Archive for May, 2011

               In 2004, Geena Davis sat with her pre-school age daughter watching TV and movies, and they began to notice something: a lack of female characters. Davis thought, if my daughter notices, then what message does this send to all children?

Madeline Di Nonno

Since that discovery, acclaimed actress and activist Geena Davis has made it her business to evoke change in the entertainment industry. But just how does one turn the heads of media moguls and content creators, influencing them to recognize the need for gender balance in film and television, especially regarding content shown to children?

The answer: Show them the evidence.

In order to highlight the disparity, Geena dedicated herself to raising funds for the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment. Disturbed by the findings of the studies, including the fact that men outnumbered women in top-grossing, G-rated films by a three-to-one ratio, she went on to establish the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM).

Madeline Di Nonno, the Executive Director of the Institute and its programming arm, SEE JANE, brings over twenty-five years of experience in media, marketing and business development to the task. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Madeline found herself drawn into the world of media at a young age. She speaks about her own evolution through the entertainment industry as well as her current role in promoting the Institute’s vision.

“Well, my passion and interest in entertainment actually started when I was about seventeen,” Madeline mentions. “I had an opportunity to intern at ABC, and I fell in love with it. I stayed there all the way through college, and also my first job out of Boston University was at ABC. So that was my foray into media communications and television. Interestingly enough, Geena also attended Boston University and was there at the same time, but we didn’t know each other back then.”

Madeline’s extensive background includes working for Lancôme, the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal where she entered the arena of consumer packaged goods, as well as eventually working for some boutique marketing agencies. “But then I decided that my first love was really entertainment and media, and I wanted to return to that. To make a very long story short, Universal Home Entertainment recruited me and I relocated to California. I actually helped start the marketing group there for the Home Entertainment division and then subsequently was recruited to help launch the Hallmark network with a number of other executives. Then from there, I worked with a number of independent film companies, essentially driving marketing, business development and digital media.”

So how did Madeline find herself venturing down the road of philanthropic service, eventually landing in the arena of children’s media?

“It was more of an epiphany,” she reveals, “like the time I made the decision in my career to return to entertainment. After garnering a lot of accomplishments and a lot of success, I came to that point in my life where I felt compelled to use my power for social good. The challenge for me was to balance my professional career with my passion for philanthropy, something I’ve always been involved in from the standpoint of volunteering or sitting on Boards. I began to think, maybe there’s a way to put these two together. I want to stay in my field, but how can I make a deeper contribution?”

Meanwhile, Madeline relays Geena Davis, who had been devoting her time to developing the Institute, reached a formative juncture. “Geena had made some very smart strategic decisions. She then decided that she wanted a business and entertainment executive to run the organization in order to essentially take it to the next level, and she found me. It was one of those kismet moments—just the right time and the right place.” Utilizing Madeline’s expertise, that next level involves the development of both advocacy and educational tools that will further drive the Institute’s aim for programming that targets kids eleven and under: To dramatically increase the representation of females as well as to reduce the gender stereotyping of both boys and girls.

             The Institute is a resource for the entertainment industry (media companies, animators, writers, producers, and others), the next generation of content-creators, and the public. We outreach to these individuals and companies towards supporting positive change in media, so young girls and young boys can grow up treating each other as equals.  — The Geena Davis Institute

“The Kaiser Family Foundation did a media usage report back in 2009 which states that essentially, today’s children are engaging with some type of media upwards of ten hours a day,” Madeline notes. “And that’s more time than is spent on sleeping or any other activity. So when you think about the consumption and the accessibility of media—whether good or bad—it can play a great role in having a deep and profound influence on children. The three areas that we’ve noticed are social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, self-esteem, and career aspirations and occupations. So if children, and particularly girls, aren’t seeing themselves represented, or the way that they do see themselves conveyed is marginalized, objectified, or in a very hypersexual way, then what kind of message are we sending them? And likewise, if boys don’t see girls doing interesting things, or if girls are hypersexualized, then what’s the message we’re sending to our boys who are tomorrow’s leaders, fathers and policy-makers? Also when you think about it, women comprise over fifty percent of the population, so what’s being portrayed doesn’t actually reflect the real world.”

In terms of the Institute’s theory of change as represented in the SEE JANE program, Madeline refers to Geena Davis’ strategy of targeting children eleven and under as brilliant. “That’s because when you think about the women’s movement and where we are today, and if you look at different business sectors, women fill about 17 or 18 percent of the positions. There are some exceptions here and there, but we really haven’t reached that so-called tipping point. One of our strategies is to address what our youngest children are seeing so that we can stop enculturating the next generation of content creators, policy makers, and parents with this type of gender stereotyping and messaging.”

