Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflections for this Holiday Season

As the holiday celebrations and gift-giving ceremonies ensue, I wanted to send some personal reflections. While I don't have much time to write about and share personal experiences I have behind the camera lens, I wrote this piece last year originally for and felt it was appropriate to share for the holidays as we reflect and appreciate what 2008 had to offer.

I also wanted to send a special thank you to the many colleagues, friends, collaborators, and supporters - you know who you are - for your continued investment and faith in the power of film and the belief that a better world is possible.

Happy Holidays.


Behind the Scenes of LOVE, LABOR, LOSS
By Lisa Russell

"The baby is not breathing." It was one of the most disturbing statements I heard while shooting my documentary film Love, Labor, Loss in Niger just a few years ago. I had traveled to this West African country to shoot a film on obstetric fistula, a childbearing injury caused by a prolonged, obstructed labor that leaves women childless, incontinent and often ostracized from their communities. It was our second day of shooting and my intention was to film a successful Cesarean section, illustrating one way to prevent obstetric fistula. Unfortunately, the woman we had filmed had waited too long for the surgery. We were left filming her newborn baby as he was dying on camera.

That day, we were visiting the Central Maternity Hospital in the capital, Niamey, intending to shoot interviews and b-roll of the country's most prestigious hospital that focuses primarily on women in difficult labor. When the OB/GYN first introduced us to this patient, she was lying on her side with the back of her hospital gown soaked in blood. Like many other women in Niger who encounter troubles with their pregnancy, she had spent several days traveling by foot, donkey cart and taxi to get to the hospital. "She has been here since 6 am," the doctor explained. I looked at my watch, realizing she had been waiting for over six hours. I asked why she has been waiting so long for her surgery. The doctor explained to me that women must come to the hospital with their "supplies" - meaning all the bandages, syringes, and other items needed for their surgery. This woman's family had been roaming the streets of Niamey since dawn begging for the last $20 needed so that they could trade it for another woman's supplies so the surgery could begin.

Within the next hour, the $60 worth of supplies arrived and the patient was immediately prepped for her c-section. It's obvious this poor, rural woman has never had surgery before (the c-section rate in Niamey is only 2%) and fear covered her face with every move the doctors made. The anesthesiologist waited for the surgeon's go-ahead so that he could sedate her right before the first cut is made. The surgery was quick and the baby was pulled from her abdomen in a manner of minutes. My cameraman and I were both surprised by the seemingly simplicity of the operation.

It wasn't until the child was wheeled into the post-delivery room where the nurse began CPR that I realized how critical the situation had become. The nurse began by putting a suction hose up the infant's nostrils to drain mucous while doing compressions on the baby's chest. I thought this was normal procedure until five minutes passed. I asked what was wrong. "The baby is not breathing," she said as she looked at me, keeping her confidence that all would be all right.

Finally, after about eleven or twelve long minutes after we had arrived in the room, the baby choked for air and began to cry. The nurse pulled out a mouthful of mucous and placed an oxygen mask over the baby as she began to clean up the blood. "He is going to be okay," she confidently told the camera.

When I screen and discuss my film, I don't usually tell this story. The stories people want and expect to hear about obstetric fistula are those about the large numbers of women whose lives have been destroyed by this relatively unknown condition and the numerous programs that are repairing women's fistulas and giving them a new life. They expect to hear about how fistula is perpetuated by early marriages and women's voicelessness when it comes to decision making about their health care. These are all important aspects of the challenge of obstetric fistula.

But in this story, a woman, in labor, is at the country's most adequate facility and is not served because she is poor and her family lacks the resources and know-how to advocate for her life. A woman is at risk of delivering a stillborn baby because a mere $20 cannot be materialized. A doctor, capable and passionate enough to save this woman's life, waits helplessly for the supplies to arrive as he watches her wait in pain and misery. And a camera crew, ready to share a positive story about progress being made in fistula prevention and treatment in Niger, filming a near-death experience with camera equipment whose cost could cover over 100 c-sections.

This story demonstrates that obstetric fistula is not just a woman's issue, nor is it just about the developing world. It is about the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It is about our inability to prioritize people's lives and about legislation that restricts funding based on political battles. And it reflects a sense of complacency towards striving for social equality and progress. The gap between rich and poor countries and between rural and urban areas continues to create conditions that make women at risk for obstetric fistula - lack of education, lack of employment, scarcity of safe motherhood services and indeed, early marriage, which is often justified by the economic security it gives the family.

