Activists in the Doc Lab

If you are an activist, now is the time to make a film to let more people know about your cause, and if you're a filmmaker, especially a documentary filmmaker, now is the time to become an activist. Why?

Many of us working in the visual/vision business have seen something happen in the last few years. It has changed everything about documentaries. Reality TV has become the dominant pop TV entertainment by borrowing documentary techniques. In order for a documentary to stand out today, it's not enough for it to be informative. It has to be about something. It has to take a stand. It has to address larger issues. Or it's toast. Bring on the meaning and speak to a tribe of people who care about your cause, or drown in the ocean of media washing up on our electronic shore. Standing out, and doing meaningful work, has never been more important than it is now.

Incubating powerful documentaries is the work of Film Independent's 2011 Documentary Lab. This is a seven-week program giving creative feedback to Documentary Lab fellows on their works-in-progress. It happens every spring, and several of the directors and producers involved this year were kind enough to speak with me about what they're working on.

The Light In Her Eyes promises to be a game-changer. The film covers a world rarely seen by outsiders by going inside a mosque in Damascus, where a woman is teaching the Qur'an and personal empowerment to other women. One of my first questions to the directors, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, was how can you put teaching the Qur'an and personal empowerment for women together in the same sentence, then alone in a film. Their answer revealed to me why more and more women are choosing Islam and joining the mosque movement throughout the Muslim world.

"There's an entire generation of women who are becoming leaders within their Islamic communities," Julia Meltzer said. "This is what is often referred to as the mosque movement, and it's not just happening in Syria, it's happening all over the Middle East."

Laura Nix added, "I think women are choosing Islam because the mosque is a place where young people can have a voice." In the West, "we don't understand that in those societies there are not public places where people go and can talk about their needs and desires and expectations and hopes and dreams. The mosque offers a place for that. "

Julia Meltzer was a Fulbright Fellow in Damascus in 2005-6, which was how she was introduced to Muslim culture in a way most of us Westerners never see. She's made five award-winning documentary projects. Laura Nix, producer of The Yes Men Fix the World and many other documentaries, joins Julia in this journey into the heart of the mosque movement.

"We live in a country that has a problem with Islam," Julia said. "There are clearly huge prejudices, huge biases, and an incredible amount of misinformation. So as filmmakers, I believe that what we're doing is to give information about a culture so that people can change their perception."

If you want to take action on these issues, check out the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The Doc Lab has many other films it is nurturing, including Call Me Kuchu, which is following the fight for justice and freedom on the front lines of Africa's gay rights movement.  It has a website and it just started a funding campaign on Kickstarter.

Julia and Laura will finish The Light in Her Eyes this fall, and they're aiming for a festival release next year.