               SEE JANE is a program of the Institute that utilizes research, education and advocacy to engage the entertainment industry and recognize the need for gender balance and varied portrayals of females and male characters into movies, TV, and other media aimed at children 11 and under. We work cooperatively and collaboratively with entertainment creators to encourage them to be leaders in creating positive change.

Fundamentally, one of the ideas behind the Geena Davis Institute is to take a comprehensive look at the media field and to influence how it’s seeded—more female characters and more women and girls portrayed in roles that enhance their view of themselves and what they can achieve—basically breaking the hold of restrictive stereotypes. The Institute presents an innovative approach, through research, education and engagement with media executives and creators, to revamp the programming content kids are viewing.

“When children get to be about ten or eleven, you have a lot of organizations doing wonderful, on the ground work,” Madeline indicates, “but they’re dealing with the effects. We want to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. So based on that, our goal has been to work within the entertainment industry—with the leading content creators across the media sectors—and to influence how they’re shaping their content. The other founding dynamic that Geena decided upon was that we would be a research-driven institute because it’s really with the empirical data that we can make an impact and actually garner attention.”

As Madeline suggests, opinion and theory are not going to weigh heavily when dealing with business leaders who are running multi-billion dollar industries. “That’s why, first and foremost, we approach making change by using our research to present the issue to leading content creators and producers, since for the most part no one is particularly aware of the issue. It’s just been the way we’ve been seeing content for years. We also work with them to determine what their particular concerns and challenges are, and then we will make suggestions in a very collaborative way.  We’ll then come back to them six months to a year later with our new research and also to find out what’s been happening for them. Right now, anecdotally, we’re getting a lot of feedback about things that have taken place. So we believe that when we do our next quantitative analysis for 2015, we’ll actually see the needle move. We’ve only been presenting the research for a few years, so when you think about that and the fact that there are about five hundreds films alone that come out every year, including animation projects that could take four years or even ten years to make, well you can imagine . . . you have to go through a very long cycle before you can really make an impact and see the results.

In the meantime, as Madeline explains, surveys can at least give some initial data that offers insights as well as encouragement. “One of our flagship events is the Gender in Media Symposium which we do every two years. At the second one, which was held in December of 2010, we did a follow-up survey through Survey Monkey. We polled three hundred executives who were there. Our first question was, ‘Based on what you have learned, will this information influence how you perceive gender balance and stereotypes in your body of work?’ Over 90% said yes. We then asked, ‘Will you share and utilize this information with your peers?’ They responded with 98% saying yes. So that’s a way we were able to measure the effectiveness of that symposium. Another question was, ‘Would you be interested in attending the next symposium?’ It turned out that 100% said yes.”

Although the industry response is encouraging, the lack of female representation in media as well as the stereotyping and viewing of women and girls as “eye candy” has taken its toll. This substance deficiency, both in numbers and in character portrayals—often conveying women and girls as no more than romantic fanatics more interested in chasing a guy rather than a career—can’t be inspiring much confidence. In fact, we’re teaching girls and boys alike not to expect too much from a female. And since children as well as adults can’t be what they can’t see, and what they are viewing portrays women and girls as less valuable, it’s no wonder that these portrayals have been linked to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

“Although we don’t have empirical data that states media’s impact directly, we know that there are a lot of correlations in terms of media making an imprint on children,” Madeline states. “In fact, that’s one of the next studies we want to do—media’s impact specifically on self-esteem, on social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, and on career choices. There are a lot of connections that can be made, especially when you look at adolescents and the perceptions they have of their body images. Also, by the time a girl reaches eighth grade, she’s fallen out of subjects like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Now, you can’t blame all of that on media, but it can be a great contributing force.”


And just how is the Geena Davis Institute turning the STEM issue on its head, giving credence to the idea that girls can enjoy, demonstrate proficiency in and master the sciences? Educational videos are proving to be a solid start. Guess Who: The Mathematician and the Baker, a video created by Hot House Productions (Boston University’s student-run video production unit) and commissioned by the Institute, stimulates awareness in both children and educators.

“The goal was to create a learning video for children to teach them about gender stereotypes in an interesting way,” Madeline states,  “as well as to sensitize and educate the next generation of content creators about our work. So we went to our alma mater, Boston University, and to Professor Garland Waller, to present the challenge for this pilot project. We told the students what we wanted to do, gave them all of our research, and basically asked them to come up with some ideas. We selected the best one, which was Guess Who. We later received e-mails from educators who saw the video who mentioned they really liked it, so it’s been very positive. Now we’re fundraising because we’d like to do more educational videos and commission them as college projects.”

