Empowerment in Motion

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The New York-based Women’s Voices Now has garnered respect for empowering women with a platform and a global audience. By Laila Achmad.

Empowerment in Motion_Aquila Style
Artist Rachel Monosov, Catinca Tabacaru, Intern Betsy Laiker, Miriam Wakim, Cassandra Schaffa, Artist and Filmmaker Negin Vaziri

The inaugural Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short Film Festival 2010, organised by New York-based public charity Women’s Voices Now (WVN), put the spotlight on women of all faiths living in Muslim-majority countries, as well as Muslim women around the world. The organisation’s executive director Catinca Tabacaru and director of funding Miriam Wakim share more about the groundbreaking project as well as their future goals and plans.

What interests you in representing Muslim women and their rights?

Today, women in Muslim-majority countries still face many legal and cultural impediments to their basic freedoms and civil rights. However, women of the Muslim world are showing an incredible capacity in transforming their communities from patriarchal societies—with significant discrepancies between the rights and welfare of men and women—into more open and tolerant societies accepting of diverse religions, political and social standpoints.

But, broad and lasting social change can only be achieved by an educated and united community. … [Sadly,] Muslim women are grossly misrepresented by mainstream media sources around the world… We want to combat these misconceptions by providing access to personal stories originating from the women themselves. Who better to educate an international audience than the women who are living these stories daily?

Why do this via a film festival?

Films are an incredible format through which we can reach a vastly diverse audience. Film appeals to more of our senses than other storytelling techniques: image and sound provide a compelling format for concept and emotion. In addition, film breaks boundaries of literacy, language and social status. Through films, especially short films available online, women’s stories can reach and inspire a greater audience.

The festival’s films are being viewed in 139 countries [and they came from 40]. We do not think another storytelling medium could have reached so broadly!

Do you see certain tendencies in films submitted from the same country or region?

What we have noticed from the films is that there are so many similarities between women worldwide. While struggles may be different, there is a sense of common power and resistance. It is difficult to draw similarities between specific nations, as films originating from the same country have been incredibly diverse. What we see are messages of power and hope. These female protagonists and the filmmakers bringing their stories to life are proving that they are the change-makers in their societies… they fight for freedom of expression and the creation of a more peaceful, tolerant and global community.

From the submissions received, is there a recurring theme?

We have received a diverse range of themes and styles. The surprising part is that nearly all of them focus on hope and empowerment; very few of them talk about struggles without discussing a solution or how to cope. It is great to see a positive tone develop in our festival when it comes to the plight of women around the world.

We want to combat these misconceptions by providing access to personal stories originating from the women themselves

What is the greatest challenge faced so far in running this festival?

The greatest challenge so far has been finding sufficient funding for the operational costs of WVN. Our seed funder, Leslie, has been incredibly generous and we have been able to secure just enough funding to support our first year operations. However, we need broader support in order to reach our 2011 goals. We do not know whether this challenge is a result of us being too Muslim for the West, yet too Western for the Muslim world; or whether it is a result of the global economic recession; or whether this is simply a result of us being a young organisation that has not yet had the time to garner big money support.

How will you measure the success of this festival?

Success is being measured by looking at the number of films received, the number of nationalities submitting films, the number of viewers—online, at screenings and at the Festival in March—that the festival reaches and by the number of academics and organisations seeking to use the films for educational programmes.
We like to think that the festival is already a success. In less than one year, our platform is being viewed in a majority of countries around the world. This is exactly the breadth of reach we were seeking.

How has WVN progressed since it first started?

WVN has come a long way since January last year. We have since been granted non-profit status, assembled a diverse Board of Directors and Advisors, formed a dedicated team to implement WVN’s projects, connected with filmmakers in over 40 countries and have received over 200 films, developed a website that contains the online festival, and have held various screenings in New York, Boston and Washington, DC. It has been an amazing roller coaster ride and we are looking forward to more.

What are WVN’s other projects and mid- to long-term plans, especially for the future?

We plan to host an annual film festival sustained with growing themes each year, [facilitate] a mentorship programme coupling filmmakers with players in the American and International filmmaking industry, offer scholarships to winners of our student category to study film, media or journalism at American universities, and we also plan to put cameras in the hands of underprivileged and underrepresented women so they, too, can tell their stories to the world.

We want to keep fighting the global struggle and participate in this pulsating movement.

Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short Film Festival

  • In January 2010, philanthropist Leslie Sacks conceived the idea of creating an online platform where filmmakers, journalists, citizen journalists and artists could speak directly to an international audience about the global struggle for women’s rights. Catinca Tabacaru, a human rights lawyer, soon joined Leslie and the idea quickly transformed into Women’s Voices Now (WVN), a non-political, non-religious, humanitarian media organisation. The mission of WVN is to empower women and give voice to the struggle for civil economic and political rights. This festival is their first project.
  • The hundreds of films submitted to the 2010 festival all relate inspiring accounts of women both Muslim and non-Muslim. Running not more than 21 minutes each, the amateur films address issues that are commonly considered sensitive topics. Through glimpses into the bittersweet realities of women living an Islamic life—from the story of Muslim fashion designers in the United States to women in Afghanistan who yearn to look stylish despite their burqas—the films impact viewers with many thought-provoking images.
  • The 2011 festival will take place from March 17–19 at the Los Angeles Film School. The shortlisted films will be judged by a panel of leaders in the fields of filmmaking, the Near East, academia, media and women’s issues. This includes filmmaker Brigid Maher, screenwriter and director Cyrus Nowrasteh, freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, Afghan film critic Mohammad Ali Karimi, cultural critic and film theorist Negar Mottahedeh and writer, director and producer Anne Slatton.

www.womensvoicesnow.org

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