MUFF Profile: Heidi Basch-Harod and Leila Jarman

“The most threatening issue facing women right now is the fact that we are still not able to communicate feminism and women’s rights from intersectional and intergenerational perspectives.”

It’s no secret: I love film festivals. I love the atmosphere but more than that I love discovering new films and new voices. And if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has an abundance of film festivals (like Toronto), you’re able to experience this magic. But not everyone has the privilege of regularly accessing film festivals. Other than waiting—and hoping—that festival films end up somewhere they can watch them, what else can these folks do?

Enter Women’s Voices Now. The first awesome thing about this organization is that they host a film festival that is focused on advocating for global women’s rights and social change. The second awesome thing is that this film festival exists online. So no matter where you are in the world, if you can get yourself on the internet you can “attend” this film festival. Festival films also have the opportunity to be added to WVN’s online archive, which they refer to as the “Netflix of feminist films.” It’s a global, inclusive experience and I think that’s fairly spectacular. This is what we need more of in the world, folks.

I had the opportunity to speak with Heidi Basch-Harod (Executive Director) and Leila Jarman (Creative Director) about Women’s Voices Now, which you can read below.

The 5th annual Women’s Voices Now Online Film Festival is happening 8 March through 8 April so get those calendars marked!

And to any filmmakers, the late deadline is coming up next week on 15 February so you still have time to enter! Learn more about submitting your film HERE.


Tell us a little bit about yourselves and WVN.

Heidi Basch-Harod: From a very young age I felt drawn to do something to alleviate the suffering of people. I’m pretty sure this came about from the first time I heard by grandfather’s story of survival in the Holocaust at about the age of ten.

When I look back on my work experience and my volunteerism, it is clear to see that I was on my path to finding something like Women’s Voices Now. As Executive Director of the organization I have this unique opportunity to spend time understanding global women’s rights issues from the people fighting at the front-lines through community activism, filmmaking, and other forms of creative expression, government, and personal anecdotes of bravery in the private spaces of life. Introducing people to the universal struggle of women and seeing that moment of recognition helps me believe that the work I do is moving in the right direction.

In 2018, we still need to have initiatives that specifically highlight the work and stories of women. We cannot simply 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 and programs 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. Storytelling through film can instantaneously help us to identify with “others,” making it the most powerful tool we have out there to get people angry, mobilized, outraged, and ready to make change or be the change.

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.

Leila Jarman: 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. I knew I 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. I came across a very short article on a completely unknown blog about two women, Asma and Munira and Radio Al Balad, which would send me to the Middle East to make my first film of any kind, Voice of the Valley, a social issues documentary feature.

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. Since completing voice of the valley, I have had the opportunity to create a variety of types of work, from short films and music videos to video art installations that have been screened at film festivals and in galleries around the world including the TATE Britain, Ars Electronica and more. My video work has been also been featured on media outlets such as VICE and The Creator’s Project, and AfroPunk to name a few.

I started working with Women’s Voices Now (WVN) as a sort of Filmmaker-in-Residence after Heidi 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.

“Birth is a Dream”

Was it deliberate to make your film festival exist entirely online?

LJ: An online festival was the best way that we could be sure to use our resources to get films submitted to our festival 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 theatres 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.

“Enemies to Allies”

WVN uses film to specifically address the struggle for women’s equality worldwide. What do you feel are the most important issues facing women right now that we should be aware of?

HBH: It isn’t useful to put these issues into a hierarchy of urgency or any other classification at this moment in time. More important, right now, is emphasizing the common threads of struggle that women face no matter who they are, where they are. Circumstances will define the scope of the issues in a specific place and time and how to approach, alleviate, or mitigate women’s struggles, but the overall abuse of women’s rights and women themselves is pretty universal. Those upsetting statistics like one in three women THROUGHOUT THE WORLD are victims of some sort of violence should make that loud and clear to us all.

But to answer this question directly, the most threatening issue facing women right now is the fact that we are still not able to communicate feminism and women’s rights from intersectional and intergenerational perspectives. All of the incredible work, advocacy, and voicing being done today will be for naught if women and women’s allies do not come together and agree to disagree where necessary and move forward together where we can. Just as we are so susceptible to media influence and trends about how to be, how to look, how to think, discussions about women’s rights are similarly tinted. We shouldn’t be afraid to disagree with each other, to hash it out, and then get somewhere new. If our basic vision is one — that women’s rights are human rights and human rights uphold the dignity of the person — then we can have constructive conversations that turn into action plans. This is not easy work but it is what needs to be done.

“Shoreline”

Can you tell us about any other amazing women who help make WVN possible?

HBH: The majority of our board of directors is female. These women use their voices and their resources to do so much important work in the world, whether it’s supporting Women’s Voices Now or other philanthropic causes that they advance. Gina Brourman-Sacks, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, and Caron Bielski were all very close with WVN’s founder, a man by the name of Leslie Sacks. Leslie was the the founder and seed funder of Women’s Voices Now. He sparked our first project, Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival. Our board successfully carries on his legacy of the advancement of women’s rights through their involvement with WVN.

“Coward”

Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your work.

LJ: Feminism is making a place for yourself as a woman while breaking free of the confines and constructs of the fluctuating perceptions and place of women in society. To be a feminist is also to be a “masculinist” and understand the importance of redefining not only the language, action and ideology behind the associations with “feminism,” but also welcoming men into the conversation and allowing everyone to be a part of what it is to be a woman and how to change the definition of what it means to be a woman. I think what’s most pressing being a woman artist is the notion of trying to make people not focus so much on the fact that we are women; that is, not focusing on gender as much as the quality of work.

HBH: Feminism is a consciousness that entreats the world to do away with the inferior-superior binary placed upon the identity of male and female, women and men. It inspires humankind to be its best self and to strive for a more equitable, peaceful, kinder, more sensible future. It seeks to do away with senseless hatred, to encourage acts of loving kindness, and to generate empathy between human beings — the only human emotion by which we are going to survive. I am the mother of two little girls and I am very invested in their survival. I am not an environmental activist and I am aware those issues may trump (pun intended) human rights struggles, but I have to give and serve where I feel called to do so.

Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?

LJ: Women who are making interesting and important work right now are many, but to name a couple that are in the mainstream and off the top of my head: Issa Rae, Jill Soloway, Dee Rees… There are so many.

“Vital Voices Tep Vanny”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

HBH: My mother reminds me frequently to take it three hours at a time and that everything that needs to get done will get done. Whether or not this is doable or realistic, it sure helps to calm the mind.

Are you working on anything outside of WVN? If so, please share!

HBH: When I am not working on WVN, I am striving to be truly present with my two daughters, Maayan and Meital (ages 3 ½ and 15 months). Their existence in my life teaches me, sometimes gracefully mostly not, about my journey to be the strongest, kindest, compassionate, and most flexible person I can be. It’s kind of like a really good yoga practice.

LJ: WVN gives me the incredible opportunity to do my work as an activist and maintain my workflow as a filmmaker, so I am always working on visual art and film projects. I just shot a piece in Italy in September which is going to be a 6 channel video installation in collaboration with an artist in Belgium and I’m shooting an experimental dance film in February. Beyond that, I am working on publishing a book about the recent history of Iran as told through the works of my grandfather who was an iconoclastic intellectual, active across countless media, who kept one foot in popular entertainment and the other in political activism.

If you had your own talk show, who would your first three guests be?

LJ: I’d have to have a pretty successful podcast! Agnes Varda, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith.

If you had one extra hour of free time a day, how would you use it?

HBH: Writing about all the things I’d like to weigh in on; I have a running list.

LJ: Getting outside. I sometimes forget how little time I spend outside and I try to catch those vitamin D rays as often as possible!

“Men Buy Sex”

You have an incredible film archive available online for free, which is super amazing! Please recommend a film from your Archive for our readers to watch?

HBH: I have always been partial to A Path to Follow, it’s from our first film festival in 2011. It is a documentary short that follows a group of teenage girls who practice Tae Kwon Do in Afghanistan. It’s not a high-budget documentary short but there is something about this group of girls and their persistence, their willingness to be different, the support they have from their families, their dedication to each other and themselves. I used this film to develop an hour-long WVN creative workshop for teenage girls called Finding Your Power and Keeping It. It reminds me of the extraordinary bravery that young people have in the face of a very complex world and it gives encouragement to do the work I do.

LJ: I really love the film Behind the Wheel, which tell the story of Nigora, a woman living in Tajikistan who was abandoned by her husband and is defying gender norms in her village by re-opening and operating his tire repair shop in order to provide for her family. It’s a really beautiful and emotional look into the life of a very strong yet deeply vulnerable woman. Another interesting film is the documentary short Men Buy Sex, a really creatively crafted film about gender inequality and sex work—but the format and style of the film completely subverts all expectations.


Follow Women’s Voices Now on Twitter (@womensvoicesnow).

The 5th annual Women’s Voices Now Online Film Festival is happening 8 March through 8 April so get those calendars marked!

And to any filmmakers, the late deadline is coming up next week on 15 February so you still have time to enter! Learn more about submitting your film HERE.