As an actor I favor playing characters who are leaders, powerful people who are sensual, intelligent, and independently minded. In the 5 years I've been freelancing as an actor I've only come across a handful of roles that meet that description. I'm grateful for the times I've gotten to play such characters, but I want to create more opportunities for myself and other female actors to tell stimulating narratives. I'm interested in taking on more of a leadership role in the generation of creative content, moving my creativity further up the production chain, and well before the audition room.
To help further that interest, for the past year I've been doing social media & writing the blog at Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), a non profit that empowers storytellers with funding for their independent films, teaches film to public school students in NYC, and facilitates film screenings in prisons. Working at TFI I've been able to observe the independent filmmaking world, films produced mostly or completely outside of the major film studio system, and have learned a ton to guide me in my pursuit of greater roles for women.
The following are 10 observations I've made about independent filmmaking in the past year along with lessons learned from them. In no particular order of importance.
While these observations and lessons learned happened during the last year while I was doing social media for TFI, they in no way are meant to reflect the views and opinions of TFI.
I'm damn good at social media, and I love it. What does that mean? After graduating NYU, Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Theatre I immediately began developing my social media presence. I read LOADS of books and took LOTS of free seminars and basically surrounded myself with all things social media. I began developing a robust following that to date includes over 17,900 Twitter followers and 45,000 Facebook followers, + I'm verified on Facebook. That puts me at a combined social following of over 50,000. I've since gone on to take on various social media clients, both non profit, creative individuals, and corporate entities. Which has been a really cool, life-changing side benefit, but my initial impulse for engaging with social media was the understanding of how important it is for an acting career. Emphasis on career.
You'll hear people talking about how social media is good for actors, or it's bad for actors, etc... but who cares? Let's be real, it's not as good for you as green vegetables and it's not worse than a drinking habit. Social media is a language, and if you chose not to learn it that's completely your prerogative. No judgement here. Hey, if you get rich and famous maybe you can hire someone to do it for you, but it is a lot more rewarding to learn how to do it yourself.
'But why is social media important for an actor's career?' I'm so glad you asked. For starters many producers, directors, and writers have a presence on social media not to mention casting directors, agents, and fellow actors. That's BIG because it's a limitless resource for you to keep tabs on everyone, interact with what they're sharing and become an advocate for those artists you want to one day work with. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, why not let those people whose work you respect know how much you dig them?
On that note, while the number of followers you have can be impressive to people, know that at it's core social media is not about that kind of bling, it's about connecting and creating a digital community by clearly establishing your voice & engaging with other people and organizations on the social platforms you use.
By the way, if you hate a certain social platform don't use it. For the longest time I only focused on my Twitter and Facebook because I couldn't handle Instagram and wasn't excited about it yet. Now Instagram is my favorite one out of all three! Don't pressure yourself to 'master social media' right away. Play around, have fun, explore, and figure out what the heck you're doing on there to begin with.
I'm still developing my acting career, and I'll be updating my blog with my acting and writing adventures, as well as social media tips. To stay in the know about what I'm up to + get social media mentoring subscribe to my mailing list below.
I'm currently writing for the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) blog and on Friday October 7th had the pleasure of leading a workshop on blogging at Otisville Correctional Facility, to a group of men who are currently serving time. I've visited the men there in the past to write about the prison's monthly TFI film screenings. The VP of Education Programs at TFI, Vee Bravo, has just started this workshop program to teach the men creative skills such as writing short films, and blogging. I'm thrilled to be a part of it!
I stayed up late Thursday night figuring out how to structure the blogging workshop. It was a unique challenge because the men at Otisville do not have access to internet and some of them haven't for decades. One man has been in prison since 1981, so the last time he was free we lived in a pre-internet world. Blogging is a powerfully democratic tool that only exists because of the internet, ditto social media. A lot of the 'how-to' guides for writing blogs I saw on the web begin with choosing your platform, and frequency of posting, items that aren't applicable to men in prison.
I decided to focus on the basics first, 'What is a blog?' 'What are different kinds of blogs?' and opened it up to the room of six men for discussion and collective brainstorming. The absolutely remarkable thing about the men was how focused they were on the work we were doing. With the short film and blogging workshop combined we were sitting in a room for 6 hours doing intensive thinking and learning. By the end of it my brain was tired, but the whole time the men were focused and interactive and eager to learn. A sight I have rarely ever seen in the outside world, where we're constantly offered new sources of distraction.
