The Intersection of Activism and Art with Leila Jarman of Women’s Voices Now

Leila Jarman is an accomplished filmmaker and the creative director of Women’s Voices Now. After graduating Marymount Manhattan College with dual studies in Political Science and Middle Eastern studies, she created her first feature documentary “Voice of the Valley”, the story of women living in Jordan. She wrote, produced, and directed this film and since then, her work has only gotten more impressive. She has been featured in outlets such as VICE, Afropunk, MTV, The Creator’s Project, and more. Her work focuses on the human body and dimensions of time, space, and reality. But at the center of everything, she focuses on women’s rights. Leila also is the current creative director of Women’s Voices Now, a nonprofit that advocates for women’s rights through film. Via an international online film festival, workshops, advocacy events, and the organization works to educate and support women, truly showing the power of arts intersecting with activism.

This is an excerpt of an interview between Leila and TLL founder, Kim Hoyos.

On Your Work

What led you to become a filmmaker? Many believe a formal film education is necessary for success but your career proves just the opposite!
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Philosophy, I was inspired by the traditional liberal arts education I had received but I was frustrated with the idea that my work might only exist within the academic sphere. I yearned to find a way to translate and apply all of this knowledge of philosophy and theory into something direct and practical—into some kind of work that would impress itself on the world.

Did your background in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science inspire you to make Voice of the Valley? Or was that a project you had always wanted to pursue?
I was taking a sort of broad strokes Middle Eastern history class in my senior year of college and had become friends with a student in the class who was going to Jordan to study abroad. The idea to make a documentary was conceived of after a long night of drinks, debate, and discussion of our mutual love for documentary film and the power it has to encourage empathy and to help educate and enact change. We knew we wanted to make a film about women that humanized people in the Middle East to somehow counter the hectic, stereotyped post 9/11 American perceptions of the people from the region. When we finally came across a very short article on a completely unknown blog about Asma and Munira and Radio Al Balad, we knew it was the story we were going to tell. Their story of overcoming gender and social norms an inspiration and unprecedented in Jordan. We also felt drawn to these women on a deeper level–we possessed a privilege that these women were never afforded, but they were our same age, without any prior journalistic experience, venturing into unknown waters to tell give a voice to the voiceless.

I do not believe that any given field is confined by the strictures of its history, but that all facets of human creation can inform each other’s progression and overcoming of various issues. This is definitely true in terms of applying and incorporating my academic and documentary background to my creative process. After completing and selling Voice of the Valley, I realized that traditional documentary filmmaking wasn’t necessarily the immediate direction I wanted to pursue in terms of exploring filmmaking, but that I was deeply moved by and wanted to commiserate on the sort of existential predicaments that make up the essence of being human. I now yearned to find a way to experiment with narrative and storytelling in a more unconventional way which lead me down the path of video art installation, digital art, music videos and experimental film.The universality of this “human experience theme” has allowed me to explore the topics in film that drive me as a human being and artist: social and political conflict, gender (in)equality, people in diaspora, the body and its relationship to movement in space, music and its relationship people and the moving picture and more.


How did you learn the basics of editing? Any tips on how to learn a new skill that can be intimidating?
I was very lucky to come in contact with an incredibly talented and acclaimed editor right after finishing Voice of the Valley. He sort of took me under his wing and taught me how being a good editor inherently makes you a better filmmaker and director. Editing alongside my mentor filled in so many gaps in experience and gave me some really important foundational building blocks that I carry with me on every project. I was so lucky to find a mentor like him and am always talking about how important mentorship and apprenticeship is when learning a craft. With the democratization of technology, making a film is more and more possible for more people. While I love the accessibility factor, I strongly believe that it is important to learn and study the craft of filmmaking, whichever area interests you.

Watch lots of films, reach out to creatives that you admire and study the thing that you want to do, whether that’s by just doing and learning from mistakes or studying in a more traditional sense. I am a big proponent of getting out there and getting your hands dirty–there’s nothing to be intimidated by, rather, so much to learn about throughout the process of creating a piece of art.


What are some common mistakes to avoid as a filmmaker? Any advice you’d like to give your past self?
Mistakes should never be avoided because they’re the best way to learn. I have spent the last eight years learning and treating each project that I work on as a kind of rogue film school, where I am offered the opportunity to learn while creating. By taking this learning and creative process out of a traditional university/film school environment, I am forced to be the teacher and the pupil, both giving myself assignments, completing them and then sitting back to assess what I did differently from the last time and if I am growing with each project as a filmmaker and artist.