Because I came to filmmaking with a public health background, I look at obstetric fistula through a human rights lens. Whenever I screen my films, therefore, I try to balance pointing out the effects that local cultural practices - such as early marriages and unattended births - can have on maternal health and mortality, with drawing attention to the legislation and policy that can hamper efforts to improve global women's health. This includes U.S. policies such as the Global Gag Rule, the $34 million withdrawal from the United Nations Population Fund, certain restrictions in PEPFAR funding, as well as our country's refusal to ratify CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) which is considered the international bill of rights for women. If we could adhere to the ideals and promises made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the promises made at the Cairo and Beijing conferences, and could strive towards the goals outlined in the Millennium Development Goals, than maybe we can realize a future where women are not dying in pregnancy or childbirth and their newborns have a chance at a hopeful and productive life.

I believe it is critically important for people, particularly youth, to get a comprehensive introduction to the numerous factors that contribute to inequalities in global health. As Americans we have been programmed to believe that writing a check or organizing a fundraiser alone is enough of a contribution. And while fundraising is definitely an important element in advocating for social change, I believe we need to be watchdogs of the promises made by our leaders and act as global citizens who work in solidarity with women who lack the resources and voice to make change at the global level.

It is partly for this reason that I seek out screenings with young people and engage them in conversations that range from the personal to the global. I do this through integrating different art genres such as film and music and spoken word poetry. I believe we need to empower a more critically thinking, self-expressive generation that can simultaneously focus on personal growth as well as strive for a change in global consciousness. At the National Youth Leadership Forum three times each summer, we transform a 450-person auditorium filled with high achieving high school students interested in medicine anticipating a 90-minute keynote speech into a down-to-earth, honest discussion. We talk not only about obstetric fistula, but the social injustices between the privileged and the poor, about personal ambitions like living your life for a greater purpose and staying true to yourself despite the pressures of becoming someone you're not. The response proves usually very positive as young people feel engaged in the bigger picture and feel they genuinely have a role to play.

When I go back and listen to the footage of that moment in the post-delivery room years ago, I can hear my voice whispering to my cameraman, "Are we really going to film a baby dying?" as the nurse's determination to save the newborn perseveres. By now, I've learned its the personal experiences that give us the strength and perserverence to fight the long fight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media grant for "The Parliament of One"

Just received our first production grant for "The Parliament of One", a new film on U.S.-U.N. relations. It is from the prestigious Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media. Named to honor singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, the Fund supports media activism and grassroots organizing by funding the pre-production and distribution of social issue film and video projects and the production and distribution of radio projects, made by local, state, national or international organizations and individual media producers. The Fund solicits projects of all genres that address critical social and political issues, combine intellectual clarity with creative use of the medium and demonstrate understanding of how the production will be used for progressive social justice organizing.


"We Will Not Die Like Dogs"

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs" will have its UK Premiere at the We the Peoples 2008 Film Festival, on November 25th at 6pm. Visit for more details.

About the Festival
The We The Peoples Film Festival takes its title from the opening words of the United Nations Charter.

The festival, which is now in its third year, strives to raise the profile of the United Nations by promoting its aims and work in development, security and human rights to new and existing audiences by inspiring and educating them through film.

The festival also endeavours to raise awareness and support in the United Kingdom and the global film industry for the development work of the UN, its agencies and NGOs.

As well as showing high quality films, the festival provides a forum for discussion about the issues portrayed, with experts from across the field.

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs" for World AIDS Day

I'm very excited that we'll be partnering with Snag Films and the student activist organization, Americans for Democracy on a FREE World AIDS Day screening of "We Will Not Die Like Dogs".

Please visit on December 1st, World AIDS Day, to see a very compelling film about AIDS activists in Africa and find ways to make your voice and concerns heard.

Article on Youth Media Reporter

Please check out this article I wrote for Youth Media Reporter on Liberian (or non-American) Youth Perspectives on the U.S. Presidential Elections.

It was also linked to an article on African Thoughts on the US Elections (

And it was listed as one of three top favorite blog stories for Voices without Votes. ( Voices without Votes opens a window on what non-Americans are saying in blogs and citizen media about US foreign policy and the 2008 presidential elections

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Last Shoot (Lebanon)

Just returned from Lebanon after wrapping the last shoot for the film I'm doing on young people in crises. It was my first time shooting in the Middle East and I absolutely found it intriguing and beautiful. Lebanon's 2006 war took its toll on young people, particularly those who live in the south, but there is a strong commitment toward peace and building a safer future for Lebanon's youth.