Next, I wanted to convince the men they each have a unique voice, and that blogging is an excellent way to share it. I brought the below Martha Graham quote with me. The men immediately began writing the quote down, as soon as I put it up on the board, and while I read it out loud.
Then I asked the men to describe who they are. I started by sharing a bit about who I am, my heritage, the neighborhood I grew up in, my home life and educational background, my skills and passions, and the men wrote a bit about who they are and then shared it with all of us. I did this exercise because all of their experiences, leading up to their time in jail and during their time being incarcerated, contributes to their unique point of view. They have a lot of knowledge and insight to offer the world through their writing. I wanted to be sure they knew that.
Finally I shared sample blogs I curated from the web to give them various differing examples to be inspired by.
Being there, working with them, I felt grateful for the enormous amount of time and freedom I have to write whatever I want whenever I want and post it in a blog. I'm going to commit to posting a blog every Wednesday and Saturday, from now onwards, taking advantage of the freedom I have and the life I've been given.
Right now the plan is for the men at Otisville to write a blog in response to a TFI film screening at the prison, and they'll mail it to TFI where I will type it up and post it to our blog.
- Lillian Isabella
Tonight I saw my friend Dominique Fishback performing her solo show SUBVERTED in the East Village, NYC. Dominique exudes charisma and talent, pure talent, but on top of that her words rip the bandaid off the historical moral injury American society has perpetrated against black people for centuries.
Dominique questions why she's told to be grateful and pledge allegiance to a country built on the backs of her ancestors. During the days of slavery white slave owners physically whipped and hung black people. Now cops are murdering black people in the streets with guns, they are being filmed doing it, and they are getting away with it. This quote repeats throughout the show:
"Part of the mechanics of oppressing people is to pervert them to the extent that they become the instruments of their own oppression." - Kumasi
In SUBVERTED the main character's neighbors, the people she grew up with and around, are 'prisoners of the block' becoming instruments of their own oppression as they deal with broken homes, racial profiling from cops, and teachers who don't teach them standard English grammar, among other issues. They search for acceptance and love by joining gangs while also judging one another by the standards put in place by an inherently racist system. Surrounded by junk food chains and police towers the system trains them to accept feeling locked in with limited choices.
Words, reading, writing, and finding a means of expression become powerful tools for the characters in SUBVERTED. In finding her voice Dominique's character begins to shake up the world around her and insist that world wakes up with her. As does Dominique with this show. You absolutely cannot help but be moved after watching her.
On my train ride home I overheard two black men sitting across from me talking about race in America. What they were saying really resonated with what Dominique explores in her show and after listening to them for 20 minutes or so I dared to find a moment to cut in. It felt awkward to randomly talk to someone on the train, much less about race, but I told them a little about Dominique's show and gave them my SUBVERTED playbill so they could look up the info. The guy who had been doing most of the talking seemed happy I reached out and the other guy was already looking at his schedule to see when he could see SUBVERTED. I really hope they do!
Somewhere in the rinse wash repeat cycle of making money and trying to stay alive it's easy to lose track of LIVING. Easy to forget our responsibility to one another to be present, alive, and communicative. Conversation with others, opening up to our loved ones, parents, friends, opening up to our co-workers, the people we see everyday working in the lobby of our work building, the humans we stand next to and sit across from on the subway in NYC, is the key to peace. Living in the present, eliminating systems of injustice and working towards understanding are the keys to peace. And my god, are we ever a country in need of peace.
Please go see Dominique's play SUBVERTED. It's playing on Monday September 26th, Wednesday 28th
All Performances 8pm
East 3rd St, NY, NY, 10009
- Lillian Isabella
On June 15, 2016 I got to go to Otisville prison with Tribeca Film Institute’s® (TFI) VP of Education, Vee Bravo, when he took a group of TFI staff for a screening of Musa Syeed’s documentary A BRONX PRINCESS. The film follows the journey of Rocky Otoo, a Bronx-bred teenage daughter of Ghanaian parents in a coming-of-age story set in both the Bronx and Ghana.
Syeed came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. The screening was part of our Community Screening Series, where we hold free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action. The facilitators, inmates themselves, prompted the post-screening discussion with the question ‘What is culture?’ The 30+ prisoners in attendance then talked about Otoo’s balancing of two cultures, her homes in the Bronx and Ghana, and how socialization can be a hard transition. They also asked Syeed questions about his filmmaking process.
This was the first time Syeed had screened any of his films at a prison, and he said the experience was eye-opening.