Along those lines, Madeline indicates that the Institute is also allying with the Sarasota Film Festival to develop media training workshops for middle and high school students within the SFF’s educational division. “We formed a partnership with them to do an educational outreach program whereby students are going to create videos about gender stereotypes, female portrayals, and gender equality. We’re actually going to show those videos at the 2012 Sarasota Film Festival.”

Geena Davis and Deborah Taylor Tate with Girl Scouts

Also among its initiatives, the Geena Davis Institute is working with young girls directly to address the issues, linking up with them at the advocacy level. “We’re very proud of our partnership with the Girl Scouts,” Madeline remarks. “For one, our research is included in their Healthy Media for Youth Act. Also, Geena and Deborah Taylor Tate, the former FCC Commissioner, are co-chairing Healthy Media: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which we kicked off in DC about a month ago. We’re really excited about that. So the Girl Scouts has been a big partner for us in the girls’ movement.

               The Healthy Media for Youth Act takes a three-pronged approach to promote healthy media messages about girls and women. First, the bill creates a competitive grant program to encourage and support media literacy programs and youth empowerment groups. The bill also facilitates research on how depictions of women and girls in the media affect youth. Finally, it establishes a National Task Force on Women and Girls in the Media, which will develop voluntary standards that promote healthy, balanced, and positive images of girls and women in the media for the benefit of all youth.

“There are other organizations that we’re involved with as well, such as SPARK, which was created by Deborah Tolman who is a wonderful colleague and a brilliant researcher,” Madeline mentions. “In essence, we look to partner with organizations that are on the ground and reaching young girls.”

Madeline’s passion and enthusiasm for the Institute’s work and her drive to promote gender equity in children’s programming prompts the question: Has she ever personally confronted some of the issues she’s working with today? How did she handle entering the world of entertainment media during a time when it had to have been much more of a man’s world?

“Well, one of the things I did was to always look for women business leaders that I could model myself after,” Madeline conveys. “I literally would track people’s careers the way people would track celebrities. In fact, they were my celebrities. Actually, it was interesting for me. When I was seventeen, I started interning at ABC for several executives, mostly men. A few of them really shaped how I modeled myself, one actually being Bob Iger, who is now the president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. I found that he had such a wonderful management style—the way that he interacted with people, how he treated them, his decorum—he was someone who really influenced me. Also, one of my first bosses at ABC, a woman by the name of Anne Marie Riccitelli, was one of the most dynamic women I had ever met. She was not only a great mentor to me then, she still is now. So I was really fortunate to be able to find some people who were exceptional.”

Madeline also mentions that good mentoring can make a tremendous difference in how women handle the process. “In the earlier generations that came before me, the strategy was to be better than the men or to be like them. And that made it really hard for the following generation of women to get mentoring. During my generation and for those who’ve come after, there’s been more of an openness and willingness to mentor and really bring women along. Personally, one of the things that I’ve done with people that I’ve hired is to keep in mind both their professional goals and objectives and their personal goals and objectives. I’ve always made sure that while they were performing their duties, I was also bringing them along from a personal development standpoint.”

Although her own experiences were by and large positive, Madeline credits self-confidence and the ability to create options as helpful in confronting circumstances tinged by gender bias or stereotyping. “I definitely encountered situations—certainly I’ve come across some during the interviewing process or with a coworker—where there were issues,” Madeline remarks. “But I happen to have a very strong personality and come from a background where both my parents had careers. So I had a lot of self esteem and a very strong sense of self. I was able to deal with that type of thing by creating options.”

Madeline’s natural confidence and ability to take the big picture into account keeps her optimistic about the industry’s accountability. She believes that those in the entertainment arena are open to seeing and discussing real evidence which supports the need for change, especially when it affects children’s perceptions of themselves and their world.

“First of all, most of these industry people are parents,” Madeline states. “So they’re shocked by the data. It’s not something they’ve reviewed before now. In many cases, they’ve actually said, ‘We’ll start to examine these scripts. We’ll examine the process more. Although we do look at diversity, we’ve never considered gender part of the diversity issue.’ And so both male and female executives are very receptive because everyone wants to do the right thing for kids.”

And The Geena Davis Institute is providing the research data, informing and educating media professionals through several studies conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

  • Key Findings of Changing the Status Quo: Industry Leaders’ Perceptions of Gender in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV

Dr. Stacy Smith and Geena Davis

“Actually, the study that we published recently, Changing the Status Quo, was the first time we did qualitative research and the first time anyone asked industry professionals what they thought. All of the previous studies we’ve done have been quantitative—the stats and the numbers. What was really heartening about this study was that when we asked people if gender equality was possible, their answer was Yes. And when we asked them to discuss how important it was to achieve gender balance on screen, the industry felt that this was a very important issue and that it wouldn’t be difficult to implement. That was very inspiring.”

