Saturday, August 22, 2009

Nicholas Kristoff's "Half the Sky" Contest

Nicholas Kristoff - known for bringing attention to the plight of women worldwide through his column in the NY Times - has posted a contest to highlight the work of individuals and agencies committed to empowering women.

I uploaded a few photos and posted the following comment. Please login and share your views. And if you buy the hard copy of the NY Times that comes out TODAY (August 23rd), check out the fancy ad that was posted by Ipas on the film I just completed with them ("Not Yet Rain" which can be viewed at

As a documentary filmmaker with a Masters in Public Health who shoots and distributes films on global women’s health issues, it would be impossible for me to identify one or two organizations or individuals who are doing amazing work. This is simply because I have come across countless in my travels that range from youth activists, local NGOs, artists and others.

Instead what I’d like to offer is my perspective on the role that each of us have and that each of us can contribute in the movement to empower women and save their lives. Because while not everyone can pick up and travel to volunteer in resource-poor countries, we can collectively create a global shift in consciousness and therefore action to protect women.

I believe that in this great, beautiful world, we are all interconnected and if we find some synchronicity with our own interests, lifestyles, priorities, we could actually make the world a better place.

To give an example, what I do is work with UN and NGO agencies to document, via video and photographs, the work and issues that are happening on the ground in very remote places around the world. I travel alone to capture the life of women who are facing insurmountable challenges including accessing safe motherhood programs (that will prevent obstetric fistulas, stillbirths, and deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortions) and create a better life for their children (ensuring they have access to education, and are free from the risks of sexual violence.)

I bring these stories back and collaborate with musicians - both local and international - to help relay an authentic emotional experience. I also try to engage them in the issue so that their audiences become an audience for the causes in the film.

Once the film is done, I work with student activist groups and youth leadership programs like Americans for Informed Democracy, Planned Parenthood, Population Connection, National Youth Leadership Forums and and others to screen the film and also distribute the film so that others can take ownership of the films in their own communities.

The agencies I have worked with have also used the film to educate and influence policymakers to support legislation that supports programs and services to help women live healthy and productive lives.

What has evolved in a rather small, but important community working together to promote women’s health and wellbeing. Funds have been raised to support programs that give free medication to people living with AIDS, eyes have been opened to the tragedies of obstetric and traumatic fistulas, a condition that will receive no support if no one knows about them, and innovative uses of the web (like Ipas’ new site, have helped to connect people around a cause.

What I would encourage your readers to do is find the area of their lifes and personalities that can contribute to this growing movement, whether its screening a film, talking with friends, giving a donation or supporting socially-conscious artists and community organizers who are sacrificing their time to do good work.

And together we will create a more equitable world for women that we can all take ownership of.

Thank you,
Lisa Russell

Northern Uganda shoot completed for YOUTH ZONES

Marino conducts AIDS education workshop in small IDP camp.

I am very happy to report that I have completed the last of five shoots for YOUTH ZONES, a project I'm working on with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Women's Refugee Commission.

The project is an advocacy video and new media website that captures the amazing work that young people are doing to rehabilitate their communities after conflict and/or natural disaster. I have filmmed in Liberia, Colombia, Lebanon and New Orleans and as of yesterday, completed the segment in Northern Uganda.

What I have witnessed her is that although 20-years of war have kept young people from completing their education, getting health care services and threatened their safety (many have been abducted by rebels and held in captivity), there are many who are addressing the growing problem of the HIV/AIDS problem by becoming peer counselors, working in youth centers and helping those in camps get access to education, testing and condoms. The work they are doing in spite of the challenges they are facing post-conflict and amidst great poverty is inspiring and hopeful.

I'll be returning to NYC soon to start final editing of the project. The film is expected to be completed in late October and will be screened at conferences, festivals and gatherings as well as distributed to donors and policymakers to encourage more support for youth-driven programs. I'll post when the film is ready for distribution.

Denis is a former abductee whose mother died of AIDS and now helps his grandmothers take care of the family while he tries to complete his education.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The best thank you speech I have ever received EVER!!

Every summer, I have the opportunity to be a keynote speaker at national youth conferences which attract thousands of young leaders and high schoolers who are interested in medicine and/or public health as a career. I really value these opportunities, because it allows me to have conversations with some of the brightest, most dedicated young people from all over America and around the world who are committed to service to others. As a bonus, many of them take my films back to their communities and do screenings/fundraisers which helps get the messages out there...using their own words. I've keynoted for almost six years now and still hear from many students who are now in college or medical school.

After each keynote and a Q&A, a young person is selected to say a thank you speech and present me with a small gift. During my last keynote this summer in DC, my voice was gone, the A/V stopped working but I continued on with an enlightening conversation with young people from India, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, etc. I was floored by the poetic thank you speech I received. I thought I would share it because inspiring young people is one of the most beautiful rewards I get from my work.

Washington, DC
July 20, 2009

On behalf of the Global Youth Leadership Council, I, "N.S." from New Delhi, India, would like to thank Ms. Lisa Russell for sharing her insight with us and for showing us that wonderful documentary, LOVE, LABOR, LOSS. Her comments on and movie about obstetric fistula completely mesmerized not only me, but all the other people around me in this audience and I'm so happy to be here.

It helped me to consider the fact that all of us, we are the select few, the lucky few, who get a chance to go to schools and colleges, and get a good education, while millions are below the poverty line and can't even afford to go and get educated. And I feel it is our responsibility to help these people. I always felt that the quotation, "WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY" was really corny. But tonight, when I saw it in action, through the life and work of this talented and passionate young director, I felt immensely inspired. Her speech showed me the strength of human spirit because even though the women in her documentary were segregated due to their condition, they came together to help each other.

Ma'am, you may not have a husband, you may have a golden Emmy, you have more passport stamps that anyone else in this room, but the "Golden Heart" that you have is brighter than any Emmy or any Oscar. You don't know how much you have inspired us today with your speech, in which you told us about sacrifices that you have made, and I can say on behalf of all the 198 scholars present here tonight, that YOU ARE OUR HERO.

(And if I was old enough, I swear I would have definitely proposed to you right now!)

In India, we touch the feet of our elders to show our respect, so now I'd like to touch her feet and ask for her blessings, and then present her with a small token of our love and appreciation.

Thank you,