“The screening at Otisville was one of the best in my career, thanks to the men who facilitated the conversation,” he said. “They read my film closer than maybe anyone ever has, making new connections I hadn't considered. In the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, they found inspiration for the transitions they're hoping to make. That's perhaps the best gift an audience can give you – helping you see your work in a new way. And the men at Otisville were very giving.”
Also at the screening we explored cultural differences between Ghana and New York, touching on how gender roles and expectations differed in the two different cultures. As all the prisoners are men, the facilitator invited the women visiting from TFI to weigh in.
The invitation to participate and voice my perceptions of the film made me feel relaxed and valued. When I go to a film screening with a Q&A I often engage in the discussion, but right before I speak I’m struck with nerves – life outside prison is a competitive world, full of judgmental people and status quos that can make it feel unsafe to explore and share ideas.
However, inside the prison’s gymnasium walls where the screening happens at Otisville, the facilitators work to make sure everyone is heard and given time to talk – prisoner, guest, and guard alike.
Paola Espinosa, TFI's Manager, Operations and Events, coordinates cultivation screenings at TFI and was blown away by the amount of participation.
“I have never seen that level of engagement from an audience,” she said. “The men at Otisville were not only paying attention to the film but also actively taking the content and having a conversation about it.”
TFI's Manager, Creative Design, Ryan Pattison echoed that sentiment and observed the conversation had to be pulled back at times.
“It’s rare to see a group of people as engaged as this group of 30 or so,” he said. “The facilitators would sometimes need to halt the discussion to keep the event moving forward. It’s inspiring to see men who have had so much taken away make so much of what little they have.”
It is inspiring, and worth noting. Whenever I leave Otisville I ask myself, what am I making of all the freedom and time I have been given?
- Lillian Isabella
(Originally posted on the Tribeca Film Institute Blog)
On May 19, 2016 a group of Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) staff members accompanied Vee Bravo our VP, Education Programs, to Otisville Prison for a screening of Gillian Laub’s HBO documentary SOUTHERN RITES. The film documents the repercussions that occur when a white resident of Montgomery County, Ga., a community with longstanding race and equality issues, is charged with the murder of a young black man.
Laub came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. It was the first time she had screened a film in such a setting, as is the case for most filmmakers participating in our TFI Community Screening Series. The Community Screening Series is a public initiative of TFI that holds free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action.
Throughout the entire 87-minute screening at Otisville the inmates focused on the TV screen, quietly absorbing every detail of the film. The only noise came from the guard’s radio and the buzzing fans, turned on by the inmates to keep Laub, who was pregnant, comfortable.
After the film, many of the men participated in a discussion led by three inmate facilitators: Charles "Chas" Ransom, Alejo Rodriguez, and Moses El-Sun White. All three are serving life sentences. During the discussion, they prompted their fellow inmates to put themselves in the shoes of the film’s characters and asked what they would do in those circumstances. They also made diagrams exploring key themes of the film to guide the discussion.
Laub shared a photo of one such diagram with her more than 28,000 Instagram followers, and reflected on how deeply the inmates dove into the subject matter of her film. She wrote:
After screening SOUTHERN RITES for the inmates of Otisville prison there were amazing and insightful group discussions where they wrote down major themes of the film and their responses. The men talked about morality, justice, hope, disappointment, redemption, rehabilitation, choices, and history… “Racism is part of the American family,” one man said.
The film casts a harsh light on institutionalized racism. The white man at the center of the story serves just over a year of jail time for the murder he is charged with. In sharp contrast, most of the 50 inmates who watched the film at Otisville are people of color serving life sentences after being convicted of murder. The difference in sentences is painfully stark, yet it didn’t take the inmates by surprise. During the post-show discussion one inmate said the film shows how “the system is the villain.” Another said, “we know the system is messed up already; the thing to figure out is what are we going to do about it?”
Laub, however, went on to express frustration with the inmates’ situation in her Instagram post.
Most of these men are called ‘lifers’ (they’ve been incarcerated for decades and serving life sentences) and have been denied parole numerous times. What blew my mind is that these same men who talked about rehabilitation and morality had so much wisdom to share and could be assets to society and yet, they most likely will never be able to, outside of the prison walls.
Indeed, having the ability to leave Otisville prison after the screening felt like a privilege. As the TFI staff members were heading out, one inmate shouted out to us ‘get home safe,’ and it required effort to not say the same to him. For most of the inmates, the prison walls have been their home for decades, and will be for decades to come.