But what about behind the camera? Has there been an increase in the number of women directing, writing, or producing?

“Unfortunately, that really hasn’t changed very much,” Madeline informs. “During the time period that we looked at for one of our studies, Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films, which spanned a three year time frame from 2006 through 2009, only 7% of the directors were female, 13% were writers and 20% were producers. The numbers are a little bit higher on the TV side. But what we did notice for the first time is that the presence of women behind the scenes seems to matter. So films that contained one or more females in the positions of director or writer had a 10% uptick with regard to influencing and depicting more female speaking characters on screen.”

Yet many of those on-screen personas are still lacking in substance. “One of the areas that we’re really paying attention to is career occupations and aspirations,” Madeline relays. “We’re finding that there’s great concern about girls dropping out of STEM-related areas in education or within occupations. Although we haven’t published the study yet, we took a look at career occupations in G-rated films, and essentially what we found is that there were no females that were portrayed in any type of career whatsoever,” Madeline noted. “So when we think about our youngest children not seeing girls reflected in any type of profession, that’s disturbing.”

It’s also bizarre. Why present such a limited vision? Since media has a powerful affect on popular culture, it’s essential that we see more images of women and girls in diverse and powerful positions. How then does media that leans toward stereotyping and oversexualizing females affect gender equity on a global level?

The Geena Davis Institute, partnering with UNIFEM (now part of UN Women), is addressing the issue, taking a look at women’s empowerment internationally—especially how media portrayals are affecting the Millennium Development Goal of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (MDG 3).

“Approximately 80% of media that’s consumed overseas is made in the U.S,” Madeline states. “That means we’re exporting these gender stereotypes and portrayals around the globe. That’s why we need to look at media’s impact on social change. With regard to addressing MDG 3, we work with the UN to bring a gender focus to the situation and to raise awareness as much as possible.”

               The images and portrayals of girls and women are transported through American films and programming throughout the world and therefore exert a great influence on shaping cultures  — Geena Davis, World’s Women at the Centre of Achieving the MDGs

Geena Davis’ partnership with the United Nations is a monumental effort to create a new blueprint regarding the way media portrays women and girls—increasing their presence and offering more empowering images which recognizes and confirms their value. Yet, we don’t have to be celebrities or involved in UN initiatives to meet the challenge. We can all make a difference, whether we’re involved in the entertainment industry directly or we’re a concerned parent. Madeline points out that we can become advocates in our own right and contribute to the change.

“If someone is a content creator, they can use a gender lens when they’re creating characters and story lines. Anyone who can control the words on the page is important,” Madeline emphasizes. “If you’re outside of the industry . . . well, clearly we’re looking for evangelists. So if you’re is in a position of authority and have an opportunity to mentor or create a mentoring program in your organization, we believe that would be of great value as well as an opportunity to move women up the ranks. If you’re a parent, we would suggest you use your critical thinking. Watch what your children are watching.”

That simple directive holds the key. As one of television’s icons, Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) once stated, I’m not for censorship, but I’m certainly for self-censorship when it comes to producing or purveying products to America’s children. I think that for people who make anything for children, their first thought should be: Would I want my child to see, hear or touch this? And if the answer is no, just don’t make it.

Well, you can’t get more definitive than that. So perhaps it’s time for the entertainment industry to do an about face and take a good look at the messages it’s sending our children. As Madeline Di Nonno has clearly assessed, content that empowers girls and women will allow for a quantum leap in arenas far beyond entertainment. We can create media that disenfranchises and marginalizes or develop content that transforms and revolutionizes. How we use our creative power, and to what end, is up to us.


Visit The Geena Davis Institute and the SEE JANE program to support the research.

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All photos used by permission.


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          Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.                                                                 —  Mohandas Gandhi

Ronit Avni

Human Rights . . . filmmaking . . . a vision of justice. Ronit Avni has fused these elements as founder and Executive Director of Just Vision, a non-profit organization that uses documentary film and educational tools to tell an otherwise untold story, disenfranchising outdated stereotypes and supporting and inspiring nonviolent peace initiatives. In short, Just Vision focuses on increasing the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working for nonviolent solutions to the conflict.

The award-winning director and producer of Encounter Point and producer of Budrus speaks about her background and her own evolution as a human rights advocate.

