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Keeping My Soul Right: Making Global Health Films on Women and Girls

August 15, 2013

"Why do you always make bad films about Africa?"

As a Western documentary filmmaker who has traveled over 25 times to the African continent, I have been asked this question a lot, mostly by my African friends. And while I try to justify my work by elaborating on my "pure" intentions and my heartfelt efforts to retain the dignity of the people I film in my story, the reality is, making films about women and girls in Africa, as a non-African, usually means focusing my camera on the suffering, the struggles and the challenges facing African people.

Hollywood films are no better. According to, one of the "6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can't Seem to Get Over" is that "Everyone in Africa Is Uncivilized or a Warlord." Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, Black Hawk Down are all examples of films where cinematically Africa is portrayed as beautiful but corrupt and poor and disease-ridden in every other way.

So, the question for filmmakers like myself who want to make socially-conscious films that advance positive social change and, bring to light issues in the developing world is this - how do we illustrate development problems without dumbing down our storylines?

 I'm happy to say that after years of feeling uncomfortable, and questioning my career choice, I finally worked on a film that I think is going to change the way I do my films in the future.

Since speaking at the 2010 inaugural Social Good Summit, on a panel entitled "The Power of Film", I have struggled with the question of who is entitled to tell someone else's story. Are Westerners reinforcing power imbalances by perpetuating stereotypes of the developing world? Are we really contributing to solving global poverty by coming in with expensive film equipment, deciding which stories are the most important, getting our disadvantaged brothers and sisters to tell their stories with no financial payback? Should we instead be giving those film opportunities to local filmmakers? Should we as Western filmmakers have an obligation to give back in some way? To train or leave equipment? Or are we justified because we are making films for a Western audience so it makes sense that we produce the films.

Watch live streaming video from mashable at

I once heard someone say that art is a reflection of your soul, so if you are creating art about another culture, make sure your soul is right.

This can mean different things to different people. For me, it's constantly checking myself, being aware of my "white" (or rather, quarter Chinese/Mongolian) privilege, and learning and exploring alternative theories on the roots of poverty. And most importantly, listening to intellectuals, artists, activists and friends representing cultures that I'm making films about.

I'm happy to say that after years of feeling uncomfortable, and questioning my career choice, I finally worked on a film that I think is going to change the way I do my films in the future.

After curating the Cinema Corner at Women Deliver in Malaysia this past May and being exposed to all different sorts of genres of films (narrative, PSAs, music videos, as well as documentaries) that illustrate issues affecting women and girls, I decided to do my next film by mixing genres.

¡PODER! is a new film I just completed shooting in Concepción Chiquirichapa, a small town in Guatemala. It's a film that showcases the power of girls by highlighting the work of two indigenous girls who challenged their town mayor to support girls' needs. Initially skeptical of why girls of their age would be interested in politics, the mayor eventually listened to them, worked to understand them, and then co-wrote and funded legislation that resulted in more community programs for adolescents. With these girls by his side, he eventually opened up a new Office for Women and Adolescents in their municipality. Talk about girl power!

Instead of shooting this film like a documentary, I decided to make it a short narrative film based on the real-life story of these two young girls. My process involved interviewing the girls before I arrived in Guatemala and again, when I met them in person. Based on their interviews, I wrote a script and then had them act-out their own story. We moved through the town, filmming the different scenes to help construct their story. I basically turned the small town into a film set.

Photo: Enrique Zabaleta

Read the rest of this post here. 

If you are interested in supporting this new film, becoming an associate or executive producer or following its roll out, please visit


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