Our VP, Artist Programs, Amy Hobby, screened her Oscar-nominated film WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE at Otisville last month as part of our TFI Community Screening Series. For her, watching the film with the inmates helped her find new meaning in something she had seen many times.
“During the opening Nina Simone is interviewed and says, ‘I’ll tell you what Freedom is to me…’” Hobby said. “Well, the context of her dialogue on freedom really hit me hard this time around.”
- Lillian Isabella
(Originally published on Tribeca Film Institute's Blog)
It's 2016! I'm looking back over the past year and feeling grateful for a lot. One incredibly fortunate thing that happened to me in 2015 is a photo shoot with Joel Marsh Garland. You might know him as a member of the Orange is the New Black cast, but he is also an AMAZING photographer.
I met Joel when I was in college doing a reading series called hotINK at Strasberg, NYU. A professor of mine Lorca Peress organized the reading series so that professional actors came and acted in readings with us students. The idea was to help us meet people working in the industry. They eventually shut the program down due to I don't know, university politics? But it worked it's magic and I got to meet Joel Marsh Garland.
He and I stayed in touch through social media over the years, and one day we ran into each other at an audition. Since graduating I've gotten into a bit of modeling and since Joel and I stayed in touch via social media he knew about my modeling. He told me he was beginning to explore photography and asked, would I like to shoot with him? I said yes.
I knew we came away with some great shots but I didn't realize until long after the shoot, when I was in front of another persons camera, the gift Joel had given me. During our shoot he asked me questions, got me telling stories, and really listened to what I was saying. He opened me up, in a really good way. To the point where now when I'm in front of another camera I feel a freedom I'd not felt before. Shooting with Joel, I learned to expose my heart, let it shine through my eyes, and talk to the camera with my body.
So one of the things I'm truly grateful for in 2015 is that Joel Marsh Garland wanted to shoot photos with me and that I said yes. I'm also grateful for the hotINK reading series from years ago, and it's true what they say folks, stay in touch with people you've worked with. You never know how your paths will cross again or how you can help each other.
Thank you, Joel!!
Gender inequality in Hollywood is on everyone’s mind in the industry – and with good reason. Even the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has launched an investigation into gender bias in Hollywood. We wanted to hear more from women independent filmmakers: Have they been impacted by discrimination? How do we fix it? According to a cross section of women we interviewed from around the country, the solution lies in dollars and sense.
Vera Miao, a filmmaker born to working class immigrants from Taiwan and one of the filmmakers chosen for THROUGH HER LENS: The Tribeca Chanel Women's Filmmaker Program’s inaugural year says:
"Money, financing, that’s the gatekeeper. All the issues we talk about in filmmaking, it almost all comes back to financing."
Simply put, you need money to make a film. Miao, goes on to say:
"It wouldn’t matter what men thought of women broadly or generally if women controlled money."
So, how do women get more control over the money?
One way is by applying for grants like those Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) offers. All of the women quoted in this article have at some point been either awarded funding from TFI or participated in a TFI development program to help them build resources.
Angela Tucker, a Tribeca All Access® Alumni grantee for the documentary web series Black Folk Don’t and a New Yorker born and raised, drives the point home:
“You do need to work with someone who is going to pay you. I would like to be able to continue to do work as I do and find a space where I can be a little more financially supported. That’s the dream.”
Having resources, money, and an amazing story can yield an independent film that reaches and inspires mass audiences, and it’s the reality any filmmaker desires. Ideally further directing opportunities follow, but it isn’t always so simple.
As Crystal Moselle, a New-York-based director of the TFI-supported hit documentary film The Wolfpack reveals:
“Often I get called for commercial jobs that are looking for a female director. It’s incredible that it’s not about the work it’s about your gender.”
Even after a well-received film puts a female director on the map, the industry often takes more notice of her gender than the filming style or genre that got her in the door. A woman director is still thought of by many in the industry as an anomaly – something to be sought out. Maybe they’re feeling the pressure of being politically correct or they suppose a film can need a woman director full stop, as if all women have the same vision. Either way, with this thought persisting among film financiers, funding a ‘female-directed’ film appears to be a radical thing to do.
Paola Mendoza, a Tribeca All Access® grantee for Entre Nos, born in Bogotá, Colombia, reveals why putting dollars behind women filmmakers is just common sense:
“I would eliminate the idea that investing money in women is revolutionary, or bold or progressive. The investment of dollar bills should be the norm, as we are half the population. If investing in women was as commonplace as investing in men, I strongly believe the playing field would be much more equal.”