Here are some photos from both Beirut and Tyre, in the south.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Bi-Racial Hair" to screen at Reel Sisters Film Festival

"Bi-Racial Hair" to screen at the Reel Sisters Film Festival
Date: Saturday, September 26th, 1:00pm
Venue: Kumble Theater, Long Island University, Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, August 7, 2008

RIP Jesse

Just wanted to post a special recognition to Jesse Thompkins, a filmmaker and a person I knew from my neighborhood who died tragically last Sunday. He was one of those filmmakers who were so passionate about his filmmaking that he was devising creative ways of financing his next film, including running the marathon and selling advertising space on the back of his shirt. He was caught up in a bad car accident as he was running, training for the marathon.

Jesse, may your spirit live on in those who so obviously love and adore you and those who you touched in your short but impressive life. I really regret not ever having our big film talk but that's not going to stop me from seeing your work! Or forgetting your big, honest smile.

RIP, kind man...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Back from New Orleans, Off to Lebanon

Ompf, it is hard to keep this blog up right now but good stuff going on.

Just returned from New Orleans, shooting portraits of two young women involved in reproductive health care. We met some amazing young people who gave us an insiders view of how natural disasters like Katrina affect their lives and their communities. Special thanks to Eric, Jennifer and Vanessa!

Then, on August 25th, we're off to Lebanon to shoot Uniformed Services folks who do AIDS advocacy. Both of these shoots are for the project I'm doing with UNFPA and Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Some pics from the Lower Ninth Ward to give you a sense of where things are now, three years after Katrina...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs" starts PBS Broadcast

"We Will Not Die Like Dogs" is beginning its PBS broadcast. As one of six films in National Black Programming Consortium's "AfroPop" Series, our film will screen on select PBS stations nationwide in the coming months. Please check out the film's blog at for more information and broadcast times.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A shoot in Colombia

I just returned from a 10 day shoot in Colombia, for a UNFPA project that profiles young people who are helping to rehabilitate their communities after conflict or natural disasters.

The shoot took place in an area called Montes de Maria where guerrillas and paramilitary took over local villages and waged warfare against each other.

The young women we met were so full of life despite the tragic loss of family and community. We did a poetry workshop and talked with them about the issue of gender-based violence.

To keep updated on the project, please visit

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Working in Animation

Ever since I heard Brett Morgen of "Chicago 10" speak about using innovative technologies in storytelling, I've been curious how to integrate mixed media in my work. Liberia??? Check? is the first project where I'm working with animation and I'm learning a lot in the process.

I decided after not being able to pull enough young Liberians in Park Hill together for a mock debate about the elections, that I would set up my piece as sort of a "delegates" meeting where representatives from places like Colombia, Palestine, Jamaica and finally, Liberia, are given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the election. My good friend and colleague, Sol Guy agreed to do the voice over for "MC Unite" who is presiding over the meeting. When he calls up PJ - our Liberian delegate - we segue into the footage I have of him in Park Hill asking people on the streets their points of view. It was fun to work on this with Sol because also shot a segment in Liberia so we talked about how interesting it is that Liberia is so fascinated with the U.S. He traveled with the artist, MIA, for his new MTV Canada - check it out to learn more about Liberia.

Lovisa Inserra is my new animator and she is fantastic! We decided to first develop the storyboards for the piece that she will then animate once we get feedback from the Open Call community. Pulling the stills she created into my sequence, I came to realize that when you decide to work in animation, you must also sort of become a sound designer. The background noises of the courtroom, the VO, the music, the clanking of the gavel, all help to enhance the credibility of the scene. So, I had to add about 6 audio channels.

The other interesting thing about working in animation -and probably in fiction in general which I don't get a lot of exposure to - is the ability to "set up" scenes to relay information critical to your story. After going through my interviews and footage with PJ, I realize that in order to best contextualize the relationship between Liberia and the U.S. (in a few seconds!), that I will need him to read from a script. I'll cover the VO with images from the WGBH Sandbox and my own broll I shot in Monrovia, but because I didn't think of this prior to shooting, I will definitely need to make another trip out to Staten Island and will need to indicate it in my rough cut.

