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#SheDocs: A Film Festival for the Future

| March 12, 2014

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There is a moment in Pratibha Parmar’s documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth in which Walker details the five-year period immediately following the publication of The Color Purple, a season equal parts glory and trauma. We learn of the accolades (winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, a cover story in the New York Times Magazine, and a film adaptation by Steven Spielberg) and the vitriol (verbal assaults on her as, among other things, a Judas, and protests of her book and the film adaptation) that companioned her success. Walker’s story is at once a unique and a familiar one, the blessing and the curse of women who disrupt the status quo in favor of an alternative. Thus, it is fitting that the #SheDocs festival, a free, online documentary film festival featuring the stories of female change makers from around the globe, would launch with Walker’s story.

Parmar’s documentary is one of twelve that tell a panoply of narratives as diverse as their protagonists. You will meet a divorced Oglala Sioux woman who labors to break the cycle of violence, addiction, and poverty for herself and her children (Kind Hearted Woman). You will bear witness to a group of Liberian women who battle the dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor during Liberia’s civil war (Pray the Devil Back to Hell). You’ll learn about the complex legacy of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country (Bhutto). You’ll follow a group of Latina high school students and the obstacles they face to graduation (The Graduates—Girls Hour). You’ll even take time to reflect on the career of a superhero (Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines). These and more are the stories that constitute the #SheDocs film festival, which runs throughout the month of March. The easiest way to view the films is to visit the #SheDocs homepage and scroll down the page until you see the subject line “Films.” There, you will find a film list, complete with the trailer, a link to each full-length film, and, for some, a discussion guide and additional resources.

In its second year, the #SheDocs film festival is a collaborative endeavor between Eileen Fisher, Inc., and Independent Television Service (ITVS)’s Women & Girls Lead campaign, a public media initiative designed to amplify the voices of women and girls. Teams from both institutions co-curated the twelve documentaries from the 50-film Women & Girls Lead catalog. Locsi Ferra, the thematic campaign manager for Women & Girls Lead, remarked, “Our criteria were both simple and broad. We asked ourselves, ‘What will our fan base most appreciate during Women’s History Month? What films embody the spirit of International Women’s Day, and of the millennium development goals? What’s currently happening in the world?’” Given that one of the 2015 millennial goals (objectives for global improvement set by the United Nations) is to “promote gender equality and empower women,” #SheDocs has certainly risen to the challenge.

An initiative like this is all the more significant when you consider that while there are more women directors of documentaries than narrative films (34.5 percent vs. 16.9 percent), women are still grossly underrepresented behind the camera. The issue of gender inequity and the paucity of the female-oriented story was magnified earlier this month when Cate Blanchett, accepting her Best Actress Oscar, called out “those of us in the industry who are perhaps still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

In addition to the monthlong screening of formidable documentaries, the #SheDocs film festival is initiating a social media campaign that makes it easy to engage online in meaningful dialogue around the films, illuminating perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the festival—that anyone with access to a computer and WiFi can view the films for free. ITVS’s Ferra says, “It is our hope that these films are a source of inspiration for people to reach the stars to become the people they want to be. So far, a lot of public television [stations are] using this film festival. Also educators, local community organizations, and local community media are using these films in a variety of contexts to engage people.”

Like all good art, these documentaries give rise to any number of emotions: anger, laughter, sorrow, and joy, to name a few. But there is also hope—hope in the power and value of each woman’s and girl’s story. One of the more poignant films of the lot is The Interrupters, a film about a group of young former gang members who “interrupt” violent situations, helping to mitigate the violence of their neighborhoods. The power of the film lies not just in the courage of the “interrupters” but in the visual evidence of grassroots initiatives by the people for the people in their own communities. #SheDocs is a film festival with serious bite and, hopefully, serious staying power. Women’s stories do matter. 

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