Social justice film series hits on tough topics

By Janine Faust / Staff Writer

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Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation, realized earlier this year just how many email requests her organization was getting for films that delved into sensitive subjects — immigration, abortion, race and sexuality.

Inspired by Pittsburghers’ apparent yearning to learn more about issues that affect women worldwide, she joined with leaders from three similar groups in the area to kick off a 10-month film series focusing on these issues.

“The goal was to put together a series of films that would be compelling … to watch, that tell important stories and that inspire people to learn more and take action on the social justice issues touched on in each film,” Arnet said.

The program consists of screenings of 10 films over 10 months — each movie was requested by filmmakers and social activists via email and phone calls throughout 2015. The Women’s Law Project, the Chatham University Women’s Institute, New Voices Pittsburgh and the Women and Girls Foundation are collaboratively hosting the series.

The first film in the series, “Don’t Tell Anyone,” focused on sexual assault and immigration and screened in September.

“We thought this was an especially important story to be told this month, prior to the presidential election, as there has been so much toxic language in the media regarding immigrants and their families,” Arnet said.

A screening of October’s featured film, “Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil,” began at 6:30 p.m. at Chatham’s Campbell Memorial Chapel on Thursday evening.

The film focused on the Candomblé spiritual culture in Bahia, Brazil. Candomblé is a religion that evolved from the beliefs of enslaved Africans brought to the country by the slave trade centuries earlier. Female community leaders explain the traditions in the film.

Author Alice Walker — who is best known for writing “The Color Purple” — narrates the 53-minute film. She attended the screening and was a guest on the panel held afterward.

During the panel, Walker talked about the film and the importance of humans connecting with nature — a focal point of the religion featured in the movie.

Feyi Alabi –– an international student from Nigeria working toward her master’s degree in sustainability at Chatham –– came to the event in part to see Walker. When Alabi first came to the United States, she read Walker’s book “The Color Purple,” which focuses on the lives of Southern black women in the 1930s.

“[The book] scared me since I couldn’t understand it, being from Nigeria and not knowing the effects of American slavery on my race,” Alabi said. “However, I still appreciate and respect the impact her book had and the issues it brought to light in American culture.”

Susan Frietsche, a senior staff attorney in the western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project, said the films highlight issues relevant to today’s world but not often considered in everyday life —  such as immigration, abortion, paid leave, human trafficking and trans families.

“Many of these films were made by women, and most will be showing in Pittsburgh for the first time,” Frietsche said. “Through these films, we hope to bring attention to the issues that [women] all face.”

Mark Whal, a graduate student studying psychology at Chatham, said he was drawn to the screenings by a desire to learn about experiences that differ vastly from his.

”Whether it’s Pittsburgh or somewhere in California or Minnesota, people need to care more about fighting sexism and racism and other social stigmas in society,” Wahl said. “These are human beings being hurt. They deserve happiness.”

Wahl also attended the opening screening for “Don’t Tell Anyone” and said his understanding of undocumented immigrants living in America shifted after watching.

“The problem’s way more complicated than I originally thought,” Wahl said. “After watching the film, I found out that a lot of undocumented immigrants contribute a lot and are part of local communities in the U.S. Many have histories here.”

That’s exactly what writer Sheila Carter-Jones, a retired adjunct professor at Chatham who’s currently working on a memoir, said she was hoping to hear from viewers.

She said “Yemanjá” should inspire people to share what they’ve learned about social issues worldwide with their communities.

“I want writers — writers and whoever else has the heart for it — to carry away the seeds of knowledge they receive from films offering new perspectives, like ‘Yemanjá,’ and plant it in their families’ and neighbors’ hearts to help grow change,” she said.

To view a list of other films showing in the series, visit Just Films’ website here.

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