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arts | arts education | causes | education | film | gendered violence | photography | poverty

Unique Voices, Shared Visions: Meena Nanji and GlobalGirl Media

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GlobalGirls (L-R) Ariana Seymore, Andrea Reyes, Wendy Garcia, Yasmeen Abdullah, Imani Crenshaw

The idea that we cannot trust the images that saturate our everyday lives is cliché. We suspect the delectable vanilla ice cream in that commercial is really mashed potatoes; we know the actress making eyes at us from the cover of that magazine in the checkout lane is radiant with the grace of Photoshop. Bitter footage delivered to our screens by the news media seems to be a welcome antidote to the cloying wine of those other, clearly misleading, images. At times we still forget that the camera lens ceases to be neutral the moment someone decides where to point it, even as we rely countlessly on such decisions to give us a faithful picture of the most significant issues and events in our communities and beyond.

In the U.S., that “someone,” the average journalist, is white and male. Women and minorities continue to be vastly underrepresented in the media, especially in managerial positions, and there has been little progress toward greater diversity since the 1990s; indeed, there has even been a decline in some categories over the past few years. This incongruity hardly guarantees a panoramic view of the world. Enter GlobalGirl Media.

GlobalGirl Media is a non-profit organization working to put cameras, along with other tools of the journalistic trade, into the hands of young women from underserved communities in the U.S. and around the globe. While still in high school, program participants receive training in new media journalism, learning to speak out about the issues that affect them and their communities, and preparing to be leaders in a world that is changing rapidly with the proliferation of digital technology and social media.

One of the founders of GlobalGirl Media, award-winning filmmaker Meena Nanji, spoke to The Lamp Project about the organization, as well as her work as an artist with a commitment to finding common ground wherever she goes. Nanji has directed a number of short films, including Voices of the Morning, an experimental telling of a young woman’s coming-of-age under Islamic law, and the award-winning full-length documentary View from a Grain of Sand, which follows three Afghani women who fled the violence in their homeland to live as refugees in Pakistan. These personal stories are presented as part of the larger narrative of the violence and injustices suffered by Afghani women over the past several decades and even to this day. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) gradually becomes a fourth character in the documentary.

Afghani girls in a Pakistan refugee camp in 2001

Afghani girls in a Pakistan refugee camp in 2001

 

stillforViewGrainofSand

Still from View from a Grain of Sand

According to Nanji, the best part of traveling and engaging with people of different backgrounds is “finding shared visions in places or people where you least expect them.” In her most recent film, Here and Away, Nanji draws inspiration from different, and diverse, sources. She made the film “on a whim” while in India, after reading “Children on a Country Road,” a short story by Franz Kafka. “I was inspired by that story to transpose it into an Indian setting, and make a short film, that is shot in documentary style, though it is fiction,” Nanji explained. “I feel it captures a certain mood of a village in India, the pace of life perhaps… the many sounds that make up an environment.” However, despite the variety of projects that she pursues, Nanji’s work is unified by her ethical and intellectual commitments, her artistic vision. “I think my works are pieces of a larger, coherent ethical project, even though they may not appear that way,” Nanji said. “For the last little while I have been more open to doing projects that were not originally conceived by me, or doing work-for-hire, but I have found that if I don’t agree with their basic concept or ethics, or values, I just cannot do them. I do sometimes pursue ventures that might be sudden leads, but these always fit into my larger conceptual/ethical framework.”

A teacher of young children in a refugee camp. Kabul, 2003

A teacher of young children in a refugee camp. Kabul, 2003

Nanji’s work with Global Girl Media is an extension of the filmmaker’s ethical project; indeed, Nanji came to co-found the organization in part as a response to her experiences while making View from a Grain of Sand. “Amie Williams, who originally conceived of this idea, had actually just been in Kenya during the 2007 elections and had witnessed some horrifying violence and a girl she had been sponsoring for years was a victim to this violence,” Nanji recounted. “And so she came back wanting very much to empower girls somehow to tell their own stories. I too, after Afghanistan, felt that instead of taking people’s stories away, why not give them the tools to tell their own stories. So these ideas coincided and GGM was formed, with the idea to train girls in digital media and other low cost methods of storytelling, of so that they could have a direct voice to digital global platforms. We decided on girls as they are the most marginalized in terms of creating digital content, or even having their perspectives listened to in any way, so we thought it was a great place to start.”

At the moment, GGM has branches in Los Angeles, Chicago, South Africa, and Morocco, but the organization hopes to expand to Kenya, Mozambique, and Brazil, as well as other countries in Latin America and the Middle East. On the GGM website, one finds young women sharing their experiences and reporting on a variety of topics, including women’s rights, sexual violence, street drugs, and living with HIV. One also sees how excited they are to discover their voices and be part of the global conversations on these and other issues.

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GGM LA 2011 training: Nanji with GlobalGirls Denise Peralta and Imani Crenshaw

 

In the few short years since its founding, GGM has built an impressive record of achievements. A series on reproductive health created by the GGM participants in LA last year was distributed by PBS online. This year, GGM held its first world summit in Chicago. A number of the young women who have been a part of GGM have won prestigious awards, gone on to study film and journalism in college, and have been hired by NGOs to continue pursuing their passion. Over the summer, the LA participants worked on a series of webisodes tackling the issue of food justice, which aired in September. Meanwhile, the Moroccan branch of GGM recently produced a documentary on sexual harassment, which premiered on November 25th. These videos and many others created by GGM participants are available on the organization’s YouTube channel.

​Without diverse and unique voices, we cannot get the whole story. At the same time, we cannot understand the whole story without an appreciation for how interconnected all the parts of it really are. This makes a program like GGM indispensable, not only for the participants, but for all of us, as we try to learn the truth and make sense of this world we share.

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