over time.
So please sign the petition here. (Click on the links embedded in the petition for more information.) And circulate this petition to make sure this revolution meets its goal: the goal of zero tolerance for violence against girls and women in India!
Thank you for all your support! And best wishes for the New Year!
I am occasionally approached by young people asking, “How did you become a documentary filmmaker and how do I become one too?” I start out by responding that I still consider myself an ‘aspiring filmmaker’ but have invested a few years in the journey and am always privileged to share something about the path that I have taken. I’m getting this question more often lately, so I thought I would share the advice I give when asked.
The first thing I like to ask is, what’s your dream? what do you lay awake at night thinking about? what do you have a passion to do? I have found that this vision for one’s future purpose that comes out through a driving desire to achieve great things is the foundation on which the rest is built. The journey is a long one for most people, and it is this vision that motivates and provides the drive that carries you on through all the hard work and failures to the victories and accomplishments.
When this level of vision is present, these are the steps I recommend:
Be the consumer you would want watching your films.
Filmmaking is about stories. Stories that entertain, inspire, teach, move people to act. Emmerse yourself in stories of every kind. Read, go to movies, watch documentaries and TV shows, look below the surface when watching even commercials. What was the writer, director and producer hoping to communicate? how is the story arch structured? what are the hooks that capture your heart? what were the technical methods, tools, lighting, sound reinforcement? how were graphics used to help communicate the story?
I like to watch documentaries at least twice. The first time, I just allow myself to get lost in the story and pulled along emotionally through the experience. The second time through, I analyze how the film was written. What format was used? what style of filming? how was the lighting done? how does the music underscore the story? how were graphics or animation used to help tell the story?
Write and tell stories as often as possible.
Write stories, draw storyboards, shoot a bunch of photos with a digital camera (even your phone or a cheap point-and-shoot) and put together a photo journal piece on something that interests you. Interview people and draw their stories out. Anyone you meet on any given day can be an opportunity to ask the right questions and think through how you would tell their story. Start conversations with people who look interesting and practice learning all you can about their story.
I see a homeless person pushing their cart down the street or a mother with her children in the grocery store and I imagine what their story must be. I think about how I would capture it and what kind of conflict would emerge and the kind of images I could film where the homeless guy lives under the bridge. I consider how I could tell the story visually and what lens I would use and how the story leaves off with the viewer wanting to become a part of telling how the story ends by getting involved with a homeless shelter or helping a single mother in their community.
Use what you have available to capture and create short videos.
Whether it’s your camera phone or a consumer video camcorder, shoot short videos of the stories you discover and put them together. Try different interview styles and settings. Try telling a story with only visuals and no narrative or interviews. Show them to your friends and family and be open to input on how the story could be strengthened. Team up with others who have a similar interest and work together on projects. Post your videos on YouTube and see what kinds of responses you get.
When I got my first camera, I shot everything that moved. I captured and edited to music the story of the sunset, the ant colony near my house, the youth camping trip, family parties and get-togethers. I made stop-motion animations of a Coke can. Anything I could frame in the lens was a possible story.
Get training and experience any way you can.
Find out what resources are available in your community to learn. I got my start in 1988 at Access Tucson, the community access cable station in my city. The classes were inexpensive and sometime free. Once I completed the training and got certified, they had camera, lighting and sound equipment I could check out for shooting and had editing equipment that could be reserved for post-production. I then began taking classes at the community college. I looked for internship opportunities. If you go to church, your church or youth group may have a media department where you can volunteer and get experience. Many Jr. High and High Schools now offer classes in media production and photography. The parks and Recreation classes in your community may include photography and video production classes.
Explore all your options and take every opportunity to learn and gain experience.
Serve non-profit organizations in your community.
Once you feel you have a level of proficiency adequate to begin offering your services to others, consider seeking out non-porfit organizations in your community and offering to produce a short promotional or fundraising video for them for free. Your local homeless shelter, inner-city youth outreach, humane society, Christian ministries of all kinds are ideal settings to find stories of human (and animal) need and the heroes who help them. You can not only find amazing stories to tell, but can help them show what they do and why they do it so they can mobilize volunteers and raise support.