The daughter of a Canadian mother and Israeli father, Ronit grew up in Montreal among an expatriate Israeli community. “Many of my friends were Israeli or had Israeli parents. Eventually, my father moved back to Israel when I was a teenager, so I would go back and forth.” Ronit eventually studied Theatre Directing in Montreal and Political Science in the United States. “I went to Vassar and then got a job at a human rights organization. Basically, I wanted to fuse my passion for the arts with my political interests. I felt that documentary filmmaking and human rights advocacy would combine my interest areas, so I began looking for ways to bring together those two fields and came across a human rights group called WITNESS that was founded by the musician Peter Gabriel. At the time, it was a project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First). The vision behind it was to equip human rights defenders around the world with video cameras, train them to document violations and work with them to deter abuses — to capture evidence for courts and tribunals and to mobilize their constituencies.”

Ronit had already laid the foundation for continuing her advocacy with WITNESS by previously interning and volunteering with two prominent Israeli human rights organizations: B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. She also mentions having bought her own camera at the time and training herself to use it. “I was eager to bring my creative and political interests together professionally. After I got a job at WITNESS, I began working with human rights advocates all over the world — primarily with groups in West Africa, the United States, and in the Middle East. So I was working in everyone else’s backyard. After September 11th, which took place a few blocks from our office, and after the collapse of the OSLO process, I felt that I needed to focus exclusively on my own backyard which was that bridge between North America, including the North American Jewish community, and the Israeli/Palestinian context. And so I embarked on a two year research process while I was still at WITNESS.”

As Ronit relates, that process involved interviewing four hundred and seventy-five Israelis and Palestinians engaged in nonviolent conflict resolution work based in Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem. “For me it was consultative to understand what was going on — what people were thinking, what they needed, and what they were doing,” Ronit enumerates. “It was very informative and people were very generous with their time. This was during a period when many people and organizations didn’t have websites yet, so the feeling was one of invisibility, where the people that I met with felt that they tended to only know others in their own field. If you were a human rights advocate, you knew other human rights advocates. If you were an educator, you might know other educators engaging in this kind of work. But you didn’t know people beyond your field. And so there was this heightened sense of isolation and a sense that the world didn’t know about their work. They really wanted media attention and a way to connect to broader communities of support. So after that two year process, I felt that there was a gap to be filled. Although I loved my job at Witness and was very reluctant to leave, I felt that I could apply the skills I’d acquired there to this work which I was very passionate about. I then received a two-year fellowship from Joshua Venture that enabled me to take the risk to leave my job and to start to lay the groundwork for Just Vision.”

That foundational work, as Ronit describes, developed organically as those media experts resonating with the initiative entered the picture. “One person that came on board right away was an American journalist who had been working with Linda Gradstein from NPR, named Nahanni Rous. Because of her journalism work she had extensive contacts and began researching and interviewing. I also moved to Jerusalem and set up a small office there in 2003. Then, through a filmmaker friend, I got in touch with the first Palestinian female pilot, Joline Makhlouf, who had been helping her on a film she’d been working on . . . So very quickly our team grew. Soon thereafter, I saw Control Room, and really loved the handling of the multiple narratives featured in the film. I reached out to the director and asked her to recommend one of the four editors listed. She recommended Julia Bacha (Director of Budrus) who ended up coming on as our Media Director.”

So Just Vision initially began as a core team of women –- Israeli, Palestinian, American and Brazilian. “Two of them have moved on to having children and building their families,” Ronit mentions, “but they are still consulting for us and working with us. I joke that we’re like the Mafia –- once you’re involved you can’t leave. We’ve developed really close relationships. There were years that were incredibly intense during the height of the Second Intifada. I felt we were like a little engine, and we were. We had no money. We had an idea and no track record at the time. But the idea was always to create media and to document the stories that you weren’t hearing on the nightly news.”

               Just Vision emerged in response to the lack of media coverage of Palestinian and Israeli civilians working to end the occupation and the conflict. While violent extremism receives front-page exposure, courageous nonviolence leaders and peacebuilders are relegated to occasional human interest stories. Consequently, at Just Vision, we work to ensure that these Palestinian and Israeli civic leaders are not only taken seriously as partners in the quest for peace, but are also more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.

Of course, most nonviolent initiatives by their very nature don’t make it to prime time, where sensation and drama drive ratings. Yet, the fact remains that it’s essential to depict the other side of the story, where peaceful attempts at resolution, even if initially thwarted, give rise to possibilities for lasting change. The bottom line:  Extremists get plenty of press. Stories need to be told that spotlight the peacemakers.

Ronit recognized the imbalance long ago, as well as the need to broaden the scope of the narrative. “You know, the thing that I really want to be clear about is that we’re not doing this to make people feel good about themselves. A lot of people just want to hear good stories so they can just relax and not do anything. That’s not why we do the work we do. We do it because the people who are working toward ending the occupation and the conflict are doing something really important. They need to be supported, and they need to be understood. We’re not saying that every initiative or every individual is equally effective or compelling, but we need to start from a place of knowledge and understanding. We need to try to remove the barriers toward engaging in nonviolence and conflict resolution work. I feel strongly and I’ve felt this from the beginning—and, in fact, the effects in Tunisia and in Egypt have only reinforced this for me—that any political agreement reached at the top will not hold without support from the bottom.”

