I met with the Lisa Russell, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, in the quaint neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to talk about the victimization of people in filmmaking and how she learned to flip the script with her new film "¡PODER!" The new short narrative is based on the real life story of two indigenous girls in the highlands of Guatemala who challenged their elected officials to provide more services to adolescents in their community. Lisa is seeking funding to help cover editing costs and festival submissions. Visit Gofundme.com/PODER to learn how you can help.
Tell us about yourself.
I started off wanting to be an ER doctor and I freaked out when I was about to go to medical school because I had never left California and felt very sheltered. So I took a year off medical school and went to Boston, where I figured it would make or break me if I wanted to do medicine. While I was there, I took a graduate course at Harvard on HIV/AIDS, and this was in the late '90s, so it was very much a biology class. One day our professor showed us a video clip of one of the pioneers of the global AIDS movement, who talked about AIDS as a human rights issue, addressing social determinants like gender and race. That moment helped me decide to get my master's in public health and international health.
How did you merge your health career into filmmaking?
In 1999, I got a job working in Kosovo and witnessed how media were covering the war. I would see what they were showing on the TV when I came back, and it was a completely different experience of the one I had. And it really bothered me.
What was the most profound to me was that I was meeting with women running aid programs and organizations, hearing them say they did not like how journalists were covering stories about rape. They were going to refugee camps and saying, "We are doing this story about rape as a tool of war. We need to interview a woman that has been raped. Could you please raise your hand if you've been raped?"
Wow. That's completely unethical.
Yes, it's quite twisted. I clearly remember one woman saying, "Not only do we not like how they are covering the war, but we fear that at the end of this war we'll no longer be remembered as Kosovo women but as Kosovo women who have been raped." That struck a chord with me. I got involved with friends that were doing a film in Brazil. I locked myself up for three years learning the craft of editing. It was very intense.
How do you go about finding the stories you want to tell? Tell us about "¡PODER!" People approach me when it comes to issues that deal with women and girls. When some films come out, they victimize people, even introducing them as people with AIDS, people suffering, instead of showing them as human. We cannot just show the happy-go-lucky because sometimes the reality is that people are truly suffering. But it needs to be balanced, and I feel that there is not a balance.
How did you change your approach of filmmaking with "¡PODER!"?
With "¡PODER!," I flipped it upside down. I did not shoot it like a documentary. I decided that I would interview the girls by phone first and hear their stories. Then I would write a script, go to Guatemala, make sure that the script got the girls' feedback and that the scenes I had put together in my head symbolized greater societal issues and characters. For instance, this boy teasing the girls symbolized the greater expectation of society of females in that community.
They were actors in their own film and we recruited people in the community, which was very special for everyone in town. The vibe of making this film was so incredibly different that I want to do more films this way. It was a story about empowerment. These two girls challenge the mayor to make changes in their community. The ripple effect of this was amazing.
How do you measure the social impact that your films have in the community?
It's really hard to measure quantitatively. Students that I have worked with years ago are now going to medical school. I have emails and letters from people thanking me for my work. So on an individual level, I say yes, there is an impact.
Also, my films have helped raise money and shape policy. I also know that I'm inspiring a group of Americans that are trying to help. We all have responsibilities. Our most powerful weapon is our money. If you are trying to save the Congo, try to buy Congolese goods that are not bought and sold by the West.
What would be your advice to young filmmakers that might accidentally victimize communities with their lenses?
We as Western filmmakers making films about poor parts of the world must be attuned with our degree of privilege and what that means going into a story. I think we have a huge responsibility. I sometimes question if we should be the ones telling these stories. Someone once told me, "You must keep your soul right when making art because when you create anything, it is a refection of your soul." So if you create art about other cultures you should try to keep your soul right. I think that's very right and very deep. We must have conversations about white privilege, American privilege, and how that plays into the work that we do, as well race and the appropriation of culture.