On Women’s Voices Now

Going into the field, were you aware of the disparity of female filmmakers? When did you realize this?
No woman, regardless of her field, wants to accept that she is not offered equal opportunity because of her gender. I was raised to not look to my gender as an excuse for anything, to never be apologetic or feel like I couldn’t set out to accomplish whatever I wanted. Now, with so much media attention highlighting the serious disparity of female filmmakers, it’s hard to ignore how much work needs to be done to even the playing field. It is somewhat unbelievable to think about how little women have to do with the way we are presented in the media. More and more we know the statistics – it’s mostly men – from journalism to the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Women’s point of view is often packaged by men, which is completely bizarre, and these are the stories we are consuming. When women are telling the narrative it takes on different shades. Also, women’s issues are simply not the focus of most people’s attention so we need outlets that directly, specifically focus on women and their experience of the world. We all need to be part of this conversation, but it is certainly important to first learn and listen to women’s experiences in the world, whether positive or negative, personal or professional.


How did Women’s Voices Now start?
The vision of Leslie J. Sacks (1959-2013), the founder and seed funder of Women’s Voices Now, sparked our first project, Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival. Leslie was a Los Angeles-based art dealer and an active fundraiser and promoter of charitable organizations and causes, including the advancement of women’s rights.

Early in the organization’s history, the original team hit upon the concept of a film festival focusing on women and girls living in Muslim majority societies and Muslim women specifically living as minorities around the globe. The goal was simple: To stimulate and foster citizen journalism and in doing so leverage the diversification of such voices to translate the nuances of the Muslim world. The voices of filmmakers, whether amateur or professional, allowed viewers to experience the diversity and complexity of the Islamic world through the eyes of the mothers and daughters, the sisters and wives who inhabit these spaces.

Women’s Voices Now was one of the first to level the film festival platform by innovatively developing the network-to-viewer revolution instead of the traditional reverse relationship. Through these efforts, WVN originated to aspire to a number of other worthy goals including the bold directive of expanding international standards for freedom of expression.


What are your responsibilities as creative director?
I started working with Women’s Voices Now (WVN) as a sort of Filmmaker-in-Residence after Heidi Basch-Harod (WVN’s Executive Director) and I met at a WVN event in Los Angeles. There was a very clear need for the organization to bring on someone who had hands-on filmmaking experience to better develop the programs and offerings for the community as well as the proper support system for filmmakers in our network and beyond. Heidi gave me the incredible opportunity to bring new ideas to the already established organization and looked to me to really spearhead and plan out the future of WVN. 

I helped to update and re-vamp programs and protocol, but also I worked hard to establish new goals and offerings that had yet to be explored. When I first came on board, WVN was focused on stories and films by and about women in the Middle East and North Africa, and I fought hard to transition the mission and vision of the organization to include all self identifying women and allies. This shift has allowed us to broaden our archive of films and promote the unheard and unseen stories of women and the international struggle for equality and autonomy through the medium of film.

From there we were able to create screening packages and curriculums utilizing the films we offer the stream for free so that people all over the world can access and learn from these important stories. That’s just one anecdote, but it was through conceiving of these kinds of ideas and programs and collaborating with Heidi that I was eventually asked to be the Creative Director of the organization. This means that I am responsible for the overall visual aesthetic and image of WVN, I oversee the annual Women’s Voices Now Online Film Festival, curate programs, screening and advocacy events, and I am responsible for generating new and exciting ways that we can engage with audiences and filmmakers. I also spend a lot of my time researching, curating and recruiting films for our free, online film archive. In giving me the creative and intellectual freedom to really feel like this is my organization too, Heidi and I have cultivated a really beautiful, nurturing and inspiring environment to help enact meaningful social change.


Is it hard to manage having the site as well as your own career?
Women’s Voices Now has played an integral role in my relationship with creating and filmmaking. Having a grounded outlet to do work which matters on a larger scale and helping to promote the voices of women filmmakers who have not had the privileges and opportunities that I have had as a filmmaker and artist has given me a profound sense of urgency to create. Sometimes as artists, we can get into these myopic states, feeling an immense sense of pressure to make the best work all the time. Before working with Women’s Voices Now, I put so much weight on my creative work–it had to be everything and provide me with everything I needed. This may just be a byproduct of being an artist in the United States, where we are forced to prove our artistic worth and merits by how conventionally successful we are.

My ability to be inspired to make good work was being stifled by the pressure I was putting on the work itself to be inspiring, fulfilling, financially viable, memorable and important. I was also finding myself taking jobs as a director or editor which sucked a lot of my creative energy to only further other people’s creative visions. WVN has helped me zoom out of that myopic perspective and see that my art is a means of interpreting and existing in the world and, if that resonates with people, that’s wonderful. This realization has actually impacted my work as a filmmaker, opening doors and opportunities that have furthered my artistic career.  The balance between making my own work and doing activist-based women’s rights work has brought a great deal of meaning to my life, personally, creatively and professionally. It’s important to remember that making art isn’t the only response to what’s going on in the world.

Is WVN where you thought it would be when it began?
WVN was operating for four years before I was brought on, but I think it’s safe to say that since Heidi and I have started working together to improve and amplify the work of the organization, we have both been surprised and inspired by the impact and fruits of our labor. We are now growing and expanding at speeds we never thought possible and are finally getting to the point where we feel that this organization will and can exist beyond the foreseeable future.