Widening the Lens: From Her Point of View
Investing money in a small subset of the entertainment community because of bias against half the population hugely limits the lens through which we’re all viewing our world. What would happen if we widened that lens and got a look at the bigger picture?
Anna Martemucci, the recipient of production funds for the inauguralTHROUGH HER LENS: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program, believes it would be an eye opener:
"If the numbers changed to reflect the actual world (a world of people of many ethnicities, sexual orientations, and one comprised of half women) it would create a deeper, more nuanced cultural understanding of what it is to be a human. And that, to me, is what movies are all about."
Occasionally a film that breaks the historically-favored mold of the heterosexual white male point of view reaches a large audience, but it’s rare, and because of that it becomes precious.
Roja Gashtili, who along with her producing partner Julia Lerman was aTHROUGH HER LENS alum, explores the unfair pressure this often puts on any film telling a previously sidelined narrative:
"I watch (and judge) minority or female stories with such scrutiny because it often feels that we only get the one each year so it better be amazing, but imagine a world where a minority-led show did not have to be everything for every minority but could stand as just that person's view of the world, take it or leave it."
Filmmaking: The Ultimate Satisfaction
As many trials as women face in filmmaking, it’s the challenge of being on set itself that lights them up and keeps them going. Deb Shoval, who divides her time between New York City and rural Pennsylvania and is an IWC Filmmaker Award recipient for AWOL, shares her love of filmmaking:
"Being on set is addictive and euphoric because it forces us to be present at every moment."
Moselle confesses that filmmaking gives her the ultimate sense of fulfillment:
"I’d much rather be on set doing what I love, than walking a press line."
At the end of the day, by investing in all kinds of filmmakers from all diverse walks of life, entertainment will become more interesting, audiences will respond, and we all have the opportunity to be more empathetic. Everyone stands to gain.
By, Lillian Isabella
(Originally posted on Tribeca Film Institute's Blog)
Here is the second part of my interview with Eryn Wright a woman who exemplifies the concept of women for women in her daily life. She made a trip to Uganda to work in a clinic and I interviewed her about her experiences there. This is a slightly abridged version of the second part of the interview. What's most striking to me is how she doesn't allow her ideas of female empowerment to color her attitude towards the women in Uganda. If anything it only feeds her desire to understand how to empower women who are different from her without offending and overstepping her bounds.
LILLIAN - If the mothers needed HIV medicine, did they have enough there to give to everyone? How does that work?
ERYN- It's not so much whether or not they have access to medication, most of the time, it's whether they will take it. Every single day. You can't miss a day. Some people can live quite far from where they need to pick up the medication. Also it's easier to pick up other diseases. Malaria runs rampant, and you have to take medication for that. I think education is paramount. If you miss a day, or a couple of days, the virus is so smart, so resourceful that it will develop an immunity to the medicine, and you'll have to go to a different treatment plan.
You mentioned how there were signs up all over the place, and on your blog there's this one that says - "Avoid Morning Sex". Was this related to HIV?
No, no. We were told morning sex takes away from the most productive part of the day for most people. So chances were if you started with that you wouldn't get anything done.
What was the biggest cultural difference that you noticed?
The most startling one for me, was this lack of curiosity. Question accepted theories, don't just take what you're told and not think about it. Try and sort of think of it for yourself, and develop your own opinions... In particular it was the medical stuff that really got to me in terms of peoples health. When they weren't questioning things for themselves. To a certain degree their hands are tied. Were really lucky here (in Canada), for the most part we can say what we want to say.
Canada has great health care from what I hear. We're really jealous of you here in the states.
We have fantastic health care, we really do. That was another thing trying to decipher the differences between the Western World and Africa.
It sounds like you were a good go between. With your knowledge of an excellent health care system and sense of empowerment.
I think so, I'm a researcher. I took human kinetics in university, Kinesiology, and my thesis was on medical diets and memory. The basis of it was, how much does memory effect ones' ability to follow a special diet? The point of it was to show there is a reason to post labels for people who have intolerances. A lot of countries have that, they have required labeling, Canada doesn't. I actually got quite attached to the project, because I realized I was gluten intolerant. After I came back from Africa it got exacerbated because of the malaria.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Copyright © 2006 Steven G. Johnson and donated to Wikipedia under GFDL and CC-by-SA.
You had malaria?