I'll end this with posting a few of the stills from the opening. I opted to go for a very colorful, youth feel in order to attract a younger audience.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Mix for "Liberia??? Check!" (WGBH/POV Short)

PJ (far right) with Sam and Frank Davis (aka AKG)
Liberian DJ PJ (far right) with Sam and Frank Davis (aka AKG)
in Park Hill, Staten Island

One of the things I enjoy most about the filmmaking process is the opportunity to mix with creative sorts of all types. I met with an artist in my neighborhood - Pete Miser - about music, I have talked with several beginning filmmakers about assisting as a PA and I had coffee with an animator - David Sutton - who will do an opening for my piece. But probably the most fun I had was mixing with the young Liberians in Staten Island during my first shoot there yesterday.

I came up with the idea for my pitch after spending 10 days in Liberia last month for a shoot I'm doing with the UN on young people in conflict settings. I was in awe with Liberia's strong fascination with our country. They L-O-V-E George Bush and think 50% of Americans do too(!) I guess this should not be surprising given it's historical relationship with the U.S. - freed American slaves returned to Liberia in 1822, formed a new government and now the "Americo-Liberians" as they are called, are often the ones running the show, holding political and financial clout. Liberia also has the first female President in all of Africa and they now have strong diplomatic ties to America. So, in Monrovia, e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y was talking about Obama and Clinton and to a lesser degree, John McCain. Being from the States, I became an "official" ear for Liberians to share their thoughts on the elections.

"The White House is about to become the Black House!"

"A woman should not be President when a country is at war. She couldn't handle it!"

"If the United States had a female President, they would take better care of the community."

So when one kid asked me if I thought Liberians should get to vote for the next U.S President since the outcome will have such an impact on Liberia and the African continent as a whole, I appeased his question by developing my pitch, "Liberia??? Check!"

I needed to get more footage though than what I could use from Liberia. Thanks to a wonderful Brooklyn-based writer-now-collaborator, Ruthie Ackerman, I was able to enter the gritty, but fascinating world of the Liberia that's been resettled Stateside. It's in Staten Island and boasts the largest Liberian population outside of Africa. The streets there aren't too different from Monrovia where old women set up shop to sell small goods for income, young men are blasting hip hop from their blown-out speakers and parent-less children weeble-wobble through deserted lots on too-big bicycles. The sunset gives permission for drug deals and gang violence to throw civil war-like tension between the Liberians and the African Americans who lay claims to the neighborhood. The Wu Tang Clan who grew up there refers to it as "Crack Hill" or "Killer Hill." Ruthie has been working with the Liberian refugee community for more than a year now, collecting their stories for a book and a longer documentary film. (If you want to know more about this fascinating community, read her article, "Liberia: From One Battlefront to Another" here.)

Ruthie introduced me to PJ - a 34-year old slim man sporting a gold chain bearing the seal of his home country. Back in the Gambia, PJ was the hit DJ, spinning music for his refugee brothers and sisters before coming to the States. We first met PJ's mom who was questioning his choice of an outfit, urged him to hurry up to not keep his guests waiting and was tending to things he needed from her. Moms and sons in little Liberia are apparently no different than anywhere else.

I couldn't ask for a more perfect "host" to this community than PJ. Outcoming, comical, charismatic and definitely confident, he took to the streets asking Liberians young and old alike who they would vote for in the elections and why while interjecting his own commentary and ideas. I originally had hoped to set up a mock debate and vote with young high school students but the candidness of the interviews with a back-drop of real Park Hill life bustling in the background, gave me plenty of material to work with.

Liberian Auntie Street Vendor
Liberian Auntie Selling Goods on the Street

At the end of the day, I started thinking about how this project has brought together an interesting group of people and situations in such a short amount of time - the ex-combatants in Liberia and a former DJ celebrity in Park Hill and Pete Miser's beats and Ruthie's dedication and the beautiful old Liberian women selling plastics on the streets and the dude in the wheelchair smoking a cigarette. This may seem like a strange mix for a short 3-minute film on the elections, but to me, in many ways, it defines what this election is all about. Isn't it?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

On top of the water u see Brooklyn...

...Brooklyn, LIBERIA that is! More on the shoot for UNFPA on young people in conflict settings and natural disasters coming soon!

WGBH Lab and POV Open Call

I haven't had much time to write and there's so much I have spinning in my head about my recent trip to Liberia that I need to focus to write, but in the meantime, sharing some good news.

A pitch I submitted for the WGBH Lab and POV Open Call was accepted which means over the next month I'll be producing a 3-minute short on the 2008 elections. Tough win - there were so many entries. But I'm looking forward to it.

