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The Daily Need

Documenting documentary film

“I hate it because I know my future is ruined.” These are the words of the 14-year-old Haitian earthquake survivor-turned-prostitute, Lauretta, in the documentary, “Little Girls Lost,” by Lisa Armstrong and Andre Lambertston. This gripping film about a young girl’s descent into prostitution and poverty was one of the highlights of the City University of New York’s first annual “Global Documentary Film Series.”

The two-day event showcased projects from Nigeria, Liberia, Nepal, the DRC, Brazil and Afghanistan, with the common theme revolving around international women’s human rights. “The idea for the film festival came to us when we were trying to inspire students to explore ways of storytelling when the business end of journalism lets you down,” said Lonnie Isabel, director of International Reporting Project at CUNY and the chairman of the film festival. And why women in conflict? “Well, women in war is the most important under-reported story of the world,” said Isabel.

In addition to screenings, the first day of the event featured three panels: “The Documentarian as a Journalist,” “Women in Islam” and “Women in Conflict.” Panelists discussed strategies for reporting in hostile situations and the importance of debunking stereotypes set by the mainstream media with students, activists and journalists.

A still from Marcus Bleasdale's "Dear Obama: A Message from Victims of the LRA."

On Day 2, there were screenings for documentaries shot in Haiti, the DRC, Nepal, Liberia and Nigeria that explored disparate issues like maternal mortality, child soldiers and sex trafficking. Panelists focused on the nitty-gritty details of getting a documentary made, with an emphasis on securing funding, submitting works to film festivals and finding a distributor.

One film that that I found particularly compelling was “The Edge of Joy” by Dawn Sinclair Shapiro. Shapiro documents hospital staff, midwives and families battling maternal mortality in Nigeria. The filmmaker’s full access to a pregnant woman’s family, evident in a delivery scene, is remarkable: Winning this degree of trust in a conservative Muslim society that abides by Islamic Sharia law is no easy feat.

“More families said ‘no’, and the family who said ‘yes’ took a risk by doing so, but now the same film is being used as a tool for community mobilization,” said Shapiro.

Other screened projects that have been used for community mobilization and advocacy included a film by VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale on the Lord’s Resistance Army and children sex slaves in the Congo in “Dear Obama,” which was produced in collaboration with Human Rights Watch.

Bleasdale, who has steadily collaborated with Human Rights Watch for more than a decade, discussed his efforts to balance advocacy and objective journalism. “While filming, I approach the victims and survivors in the same way, but in post-production the message changes.”

Other collaborative productions with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and International Reporting Project were also part of the mix at this event. The screenings, along with the panel discussions on critical issues faced by independent journalists working overseas, were particularly helpful in pointing a new generation of filmmakers toward alternative platforms for showcasing their work.

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