My first serious project (besides weddings) was for Prison Fellowship, where my father volunteered. They used the video at a fundraising event and before I knew it, I had several other non-profits in my community asking me to do videos for them. The price was right (free) and so there was no shortage of opportunity to grow.
I soon began offering the organizations I served an opportunity to make a volunteer donation to me based on what they felt the video was worth as they began using it and gaining support through my service to them. I was surprised to find that when I served them with the right motive, to see them succeed, they were so grateful that they generally gave me a larger donation than what I would have charged them if I was hiring out my services.
This system turned into a full-time job for me and has evolved into where I am today. Over the past 20 years, I have worked with nearly 150 non-profit, humanitarian NGO’s and Christian ministries all over the world. That experience has equipped me with the skills, determination and support structure to take on my first feature length, independent documentary film, It’s a Girl.
So, consume and immerse yourself in story. Use whatever you have available to you to start telling stories. Get training and experience any way you can. And put what you’ve learned to work serving your community. You will discover that along the way, opportunities will present themselves and before you know it, you will be looking back over 20 years of capturing stories that change the world.
Throughout my journey directing It’s a Girl, and particularly now that the film is complete, I am frequently asked– and have often asked myself– what are the root causes of gendercide? I have thought a lot about it and continue to explore deeper, searching for the roots underlying son-preference culture and the devaluation of women around the world.
Although this is an extremely complicated matter, and, as an outsider my perspective is limited, here are some thoughts about one possible cause coming out of human nature.
As I look around me every day, it seems the fundamental questions that drive each of us are, do I matter? do I fit in? do I belong? do I have worth? does my life have meaning? am I valued by those around me?
They seem to be the eternal questions of life: why am I here and how can I find meaning in this world?
In an ideal world, every child that is born, whether boy or girl, is taught from the first day of their life that they are wanted. Valued. That they were born into the family they were meant to, and that they belong– regardless of gender or performance.
Because the family so often fails to instill this sense of value and belonging, our social fabric has been slowly woven over centuries by insecure people desperate to prove their worth by creating class distinctions and lines that separate based on status, wealth, ethnicity, religion, gender, education, pedigree– even geography.
Although there are healthy expressions of enterprise and desire for success, and not all motives to succeed are rooted in insecurity and need for worth, human nature is inclined towards one-upmanship.
Here in the U.S. you see the signs of this eternal struggle in the business world, sports and the entertainment industry. The malls are full of products designed to appeal to our need to be accepted and acquire status. The fashion industry sets standards for young women, determining what they must look like to be considered beautiful. Music and pop culture is steeped with subliminal messages to our young people that their value and social status is being measured by complex standards of appearance and behavior.
Every nation and culture have their distinctions.
For instance, the caste system in India is designed to endow value (or lack thereof) within the context of the larger community. To be born into an upper caste automatically assigns a level of value and belonging with which one can identify. The tragedy of the system is that in order for upper caste members to be assigned value, there must be lower castes to whom less value is assigned. Which means to be born into a lower caste automatically dooms one to be a nobody for the rest of one’s life, regardless of how hard they work, how intelligent they are, or what they accomplish in life.
Women have historically been the losers in this centuries-old battle for worth. For centuries women have been subjugated by patriarchal cultures and social structures that place their destiny and identity in the hands of their fathers, brothers and husbands– even clergy, employers and governmental officials who make laws that determine whether women can vote, own land, or live as independent persons.
Women in India are subject to additional standards of value. A son is born an automatic asset to his family. A daughter is born as a burden to her family– a deficit doomed to carry off a large part of her family’s wealth as dowry when she marries. She spends her childhood doing her best to offset the losses to her family by working very hard: cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, working in the fields. And even a girl born to a wealthy family who receives a good education is still subject to the rules of marriage.
Once married, an Indian women’s value to her new family is directly determined by how much dowry she brings and whether she bears her husband a son. What kind of identity message does a woman receive when she is married off in an arranged marriage, about which she has no choice, into a family of strangers who may abuse her and neglect her based on how satisfied they are with her dowry or whether she bears them a son? And throughout her life, the forces that determine her destiny are completely outside of her control. She has no influence over the value of her dowry. And it is a biological fact the the man contributes the chromosomes that determine whether she will bear a son or a daughter. Yet she is held responsible– often with her life, for matters completely outside her control.