Can you explain the “consultative” UN Economic and Social council status that WVN holds?
Overall, it gives WVN the opportunity to influence, inform and advise global leaders, entities, and NGOs on the potential of cinema to impact the global struggle for women’s rights and how to implement this type of programming into their women’s advancement initiatives. Consultative status for an organization enables it to actively engage with ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies, as well as with the United Nations Secretariat, programs, funds and agencies in a number of ways. This consultative status also means that we get to attend the annual Commission on the Status of Women where we will be hosting a film screening and presenting our work in March of this year.

How can filmmakers get involved with Women’s Voices Now?
There are lots of ways to get involved with WVN! Firstly, we have a wonderful Fiscal Sponsorship Program for filmmakers looking to start a project and needing help funneling their grants and funds. We also aim to help connect filmmakers who are our fiscal sponsees with whatever we can to help them on the very grueling journey that is making a film. We are also happy to consult and help in any way we can on any projects that fit within our mission statement.

Then there’s our annual Women’s Voices Now Online Film festival, which recognizes and celebrates films and filmmakers creating works that address the international struggle for women’s equality and expression from around the world. Films selected to compete in the festival are viewed and voted on by our panel of expert judges as well as by tens of thousands of people online, making for a truly global and inclusive film festival experience. Official festival selections compete for awards, cash prizes, media features, and the opportunity to enter WVN’s film archive. This year’s film festival will go live online to the public on International Women’s Day,  March 8th, 2018 and will be live for the whole month. Filmmakers, visual artists and activists can share their works and perspectives via our monthly online magazine, The WVoice. We also offer remote internships and opportunities to volunteer with us.



On Women’s Voice’s Now Online Film Festival

How has your work as a filmmaker informed your curation of Women’s Voices Now’s international film festival?
I think the film festival has actually informed my work as a filmmaker. I get the opportunity to watch hundreds of films a year from every corner of the world and keep my finger on the pulse of the kinds of stories people are telling and see the gaps where we need more voices. My goals as the curator of the festival are to get as many diverse voices and find the most unique and compelling films that will engage and inspire audiences to do their part in embodying social change in the realm of women’s rights. It’s so important for us to see what this struggle looks like for every woman, from Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.


Why an online film festival?
An online festival was the best way that we could be sure to use our resources to get these films seen by as many people as possible. We are trying to reach not only those who have access to film festivals and films, but also those who do not necessarily have the opportunities to attend movie theaters for either economic or social reasons. To fulfill our mission, we want and need to reach individuals where viewing these films will be comfortable and, most importantly, safe. We choose films that carry powerful messages and transmit the voices of women. We want to democratize the film festival experience, make it free and easy to participate and break down the exclusivity model that comes with the film festival world.


What can filmmakers who enter expect from the festival?
Our annual Online Film Festival celebrates and awards films by and/or about women that highlight women’s rights issues internationally. The Women’s Voices Now Online Film Festival is for films and filmmakers interested in exposure and advocacy, and teaming up with WVN to have your films seen around the world. Each year, films are selected from all over the world and are viewed by tens of thousands of people online internationally over the course of the festival. Filmmakers compete for cash prizes of up to $10,000.00, media features and the opportunity to have their films added to our online film archive for global promotion and viewing.


What’s the WVN film archive?
We also encourage filmmakers and enthusiasts alike to explore our Film Archive, where we curate an exclusive and unique archive of 200+ films from citizen journalists and guerrilla and professional filmmakers from around the world. The archive, what we like to call the “Netflix of feminist films,” provides alternative sources of media and information from activists and filmmakers tackling the social, economic, cultural, and political issues surrounding women’s rights globally. If people like what they see in our archive, we invite them to host their own screenings and discussions about these important films. We are constantly adding to and improving on the content we have and trying to really build an archive which can be a go-to for anyone interested in learning about Herstory.


How does this festival help to market the films afterward?
We promote all films that are selected into the festival via social media, e-blasts, etc, and have our community and festival partners share with their networks, too. Once the festival is over, we invite any filmmaker who would like to have their film in our Archive so that we can include their work for international screenings and advocacy events which we produce and host free of charge. We are currently working on new and innovative ways to get more visibility for these films and filmmakers.


What makes women-oriented film festivals important and necessary in the industry?
It’s unfortunate that in 2018, we have to have initiatives that specifically highlight the work and stories of women, that we can’t just rely on the current state of affairs to amplify the voices of women creators, advocates and warriors. It is for this reason that women-centric festivals, programs, etc have to exist. Film is WVN’s main medium for activism, but it is not the only means to the more just and equitable end we are trying to create for us all. That being said, we strongly believe that film is the most efficient vehicle out there today for effecting social change. The way the mode of storytelling through film can instantaneously help us to identify with “others” makes it the most powerful tool we have out there to get people angry, mobilized, outraged, and ready to make a change or be the change.


If you’d like to get involved or learn more about Women’s Voices Now, check out their website here: