The desire to experience films from global filmmakers and varied points of view is admirable, but proper knowledge and access to such stories can be hard to come by. One organization is seeking to change that by making sure all you need is an internet connection and an open mind.
Women's Voices Now is an online platform with a goal of "advocating women's rights through film." The organization was founded in 2010 by the late Leslie Sacks, who was moved in the post-9/11 world to bring people together by spotlighting films by and about Muslim women through an online short film festival.
Since then, the organization has developed to include even more voices from around the world, and offers hundreds of films of varying lengths — documentary, narrative, and experimental — completely free to stream on its website. This online library has even been nicknamed the "Netflix of feminist films." Recently, a section of films called "Voices of the Banned" was added to speak out against President Donald Trump's travel ban.
A Plus recently communicated with WVN Executive Director Heidi Basch-Harod and Creative Director Leila Jarman through email. They expressed pride in the organization's unique place among other women-centered film festivals that have come about in recent years.
"We are leading by example that films and activism work together to inspire people to be and create the change they want to see in themselves and in their communities," they shared, explaining that they are "the only organization that insists and promotes the natural connection between film and activism vis-à-vis women's stories, rights, struggles, and triumphs, exclusively."
The organization's film festivals accept films of any length, in any language, by women and men, that focus on "women's social, economic, and political issues." This year marked the fourth incarnation of the festival, titled "Invincible and Unsilenced: Women in the World," in which 36 films competed. Stories focused on women in places such as Brazil, Kenya, Tehran, and London.
"The films, or stories, that end up in our archives and in our programming are specifically chosen because we believe they have the power to create social change, and we are starting to see that in big and small ways," the organization told A Plus.
Women's Voices Now is dedicated to making all of its materials "free and accessible," in order to spread its message further and ensure that discussions of women's rights aren't exclusive to individuals from specific socioeconomic or educational circles.
"Our extensive online content, and especially our films, which you can watch anywhere in the world without paywalls or subscription, enable us to continually widen the circle of human beings who understand that women's rights are human rights — and we all have an interest in seeing an improvement in the status of women," they told A Plus.
In addition to its online content, the organization also brings its films directly to audiences around the world through its Ambassador Program. Ambassadors — students, activists, and other volunteers — organize their own screenings, choosing films and coordinating discussions. The organization has traveled around the United States, as well as to the Middle East, North Africa, India, and the U.K.
To demonstrate just how much of an impact these films can have on communities around the globe, the organization shared an anecdote about a 2013 visit to Nablus in the West Bank, where they held screenings for a therapy group that included women from a Palestinian refugee camp:
We showed a collection of films that were in the dialect of Arabic spoken by Palestinians, and through these films, the psycho-social director sought to start a discussion about the domestic violence experienced by these women and the occurrence of rape — two very sensitive and private abuses that occur in the lives of these women. We saw several incredible things happen after viewing the films and in discussion. During this three-hour visit, bitter tears were shed, frustration and sadness were expressed, and the psycho-social director was able to identify at-risk participants that hadn't previously been willing to admit to troubled situations at home. She shared with us that in the weeks to follow it would be her job to explore the possibility of an appropriate intervention that would ensure the women's safety and rehabilitation if they were willing.
Women's Voices Now provides activists with resources such as screening packages, a monthly publication called The WVoice, a sponsorship program for filmmakers, and, more recently, creative workshops. While the organization is focused first on what kinds of stories are told on screen, the hope is that viewers will ultimately be inspired to get to work off-screen in order to create change:
"The first step is watching a film, the next step is delving into further research on the issues presented in the film, and the ultimate step and goal of our work is inspiring our viewers to find a way to contribute to the causes that resonate with them, whether on the local or global level."
Viewers who are motivated to take those next steps are encouraged to explore WVN's resources, especially its Ambassador Program, to help share these inspiring stories and foster even more impactful discussions about women's issues.
As the organization aims to coordinate more workshops — for the LGBTQ community, as well as teens — and other projects, WVN tells A Plus they hope to hire more staff and expand the board of directors.
"As a relatively young organization promoting women's rights and film as a vehicle for global social change, we continue to search for committed, long-term support that allows us to reach our full potential," they shared.
Women's Voices Now is proof of the power of film to inspire empathy — the kind that can connect women of different backgrounds through shared experiences, and effect real change in the world, and in individual lives.
"Watching a film offers the opportunity to hold up a mirror to our own lives as women, and as men interacting with women. A story about a woman in Afghanistan breaking out of an abusive relationship and her journey to understanding her self-worth can resonate with any woman coming up against her own imprisonment, self-inflicted or otherwise," Basch-Harod and Jarman told A Plus. "Sometimes watching a story about someone very far away allows us to gently take a look at our own challenging situation, and to deal with it bravely in a way we didn't know we could."
The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.