Only 8% Of Hollywood Directors Are Women. A Jerusalem Film Festival Is Trying To Change That.
Paula Kweskin does not back down easily.
When “Honor Diaries,” her 2013 film that broke the silence on “honor violence” against women and girls across the globe, was censored in certain countries and college campuses, she did the reasonable thing. She started a film festival.
The Censored Women’s Film Festival (CWFF) was founded on this idea of breaking the silence. The festival, which had its first run in Washington D.C. in 2015, featured films, many of which had been censored, that highlighted sensitive issues that relate to the cultural and religious challenges that women face globally.
“You can’t censor a Censored Women’s Film Festival,” Kweskin joked to me last year. “They would never dare to do that.”
But like any great visionary, Kweskin continued to push the bucket. Now, the human rights attorney and filmmaker is onto her next great feat: a film festival devoted to advancing global women’s rights through storytelling. It’s aptly called The 49 % Film Festival, which Kweskin says, is already a story in itself.
Women make up 49 percent of the global population. But in areas of leadership and advancement, their representation falls shockingly low. Women comprise just 4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, less than 30% of researchers worldwide, and 24% of protagonists in Hollywood films.
“I know deeply that this is a very magical, critical time for women’s storytelling,” says Kweskin. “And the way to change the status quo of women’s experiences is to change the stories that we’re seeing.”
The 49% Film Festival will be the inaugural event of a new organization that will promulgate the stories of women across the globe. The festival will open in the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 6, and its conclusion on March 8 will coincide with International Women’s Day.
Three of the four films being screened are having their Israeli premiere at the festival. Filmmakers include a Bedouin-Israeli, an Egyptian, a Pakistani, and an Israeli. Though all women are from different backgrounds, they are united in their passion for telling women’s stories.
“It’s this idea of confrontation,” Kweskin says. “And confronting different populations with different stories they never heard of before.”
One film, “Daughter,” grapples with the issue of forced marriage. Though the film is set in Pakistan, a panel following the screening will include Raheel Raza, a Pakistani-Canadian women’s rights activist and Fainy Sukenik, a Haredi feminist activist in a discussion about the issue that has become universally challenging for women.
Though the 49% Festival’s goals are different that those of its predecessors, in a way, much of Kweskin’s work on the CWFF and similar projects led her to this moment.
Her first film, “Honor Diaries”, was initially intended to open up a general conversation about women’s rights in the context of the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutionary protests that took place in North Africa and the Middle East starting in 2010. At the time, the Arab Spring was challenging the precedent for women’s rights and political participation across the Middle East. “Honor Diaries” was meant to springboard off of the early success of this movement.
In the early stages of the film’s conception, the producers were digging for a deeper reason behind the violence that women were enduring, in the Middle East and beyond. What they found was equivalent to striking gold.
“It was an underlying value of honor that was affecting women,” remarked Kweskin, explaining how this finding became the foundation for “Honor Diaries”. “This concept of honor was affecting women all over the world.”
With this in mind, Kweskin made it her mission to expose the dangerous byproducts that an obsession with honor can induce – honor killings, whippings, suicides, and forced marriages, to name a few. “Honor Diaries” was screened in 6 continents, in 500 community events, and appeared on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon. However, the film received a considerable degree of pushback as well. Many tried to stymie multiple screenings of the film in the United States. A series of screenings was shut down on certain college campuses and the film was censored in Afghanistan.
“For me as a filmmaker, I was very disappointed that we were being censored,” explained Kweskin. “It made me realize, a lot of time when you tell women’s stories, you get a lot of pushback, especially when you are challenging cultural and religious norms.”
The censorship of Honor Diaries, though disheartening, opened Kweskin up to a world of film that was previously shrouded in censorship. After her own film was censored, Kweskin reached out to Leslee Udwin, a filmmaker who had experienced similar trouble with her own film,“India’s Daughter”. The film, which was based on a brutal 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old woman, was blocked by court order from airing in India due to the inclusion of an interview with one of the four perpetrators of the rape and murder.
After Honor Diaries faced censorship as well, Kweskin reached out to Udwin and the Censored Women’s Film Festival was born.
“We’re at a different moment now,” Kweskin says about the launching of The 49%. “[We see] all these moments where women used their voices in powerful ways.”
The 49% is building off this momentum. Kweskin’s goal is to institute similar festivals across the globe in the near future. She also hopes to partner with more filmmakers and storytellers in an effort to produce and distribute more films of this nature.
As a producer or festival director, Kweskin continues to use films as way to give voices to the voiceless.
“I really do believe that art is the great disrupter,” said Kweskin, “It is the thing that can really motivate and create change.”
Shoshy Ciment is a journalist in NYC. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, Playbill, Our Town, and more. Follow her @shoshanaciment.