Bringing Films and Their 'Extended Families' to the 2103 Women Deliver Cinema Corner

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. While attending this year's CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) at the UN these past two weeks, there's one message that's very clear -- words are an incredibly important element of pushing forth the maternal and reproductive health agenda. And that's why its been so exciting to curate the 2013 Women Deliver Cinema Corner, bringing imagery, stories and advocacy together for the betterment of women and girls worldwide.

A little history on the Cinema Corner: Based on the success of a one-day Cinema Corner I helped curate at the 2010 conference, Women Deliver decided to dedicate three full days to film screenings that would run parallel to the various presentations. This was unbelievably exciting for me! Not only did it allow me to bring the Women Deliver message to the film world in a more authentic manner (we had a formal call for film submissions, we had a dedicated website, we reached out to various film outlets (like Shooting People and Doculink) and we asked for a donation fee for submissions just as most film festivals around the world ask), I can now bring films into the Women Deliver world. It is no longer just showing a film during a conference presentation but we have developed a dedicated space for films and filmmakers. In terms of spreading the message of the conference to an extended audience, this is more powerful than you can imagine.

Let me explain.

I am a big believer in the power of film and the arts to raise awareness about the most pressing issues facing our times. In terms of the maternal health movement, I try to relay this by describing the "spectrum of players" I believe who are needed to make change. At the beginning of the spectrum are the advocates and the educators, then the caregivers and health care personnel (traditional birth attendants, midwives, OB/GYNs), then the funders, the media and the policymakers.

I believe filmmakers and artists are at the very beginning of the spectrum for they help bring attention to issues that may not get covered in mass media. If no one knows there's a problem, nothing will be done to solve the problem. And by nature of them being artists, filmmakers become attached to their creations and share their work with their production crew, their funders and their fans/followers. What I've learned through my own experience is that a social-issue based film can not only put a "face to an issue," it can take on its own life and through the various phases of its development (research, pre-production, production, post and distribution), can inadvertently reach a wide variety of new viewers who may not otherwise know about the topic of the film.

I will share a personal example with a film I made in 2003 on obstetric fistula in Niger called Love, Labor, Loss.

When I first set out to make the film, no production company was interested in supporting it because it was an issue that was difficult to talk about, no one knew about it and many were concerned that the film would make no money. Plus, then, I was an unknown filmmaker and even though my background was in international development, I had no professional training and few connections in the film world.

I have to thank these people now for their rejections because it inspired me to come up with creative means to get the film made and seen, just as many indie filmmakers do today. It has carved a path where I was essentially forced to learn the various components of my craft on my own (cinematography, sound, editing, etc.) and I have come to understand how to creatively get financing for films and more importantly, how to use the film as an advocacy tool and reach new audiences.

In the past 10 years since making that film, I have reached thousands of people directly who have watched the film. At the screenings that I have attended in person, I have asked how many people have heard of obstetric fistula. Usually, less than 10 people of the 400 to 500 people I was speaking to had heard of this horrific childbearing injury. Many people are surprised after watching the 15-minute film that this condition exists and more importantly, that it is both preventable and treatable.

Because I do not run an organization or raise funds for fistula, I encourage my viewers who were moved by the film and who are interested in helping out, to contact one of the funders of the film (UNFPA, Campaign to End Fistula, EngenderHealth, International Center for Research on Women, Feminist Majority Foundation, Women's Dignity Project, One by One Project and the former Global Health Council). This has resulted in various high school dollar drives, screenings at gala events and in one case, a fairly big and influential D.C.-based fundraiser.

In 2005, I collaborated with a Grammy-nominated artist whose music is in the film (Zap Mama) and together we traveled across the country over three and a half weeks, combining film screenings and music performances for "The Woman Tour." During the day, we would do screenings at universities (UC Berkeley, UCLA, Colorado State University and others) where her fans would come to hear her talk in person. Then at night, at her shows, I would distribute information about the film and about fistula. Her band members and tour crew, who have since gone on to work with other high-profile artists like Prince, Ms. Lauryn, Hill, T-Pain, Pharoahe Monch and others, now know about fistula and continue to ask about my work educating people about the issue. This was the first project that I did in collaboration with performing artists and because of its success, has since become a standard distribution element of my films' outreach activities.

Zap Mama and Lisa Russell speak at post-film discussion at Dominican University in 2005.

To this day, I continue to screen the film and to sell my film to advocates who would take the films to their communities, screen them, and raise funds for the various organizations doing the important work.

The consequential impact of this small film has been incredible to watch. Yes, the community affiliated with Zap Mama. But also, the letters and emails from hundreds of students who were inspired to pursue a career in maternal health, the funds that were raised, the parents who supported their child's interest in hosting a screening, the congressmen I met (Congressman Jim McDermott from Seattle introduced the film at the Amnesty International Film Festival in 2006), the 160,000 hits for the preview on YouTube. I can go on and on.

My point is that behind the 80 films we are programming -- which include documentaries, narratives, PSAs, music videos, scene selects, trailers, and others -- are the film's extended family and other life. They all have numerous people attached to the creation (be it production personnel, film festivals, fans, etc.). Filmmakers will share the news with their followers. Film sites will reference Women Deliver as a festival they've been accepted to. Those who attend the conference will undoubtedly talk about the incredible advocates they meet, and the conference participants may also spread the word about the films that moved them.

The Cinema Corner will bring this "extended family" to the Malaysia meeting, at least in spirit. My hope is that this 2013 important gathering becomes the precedent for how future conferences engage artists and filmmakers in their gatherings.

For a list of films invited to screen at the 2013 Women Deliver Cinema Corner, please visit here.

Lisa Russell, MPH is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, a global maternal health advocate, a teaching artist and co-founder of You can catch her as an invited speaker at the IFP Envision program which focuses on addressing global issues through documentaries on April 11th in NYC.

Zap Mama's music video for "Hello to Mama"