Ayed Morrar of Budrus

And at the end of the day, as Ronit concludes, civil society is what leads. Eventually politicians come around, and they of course, have the power to make specific agreements, but the community-at-large is critical. “We’ve seen that with the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and so many other social movements historically, as well as those today around the world. So neglecting civil society is a major strategic mistake and also one that is going to have negative consequences in the future. That’s why Just Vision focuses exclusively on civil society and on grass roots . . . Those people who say ‘Enough is enough. I have to personally get involved in some way and do something.’ And sometimes it’s at great risk to themselves and to their families. Those are the people we don’t want to leave isolated. That’s why we try to tell their stories. We try to drive attention to them through print and broadcast media and also through social media. We create tools for educators, community leaders and faith leaders to use with their constituencies. We bring thought leaders to meet some of the people that we profile and also get them to see the stories that they may not be aware of. There’s a feedback loop. President Obama in his Cairo speech several years ago implored Palestinians to adopt nonviolence, and he cited examples from all over the world. He devoted an entire paragraph to it, but he didn’t cite a local example. He didn’t cite one because he didn’t know of one—not because a local example didn’t exist.”

Just Vision actually underscores those examples and brings them to light. “Because doing that has implications. It’s how policy gets formulated,” Ronit explains. “You know, we’re not an advocacy organization. We don’t prescribe policy, but the policymakers should not be in the dark about civil society initiatives that are moving in the direction of resolving the conflict or challenging the occupation.”

Have Just Vision’s films, Encounter Point and in particular, Budrus, made tangible impacts in promoting the idea that nonviolence is a powerful and viable avenue toward achieving a sustainable peace?

“Yes, absolutely,” Ronit confirms. “It’s happening on multiple levels. First of all, when we decided to make Budrus, we set out to put the village and the story on the map. We did a search on Google of all of the references to Budrus prior to the film production. Because the events of Budrus happened in 2003-2004 and we only started making the film in 2007, it’s very easy to look at the before and the after. Before, there were only a handful of activist websites that told the story of Budrus. But none of the major media outlets from Al Jazeera to the Israeli Press, from the NY Times to the BBC, knew the story. Some local press had gone to a few of the demonstrations but they never went back to find out what happened. But now if you were to do a search on Budrus, you would literally find thousands of references, including those from all of the top journalists and top media outlets . . . My favorite is seeing the story of Budrus mentioned without any reference to the film — where it’s now just part of the popular discourse.”

When the residents of Budrus learn that the Israeli army plans to build the Separation Barrier through their town, cutting them off from neighboring Palestinian villages and uprooting their precious olive groves, they decide to organize. Under the leadership of Ayed Morrar, Palestinian men of all political factions come together to wage an unarmed struggle to preserve their lands. Victory seems unlikely until Ayed’s 15-year-old daughter steps in to organize a female contingent that brings the women of Budrus to the front lines in a tense stand-off with the military.

Ronit also conveys another example of a village facing similar circumstances as those in Budrus — vying the placement of the Separation Barrier. “They showed the film in al-Wallajeh, and several days later when they had another demonstration, we were told that about four times as many people showed up. We also found out that after a screening in the actual village of Budrus, a march was held down to the places where they were slated to lose land, and the people planted trees to commemorate what had been done. When we showed the film to a woman’s group near the Bethlehem area that had never seen women play such a pivotal role, they were so moved that they asked to meet with the women of Budrus.” The documentary was also screened in a more unusual venue: a preparatory program that included about thirty young people who were about to enter the Israeli military. “One of them was going to be in the exact same unit that [squadron leader] Yasmine Levy was with in Budrus,” Ronit informs. “It raised some very important questions for her about what it was going to mean ethically, and what she might be faced with.”

Screenings of Budrus continue to spark both awareness and dialogue. “We don’t tell people what to do, but we want people to think,” Ronit states. “We want them to think about what constitutes a nonviolent movement and what an ethical response to a nonviolent movement would be. We also want them to think about the role of ordinary people. These are all questions that come up in the film.”

And what about the role of women? As conveyed in Budrus, fifteen-year-old Iltezam Morrar, daughter of the Palestinian leader of the village, questions why women are not involved in the protest. Once they are allowed to take part in the demonstrations, a palpable change occurs which definitely affects the process.

