“The stories of women — particularly from other countries — are not so often told,” said Dana Wilsey, chief operations officer of The 49% Film Festival. “And many people have no idea what’s happening around the world, so we want to bring [these stories] to them in a way that they can see. We want them to see themselves in these women on the screen.”
The 49%, founded by Paula Kweskin, is a female-led media company that seeks to use storytelling to advocate for global change — where Kweskin and her company are those agents of social change.
Kweskin, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer and human rights attorney, created The 49% to utilize the power of media to create the change she wanted to see.
Last week, The 49% hosted a film festival at the School of Cinematic Arts’ Ray Stark Family Theater, where it showcased a collection of documentaries and short films from around the world. This included the U.S. premiere of “The Daughter Tree,” a documentary about exploring the cultural aftershocks of the preference for baby boys in India, and “Giving Birth in America,” a documentary series examining maternal mortality in the U.S. The short films also shed light on the critical but often-forgotten stories of child brides, domestic abuse and arranged marriage.
“[Film] is universal,” said Neena Nejad, a documentary filmmaker, producer and director who attended the festival. “When you watch a film, it stays with you — the images and stories stay with you, from childhood on.”
Nejad, who directed “The Price of Honor,” a documentary about the honor killings of two American girls, has witnessed the impact her films have had in providing women a voice.
“When I did my film, people had no idea what honor violence was and the things that fall under the umbrella of honor violence, like child marriages, female genital mutilation [and] honor killings,” Nejad said. “People had no clue what those were … or that they were happening now and in the states. So for me, the biggest thing is to bring awareness and say: Hey, this is happening even now, and this is happening here. You can’t just brush it under the rug … and say it’s not an American issue.”
Alessandro Ago, director of programming and special projects for the School of Cinematic Arts, explained the importance of hosting The 49% at USC.
“We try and highlight as many different voices as possible, both as a reflection of our student body and also because there’s so much amazing work that comes from so many different experiences that it benefits us to have a very diverse lineup,” Ago said.
Ago worked with Wilsey and Kweskin on the Censored Women’s Film Festival, their first collaboration with USC Cinematic Arts, in 2017. With this event, Ago had seen the effects of helping to showcase their work at USC, and hoped to find similar success through their 49% festival this year.
“To me, success is that these stories were heard and watched, no matter by whom — whether it’s by a student or the general public,” Ago said. “It’s less important to have a large audience than to have one that is impacted and potentially mobilized by the stories they’re experiencing. Everyone’s experience of these films will be different and have different effects in their lives.”
The stories told at the 49% Film Festival this past week are a living testament to the power of storytelling.
“There’s only so much you can do with speaking, but film gets to the heart,” said Soraya Deen, a women’s rights activist. “There is no sequence. You can come from all sides and deliver a story. Film sends the message very gently, but also forcefully.”
Deen is the president of the Interfaith Solidarity Network and founder of the Muslim Women’s Speakers Movement. Through this year’s festival, she hopes that audiences are able to better empathize with and share in the hardships of the women on screen and find the motivation to make change themselves.
“When we share these stories, two things can happen,” Deen said. “First, it empowers another person to tell their story. Two, it also gives you a reason to not be quiet anymore.”
The power of storytelling is often taken for granted in western culture, but the 49% Film Festival reminds us of the importance of having your story told. By showcasing the experiences of the voiceless, the festival is designed so that audiences will not just grow in their awareness of issues but become inspired to tell and promote other unheard stories.
“If someone feels inspired to tell their own story, if someone feels inspired to learn more about a topic, that’s all great,” Ago said. “But I think just having exposed the campus and anyone that chose to come from the L.A. public to these films is sort of a reward in and of itself.”