The injustice of gendercide is the culmination of gender oppression dating back practically to the beginning of time and it is no wonder that women are saying no more. The clarion call of the feminist movement is that women have inherent value that transcends what is assigned them by the men in their lives! This call is echoing around the world and beginning to resonate among many women in India. Yet for the new generations of girls to become culture-changers, they need the support of the international community. Those brave enough to resist the system and demand equality put themselves at great risk.
Rita Banerji is one of the few Indian women risking making her voice heard. As an author, activist and one of the experts featured in It’s a Girl, Miss Banerji holds nothing back when exposing the roots of gendercide in India. She said, “ …the misogyny that promotes the objectification of women, treating them like usable and disposable objects, has such deeply pervasive cultural and historical roots, that it sometimes seems impossible to surmount. It permeates every corner of society.”
Miss Banerji has created a petiton demanding that the Government of India, The OHCHR, The UNICEF, The UNIFEM, The UNFPA, CEDAW, The EU and The G8 take immediate and effective action to halt gendercide in India. If you are as angry as I am at this ongoing and growing, systematic devaluation and violence against women in India, you can join me and Rita in signing this petition here.
Shadowline Films was born out of the question “What are the underlying roots of inexplicable social injustices like gender inequality and the exploitation of the innocent?”
There are 27 million people trapped in modern-day slavery across the world today- more than any other time in history. 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders and over one million children are exploited by the global commercial sex trade every year. What could possibly make a person capable of abandoning, exploiting or even killing another innocent human being?
I had devoted the past decade to producing short promotional and documentary videos for NGOs around the world. As I observed and captured stories of human tragedy, the questions in my mind only grew. I had come to the realization that the issues that captured my heart were greater than any single organization could fight alone. A small team of filmmakers joined me to form Shadowline Films with the vision to answer these questions through a feature-length documentary.
In October 2008, the Shadowline team traveled to Africa, where there is a myth that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, leading to the exploitation of young girls and the spread of HIV/AIDS to the most innocent among us. We explored a story in Brazil, where indigenous tribal groups of the Amazon Basin ritualistically bury disabled infants and twins alive, to purge the tribe of curses. I had documented the Cambodian Killing Fields and the evil of genocide. It felt like I had seen the worst of humanity and what we are capable of when we allow our basic instincts of survival and power to rule us at any cost.
Five countries later, we arrived in India. There we met courageous activists willing to share their first-hand experience with gendercide, yet frustrated with the lack of support and awareness. We spoke with doctors and government officials unwilling to speak on camera. We captured tragic stories of families trapped between their desire to have daughters and the policies and cultural morays that stood in their way. One family inspired us with their courage as they endured ridicule for educating their four daughters who would otherwise be destined to marry into poverty and be subject to dowry violence.
Nothing I had seen in my travels even remotely compared to the scale of routine injustice in the practice of gendercide. That trip to India subsequently sharpened the focus of Shadowline Films on gendercide exclusively as one of the most serious abuses of human rights of our time. It was a story largely untold, and few were those speaking out, let alone putting a stop to the injustice. I thought back to the would-be plight of my wife and daughter had they been born in a son-preferential society. As the Shadowline team debriefed, it was a unanimous decision– our first documentary film must be dedicated to exposing the truth about gendercide.
Soon after, we returned to India and traveled to China to capture more stories featured in It’s a Girl. There were surprises along the way. I was shocked to learn that more girls are eliminated among the wealthier castes of India than among the poor. I was taken aback by the violent and coercive nature of the One Child Policy in China. And discovering that sex-selection is practiced among Southeast Asian immigrant communities all over the world, even in my own back yard, really brought the issue home for me.
As we prepare to release It’s a Girl, I ask myself whether or not the world will respond to our call and rise up in defense of the innocent. Our heart-felt hope and desire is that the stories of It’s a Girl will capture hearts around the world and will compel us all to rise up and launch a movement to end gender-based violence and killings and restore worth and dignity to the girls and women of India, China and of the world.
Originally posted on the It’s a Girl blog Wednesday, 29 February 2012