“Well it’s interesting,” Ronit relates, “Ayed Morrar, who is the Palestinian protagonist—the father that leads this movement in Budrus—said that the men in the village behaved differently when standing next to their wives, daughters and mothers, and that the soldiers also behaved differently. It seems there’s a kind of restraint, or at least, a relative restraint that could kick in around the presence of women. It doesn’t always kick in, but it has a greater probability of doing so than when men are just facing one another. But of course, we do see instances of Yasmine Levy beating some of the women with a baton. Yet, their presence was incredibly important, and there’s a very interesting rapport and dynamic that emerges between the women of the village and Yasmine. You can see it. But women are not playing a central role in some of the other villages that are engaging in similar kinds of demonstrations today. And none of them, to date, have had the success that Budrus has had. We can’t say it’s causal, but I think there is a correlation between women’s participation and a higher probability of a successful outcome. It’s not the only factor, but it’s certainly a factor.”

Ronit also addresses the fact that both Israeli and international activists played an important role in the protests held in Budrus. “The Israelis that came into the village recognized that they were going to be treated differently by the soldiers because they were Israeli. So that was a way to help lessen some of the violence—it would make the military think twice about using force. But it’s a very complicated dynamic. I think that the relationships built among the demonstrators were very strong. When we brought the film back to the village of Budrus, all the different political factions and the Israeli activists came to the screening and so did another seven hundred people. It’s only a fifteen hundred person village. So literally half the village came to watch the movie.”

Dubai Film Festival

Budrus is a wonderful example of the power of the media to touch us in profound ways, challenge our preconceived notions and open our hearts and just maybe our minds.                 — Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

The film, undoubtedly, created a lasting impact. Empowering communities . . . conveying the positive results of nonviolence . . . depicting women coming to the forefront. Ronit describes another compelling factor within the Israeli/Palestinian peace initiative which, when unleashed, thrives on its own momentum. “The relationships that get built defy stereotypes and defy expectations. They’re really deep relationships. It doesn’t mean now that they’ve had exposure to one another that they’re going to embrace – that every Palestinian is going to embrace every Israeli . . . But there are deep relations of trust that are being built among these constituencies. I think those bode extremely well for the future. For example, we had a screening in Gaza, and the young people there had never seen Israelis like the activists in the film. They were fascinated.”

Prolific and often seen as much more impactful, violent images sweep across movie screens and consume the front pages of newspapers and magazine covers. Since the media is such a powerful tool, it’s important to offer alternative depictions which are just as real, and certainly just as important, in order to balance our view of the conflict and the players, as well as the possibilities for resolution.

“I think that’s a big issue in the conflict in general,” Ronit states. “I think both Israelis and Palestinians need to be able to make distinctions because if you see each side as just a homogeneous group, then it’s so much easier to demonize. It’s so much easier to say ‘All Palestinians are terrorists, or all Israelis are soldiers and settlers who only understand violence,’ or whatever the caricature language is. That’s why it’s important to understand that there’s complexity within these societies, that there are different kinds of people. Not every Israeli is Baruch Goldstein. It’s really important to not only make distinctions but actually put your actions where your values are to make sure that the other side sees the difference.”

Recognizing the potent realities of Just Vision’s work, one can’t help but wonder how covering and documenting the ongoing conflict in Israel has affected Ronit personally, perhaps shifting some ideas she may have previously held.

“It’s hard to separate out the filmmaking from the day to day work,” Ronit admits, “because Just Vision’s work is not just about making films. We interview people in the field, and we conduct outreach on a continuing basis. So my interaction with Israeli and Palestinian culture and society is ongoing. I think that certainly I’ve grown over the years in terms of my involvement with Just Vision. I don’t have any romantic illusions about anyone. It’s messy. Movements are messy. Governments and populations are messy. There are no righteous or noble victims just by the virtue of being a victim. These are things that I knew but they’ve certainly been reinforced. Yet, I am constantly inspired by ordinary people who have everything to lose. They put their families, their lives, their reputations, their liberty on the line in order to change circumstances on the ground. So I’ve simultaneously seen some very ugly expressions of human behavior as well as some of the most courageous, empathic and generous expressions of it.”

Ronit also recognizes she has gained a deeper understanding about nonviolence and what it means. “I had not been exposed to the nonviolence movement that existed historically in Palestinian society before the Second Intifada. For example, I didn’t know about the incredible protests and marches or the strikes and sit-ins that took place during the First Intifada or that have been taking place since the ’20s and ’30s in Palestinian society. None of that history was something that I was aware of. I had seen the First Intifada through the lens of the Western media and through the Israeli press. I also didn’t grasp the extent to which ordinary Palestinians were sitting in Israeli prisons. I think my default assumption had been ‘Well, there must be a reason.’ Also, over the years, after seeing the arbitrary nature of how people get detained, how violence gets used and how decisions get made, that instinctive benefit of the doubt that I afforded one community and not the other while I was growing up is gone.”

