2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity
When I was applying for my Atlantic Fellowship, I was inspired by time spent with Negar Esfandiary, a UK-based oral historian who had been working with an organisation called the Women’s Learning Partnership. We’d met in Beirut at a raucous feminist gathering in a restaurant that didn’t know what had hit them. Negar had been documenting the lives of extraordinary women human rights defenders and activists for an archive based at the British Library, and I was transfixed by the stories of courageous women she was capturing. Women like Aminetou Mint Ely, working at the frontlines to protest the fat farms of Mauritania.
Mint Ely, a women's rights campaigner, is fighting a tradition in which, every year, girls as young as five are subjected to the tradition of leblouh. Intimately linked to early or child marriage, leblouh involves girls from five to nine years of age being forced to eat excessively to become overweight and rounded so that they can be married off as young as possible. To achieve this, girls are sent to fattening farms in Mauritania, where they are forced to consume thousands of calories each day to gain weight. The weight gain is believed to accelerate puberty and make younger girls appear more “womanly”.
"In Mauritania, a woman’s size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart," said Mint Ely, head of the Association of Women Heads of Households. Women like Mint Ely are like the new Joan of Arcs of our time in fighting such obscene practices and violations of girls’ human rights. Imagine if more feature films (not just documentaries) had central female characters that take their cue from the real-life human rights defenders working for a world where everyone can realise their right to peace, justice, dignity and joy.
Why aren’t women like Aminetou Mint Ely, and the women who inspired the Arab Spring, the women leading responses to climate change in the Pacific, and the women who are brokering peace in Mindanao, the characters in feature films to inspire a new generation of young people, I wondered. Can we change the frame?
So, for my major project for the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme that I undertook at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, I worked with three immensely talented people: Maxine Williamson, my artistic advisor, and Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver, photographers and art directors, to create FRAME: an exhibition on how Asia Pacific feminist filmmakers are using film to address inequalities in the region. Featuring images and interviews with feminist filmmakers in Asia and the Pacific, we launched the exhibition at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane in November 2018. Maryanne Redpath, head of the Generation section of the Berlin International Film Festival, served as my mentor for this project.
This month (February 2019), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs/Australian Embassy in Berlin is featuring the FRAME exhibition at the Berlin International Film Festival, helping to sustain the momentum and to elevate the stories of the women filmmakers it features. And, since the launch of FRAME late last year, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards has committed to finding a donor to fund a new award for gender equality in filmmaking.
Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I can continue to document what feminist filmmakers are making possible because of their filmmaking. In many of the countries I visit, I am being introduced to filmmakers who are highlighting the work of those who are involved in peacekeeping efforts, who are working to secure justice, who are confronting extremism, and who are addressing critical issues such as human trafficking and forced migration. These feminist filmmakers have important stories to share with us. I want to continue to create these interviews and images, so that we have a large body of evidence of how Asia Pacific feminist filmmakers are confronting inequalities in front of and behind the camera, and show what they need to support their work.
The Elements series of films by Deepa Mehta — Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005) — greatly influenced my thinking that led to the FRAME project. The third film of these, Water, affected me deeply with its focus on the plight of widows, and the practice of child marriage and prostitution. It powerfully conveys the reality that in India, and in many other countries, even though laws may be in place to support widows remarrying and to protect girls from prostitution, these practices go on.
What is critical in Water is the message that if you don’t change people’s attitudes toward inequality, then there’s little opportunity for women and girls to realise their rights. Today there are about 33 million widows in India, and many of them in rural areas are still treated like the outcasts shown in Mehta’s film. Women’s struggles, and their ill-treatment at the hands of religious doctrine, is clear in the film. Although it is set in the 1930s, the reality it depicts lives on. It is also worth noting that this film was made at a time when few feminist films were directed by Asian-born women, and even fewer achieved global distribution.
In my current role as Director, Women’s Empowerment at The Asia Foundation, I’m working with my FRAME colleague Maxine Williamson to advocate for an Asia Pacific Feminist Film Network to increase funding, resources and connections for feminist filmmakers in the region. And I’m encouraged by those who are working to influence scriptwriters of soap operas in Asia that reflexively depict “good” girls and women as quiet, invisible and obedient. We can’t be agitating for a bigger world, a different world for women, if one of the most profound influencers of attitudes continues to present the passive woman as the desirable, the dominant and the default image. That’s why influencing current media creators and connecting activist filmmakers to citizen movements for change in the global South (and global North!) is so important.
Beyond the focus on elevating the role of feminist filmmakers, I’m working with colleagues to lift the leadership of many women creatives in Asia. At present there are very few women composers, choreographers, film score producers and illustrators, just as there is a dearth of female filmmakers. We want to change the frame here, too, so that we are investing in women’s immense talent and creative leadership in the region, so that we don’t lose another generation of women leaders in the creative industries.
In doing this work, we’re contributing to the important campaign for 50/50 by 2030. And thus, to a new world order.
The exhibition FRAME: How Asia Pacific Feminist Filmmakers and Artists Are Confronting Inequalities is a creative collaboration led by creative director Jane Sloane, a 2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity, with photographers and art directors Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver and Maxine Williamson, artistic advisor and exhibition manager. Maryanne Redpath, head of the Generation section of the Berlin International Film Festival, was Jane’s mentor for this project. The project celebrates the work of eight inspiring Asia Pacific feminist screen creatives: Anida Yoeu Ali, Jan Chapman, Mattie Do, Rubaiyat Hossain, Erica Glynn, Leena Yadav, Van Ha and Anocha Suwichakornpong.
FRAME was made possible through the support of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, administered by the International Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics and Political Science, Griffith Film School, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, The Asia Foundation, the Asia Pacific Screen Lab and Netpac, the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.