If you want to check out my pitch - entitled, "Liberia???? Check!", visit this link. During production, you'll have an opportunity to give input on my cut, on other filmmakers' rough cuts, and read filmmakers posts on the WGBH Lab blog. Check it!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Giving Young People a Voice

While I'm not shooting or editing my films, I spend most of my time in NYC with a great non-profit that gives free after-school spoken word poetry workshops called Urban Word NYC where I teach workshops, film events and help with the development of the organization. The young writers and poets I have met there are some of the most talented, inspiring, insightful, critical thinkers I have come across. They embody the hope I have for the future of this country.

It has always been a dream of mine to have some of them accompany me on a trip to Africa so that they can see and think for themselves about life in other different, remote places of the world. To give perspective to their own worlds as it did for me. Call me critical, but I feel most of what young people are exposed to about Africa these days involves buying a bracelet, wearing a t-shirt, or making a donation without having the opportunity to be more engaged in a sophisticated dialogue about what drives poverty, violence, etc in Africa.

The two organizations I am collaborating with on my new projects are giving me an opportunity to bring two of these young people with me to work as my assistants on my shoots. This is such a progressive way to make a film that is intended to engage their generation, I feel.

In an effort to capture and share their experiences, I've asked them to keep journals and also blog so that their peers can follow along. (If you want to view their entries, please visit A larger group will be taking a multi-country trip later in the year to meet with African scholars, writers, musicians, etc. to balance the imagery and stories coming out of the Motherland. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

An Amazing New Film Project in Ethiopia

On March 8th (which is appropriate since it's International Women's Day), I will be landing in Ethiopia to shoot a film on another women's health issue that doesn't get much attention....unsafe abortion. Although nearly 70,000 women die from complications of self-induced abortions and millions are debilitated each year, it is yet to be seen as a serious public health and human rights issue. Because of the controversy surrounding the a-word, women are being shunned from receiving life-saving care, others are too ashamed to come forward for help, which all creates an environment where women are dieing unnecessarily. Despite anyone's belief about abortion, should a woman really die from it?

I'm working with the leading agency on this issue in the U.S. - Ipas ( - to develop an advocacy film and campaign to bring awareness to the plight of these women through a film told by Ethiopian women, families and communities that have been affected. I'll be shooting in Ethiopia for two weeks, in two locations. One in the main capital of Addis Ababa and the other in a more remote area. The intent is to really illustrate the complexities and challenges facing women who have decided to end a pregnancy.

Please check back here for more information. I'll be posting photos and where possible video clips during the shoot.


PS This photo is from my shoot in Burkina Faso last year but I think its perfect for International Women's Day!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bi-Racial Hair in Production

Yesterday, Zora and I spent the day shooting re-enactments of her poem, "Bi-Racial Hair" and managed to drag in her parents for cameos. We still have to shoot two more scenes but you can view the rough cut by clicking on the image below.

And a few shots from production...


Monday, January 7, 2008

WGBH Production Grant for "Bi-Racial Hair"

Over the next month, I'll be working on another short film through a production grant I won from WGBH - Boston's PBS station. The film will be comprised of reenactments and interviews based on 13-year old Zora Howard's poem of the same name. It will air on the WGBH Lab and if selected, on WGBH as part of its Black History Month programming.

You can view the pitch here and the poem below.

Friday, January 4, 2008

LinkTV's "One Nation: Muslims in America" contest

Today my short film, "Tahani" went live on the LinkTV's One Nation Film contest. It is a 5-minute portrait of Tahani as a Palestinian-American spoken word artist and her experiences with the non-profit, Urban Word NYC. The contest is pretty cool - there are six categories of films committed to exploring the Muslim experience in America. The five top scoring films get judged by a panel of "celebrity judges" (including Marianne Pearl, Danny Glover, etc.). And the bonus - there's cash prizes associated with the top scorers. I told Tahani if we won it, I would split it with her - she gets to pay her tuition at Columbia and I get funds for my new film!

Besides the potential prize that awaits, it was inspiring for me to cut this film. I have been involved in some level with Urban Word since 2003 and Tahani was the very first poet I met. I've spent quite a bit of time with her and her family who I absolutely love and adore. I have learned in a very intimate way about the struggles Muslims - and particularly Palestinians - have while living here.

If you have time to vote, please feel free (you do have to register beforehand.) Click the LinkTV logo in the top left corner.