TRANSFORMING LIVES – Documentary Films of Women Leading Change

Abstract:

2012 begins the fourth year of an exciting new media initiative at the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) at Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey. Originally launched in collaboration with Writers House, part of the Rutgers Department of English, the Transforming Lives project focuses on women’s leadership for social change, with a special emphasis on women breaking barriers to lead the way in addressing challenges in local and global contexts.

One of the purposes of the Transforming Lives project is to create spaces for established and aspiring women leaders to connect and construct knowledge about their lived experiences. Participants are undergraduates in the IWL Leadership Scholars Certificate Program, a nineteen-credit interdisciplinary program dedicated to developing undergraduates as innovative and socially responsible leaders. As part of this project, Leadership Scholars engage in research and technology at the intersection of borders, cultures, and generations through interviewing a role model in our communities, our state, and the world. This educational initiative incorporates new media into the program’s curriculum by providing an opportunity for students to experiment with documentary filmmaking. One of the aims of this process is to help students understand the use of interviews and filmmaking as vital tools to shift dominant discourses in education and beyond.

Summary:

It is clear that the evolution technology has a direct impact on education. Colleges and
universities are tasked with shifting to adjust how students interact with information. In what
is being coined a digital and participatory era, there has been tremendous growth in youth-
produced media. Robert Sherman, who funds youth media through the Surdna Foundation’s
Effective Citizenry program, sees a void that needs to be filled and the need to financially
support such multimedia projects. He asserts, “The absence of the voices of young people is a
glaring hole in democratic dialogue.” Since new media are the primary modes of communication
and the way young people produce and digest information, it is more pressing than ever to make
this connection in the college and university classroom.

Erlin Ibreak, director of the Youth Initiatives Program of the Open Society Institute,
says, “[Young people] are producing images we’ve never seen before and stories we
haven’t heard until now. And they are deconstructing the mass media and its effect on
them, really taking hold of something that has a powerful—and often negative—impact on
their lives.” Documentaries have long been viewed as having power to change minds and
consciousness, thereby eliciting social transformation through the hearts and minds of people.
Intergenerational interviews have the potential to raise consciousness amongst a broader
audience through the vehicle of documentary film, which allows for the documenting of
women’s lives as seen through the eyes of young women. Utilizing film as a way to counter
mainstream media and build a feminist media culture inspires technological literacy and the
embracing of tools for making positive social change in a shifting communication landscape.

As Associate Director of the Leadership Scholars Program and Multimedia Research Initiatives
at the IWL and coordinator of the Transforming Lives project, I have come to understand that
incorporating documentary filmmaking into the feminist classroom is an under-tapped vehicle
for producing knowledge around women’s issues, experiences, and activism in the 21st century.
There is also a critical need to create intergenerational bridges amongst women acting for social
change in all arenas. One way of doing this is to create opportunities for dialogue and a trusting
space for the transmission of wisdom gleaned from such interactions. It is for these reasons that
the Transforming Lives Documentary Film Project was born, with the goals of:

  • Demonstrating and showcasing women’s leadership, making visible women’s
    accomplishments, their approaches, and reflections on leadership for social change;
  • Examining what young leaders want to know about women’s leadership for social
    change;
  • Increasing the awareness of interviews as a valuable vehicle for learning about
    leadership; and,
  • Exploring and analyzing how leadership for social change varies in diverse contexts.

Students seeking higher education must be active participants in their learning, and multimedia
initiatives such as the Transforming Lives project can connect students, through education, to
the culture at large. Educational technology and multimedia skills must be incorporated into the
classroom to equip students with the necessary skills to engage in transformational leadership
practices.

Like others who take part in Transforming Lives, Hera Mir, a Rutgers School of Arts and
Sciences student in the class of 2012, took a documentary filmmaking course to create a story
in the narrator’s own words and make a character-driven documentary up to eight minutes in
length. By learning professional video editing software and engaging directly in the building of a
narrative and supporting it visually, she learned how to dissect media’s ability to alter perception
and evoke an emotional response in viewers.

Hera interviewed Mahmaz Afkhami, former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Iran and founder
and director of theWomen’s Learning Partnership. She then edited the filmed interview into
a seven-minute documentary about Afkahmi’s life and career as a woman leader working for
women’s rights. When asked to reflect about her chosen film subject, Hera noted how Ms.
Afkhami’s work “developing women’s leadership at the grassroots level and her immigrant
experience, particularly coming from a Muslim context,” was what inspired her choice. Hera
added that “she would be someone that I would look up to.” By interviewing Afkhami, Hera
stated that she, “learned a lot about the politics of Iran,” and, “what it means to speak up
and have your voice heard, and why that’s important.” Hera also reflects on the filmmaking
component: “to be able to edit a documentary and to be able to interpret Mahnaz’ words and,
to be able to put my own creative influence on that made me see how much art is a part of me.”
Through this process she found, “that I need to trust myself, and trust that what I have to say
does matter.”

Her documentary, Iran, the Women’s Voice. An Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami, along with the
other project films and transcripts, are disseminated in a myriad of ways, including classroom
and film festival screenings on campus, online video archives of the IWL, and screenings and
presentations in national and international conferences.

We hope that documenting women’s stories in their own words through the eyes of young
women aspiring to affect social change will lead to unique kinds of knowledge production.
Through the interviews and films, there is an opportunity to transmit nuanced ways of
understanding work and family issues; definitions and generational issues in leadership; and the
construction of self and the ways that race, class, and gender influence access to, and exercise of,
leadership.

Hera’s film is one of fifteen interviews and documentaries that have been filmed as part of the
Transforming Lives project. For more information please visit http://iwl.rutgers.edu.

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