Since films like Budrus have opened the aperture further, highlighting nonviolent leaders in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and recognizing the power of peaceful demonstrations, there’s been a promising breakthrough. Although there are still exceptions, Ronit notices a difference in how other journalists and documentarians are treating the problem.

“There’s been an improvement in terms of recognizing that these movements exist, and that they’re important,” Ronit asserts. “So I do think that there’s been a change. There’s no question. I mean the fact that people are referencing these movements is the biggest change, frankly.”

Ronit also underscores how Budrus has helped in thwarting old narratives. “I think the narrative amongst the Israeli public has been Why don’t Palestinians adopt nonviolence? If they did, there would be peace. In Palestinian society the narrative has been Nonviolence doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. The American society narrative is Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? . . . This film challenges all of those assumptions. You’re seeing journalists pick up on those themes and write about them differently or reference and incorporate them into their arguments.”

And so another salient and controversial issue rears its head. Responsible journalism. Is it important for journalists and filmmakers to not only present “facts” but to use the force of media to benefit and not exacerbate the problem?

“I think that journalists have a responsibility to report on events and phenomena that are taking place in a particular region,” Ronit states, “and to try to do so dispassionately in general and get a complete picture of what’s going on to the best of their ability. But very often in this context, people default to the closest native speaker of whatever language the journalist speaks as opposed to the native language of the region, whether it’s Arabic or Hebrew. So that limits the pool of people that are featured. Also, it’s very hard to encapsulate these movements in a photograph or a headline. If you show a building that’s been bombed or a bus that’s exploded, it’s easy to make sense of that immediately. Whereas, if you see a picture of a group of people standing around, it takes a lot more work to really cover the story. And often, I think many journalists make the mistake of waiting for it to be a mass movement like what we saw in Tahrir Square (Cairo). They wait for it to get to that critical mass point before giving it coverage.”

Ronit also recognizes that smaller, less dramatic peace initiatives are staples in building a movement. “In fact, the building blocks are as important as the outcome. Those building blocks are critical – and often they’re small and disjointed in some way. Reporting on these stories requires a lot of patience, a lot of effort, and a desire to really understand the local dynamics. And I also think, along with budgets being slashed in terms of long-term reporting and the default, especially, to local English speakers, that there is a general bias against nonviolence. There’s a feeling that it’s not as newsworthy as violent actions.”

As Ronit indicates, there are a number of obstacles to having stories on peace activism see the light of day. She notes it can be frustrating when a local stabbing involving one militant actor warrants media attention while five hundred people at a nonviolent demonstration doesn’t receive coverage. “There’s a question of proportionality and scale that I think is often missing,” Ronit indicates. “So at Just Vision, we try to complement existing coverage. We don’t say that we have all of the stories. We’re not outfitted as a twenty-four hour news cycle type of organization. We’re there for the long haul. We work exclusively on this issue because we want that depth of knowledge and that scope of contact on the ground so we can really understand what’s happening.”

And that understanding provides a powerful framework for Just Vision’s goal and philosophy: To direct attention to Israeli and Palestinian nonviolence and peacebuilding efforts, working with and beyond traditional media. Top down leadership is clearly not enough; an end to the conflict will be rooted in the work of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

“I think that we want these nonviolent leaders at the table,” Ronit elucidates. “By ‘at the table’ I mean being covered by journalists, paid attention to, taken seriously, taken into consideration on the diplomatic level and supported on the grassroots level. Those who are favoring a nonviolent approach — one which recognizes that the two peoples are here to stay — are the best hope we have for a stable future.”

The film, Budrus, highlights and gives voice to that recognition, inspiring hope in the most basic aspects of human understanding. Originally released in 2009, it makes its DVD debut on May 10, 2011. And the Budrus Outreach Campaign is on the move as well. “It’s been very positive. We have different staff members who engage in outreach in the United States, in Palestinian society, and in Israeli society,” Ronit states. “Fundamentally, no matter the specific audience, there are three core messages: unity across divides, the power of nonviolence, and the strategic importance of women’s involvement.”

By exposing us to nonviolent leaders and initiatives, Just Vision provides a more encompassing view of Israeli/Palestinian relations, one where human decency and fair treatment is given a chance for survival. Within these small grassroots movements, we can recognize the power of peaceful resistance, where individuals, armed only with passion and principle, can make a difference.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.    —  Mohandas Gandhi


All photos used by permission. Photo of Ayed Morrar by Aisha Mershani.

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