Yes twice. My anti malarials were giving me very very vivid dreams, to the point of hallucinations. When you work in a hospital where you see death all the time you don't need more in dreams. So I stopped taking them a couple times. I would actually wake up terrified, absolutely sure that what had happened in my dream was real, that's how vivid they were. I had this dream that there was a giant anaconda in my room, and for ten minutes I was sure it was in my room. Anti malarials are good but they're not 100% anyway. For everybody there it's actually quite common, every time you're sick they think you have malaria.
What's the most memorable, powerful thing you took away from Uganda?
Ok well the most memorable powerful thing ... other than my fiancee...
Really? Your fiancee?
Yes. We get married November 25th. Other than that...
Well that's pretty big.
Yes, but that's a relationship/ romance kind of thing. The most powerful thing I took away from it, I learned a lot about myself. I could take a lot more than I thought. I kept testing myself further, where are my boundaries emotionally, how much can I stand to see. I managed to keep my composure during the experiences. You can't close yourself off, a lot of people say, "just close yourself off, you can't feel anything". But you're working with people, this is sad, and if you're not being real about it, patients can feel that. If you're detached, it's not the same as honestly being empathetic. Not breaking down yourself but acknowledge this is a human being who is going through probably one of the worst moments in their lives.
There was a moment, in the clinic, when a baby was having difficulty breathing, and had they had an oxygen tank that was working she would've survived. But I sat with her, as she struggled breathing and finally took her last breath... And she (the mother) came up to me and asked, "is the baby going to be all right?" And the nurse came up to her and said, just very matter of fact, "The baby is dead." And the sound that came out of the mother, the heartbreak, and the cry that she let out, really touched a nerve in me...
Why would anybody think it would be different for anybody just because they live on Africa? Just because it happens alot? You lose all those hopes and dreams, and all the love you have already for that child. It highlighted the importance of every life, anywhere in the world. It's universal. You might not know what it feels like to be in that position, but you can only imagine how you would do anything to change that.
Map of Uganda from CIA World Fact Book
Would you recommend world travel to other people?
I think it's a brilliant idea, so long as you go into it with an open mind and an open heart. Actually it can be more damaging to the place you visit than to you if you don't go into it with an open mind. First of all, you don't want to offend anybody. Try not to make financial donations to people, because then the people who come after you will be expected to do that as well. I think making donations to grass roots organizations, things that would exist there regardless of your presence; schools, things that are already functioning and you're just trying to help them along. Things that are sustainable there. If you're just giving somebody $5, I mean it's nice, but it's not really sustainable.
Even if all you can donate is your time, don't feel bad about that. It's probably the most precious thing you can give to them if you're there for the right reasons. You can't be there expecting a pat on the back, because that's not genuine. I recommend travel, just be willing to expect that things are not going to be the way they are at home. Enjoy it, and take it for what it is.
Who are three women you look up to for inspiration?
Doctor Jean Chamberlain - a Canadian doctor - who spends a lot of time in Uganda.
Ginette Michel who is one of my professors and mentors who was always there for me and always encouraged me.
Pamela DeBoer- my stepmom and the first person (in my family in particular) to actively get involved in fundraising and trying to make a difference, not because she wanted recognition for it, but just because she wanted to do it.
This is Part II of my conversation with Eryn Wright about her time in Uganda. For Part I click here.
In 2013 I interviewed Eryn Wright a woman who could teach me a thing or two about female empowerment. She is Canandian and decided to go to Uganda and work in a hospital there. Her work with women who have HIV in Uganda redefines the term women for women.
She made me wonder how can you empower women who exist in another culture and face heavier obstacles? Can you empower women you don't understand? How can you better understand the cultural differences and effect change within them? Should you try and effect change? Our conversation is too long to include here in one blog, so I've put the first half in this blog and the second half will soon follow. (This is a repost from a previous publication on the website 'Filmannex' in 2014)
Lillian: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO TO UGANDA AND WORK IN A HOSPITAL THERE?
Eryn: I've wanted to go to Africa since I was a little girl, since I was four. My mom thought I was crazy. It didn't have to do with wanting to help people necessarily, I would love if I was that kind of kind soul, but I just fell in love with the landscape, and the music. There's this kind of mystery to it, this beauty it has. Almost this tragic beauty. It's very raw, and because it is so raw it shows more of yourself than any other place in the world. They say if you go and you love it, it's a place you'll go back to for the rest of your life.
WHEN YOU SAY IT'S RAW, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
It strips you down, and shows you who you really are. What you can take, what you can handle, what you can't. What are the things that are important to you? You don't have internet all the time, and you don't have the same luxuries that we have here, so you're forced to see how can you manage. It's really raw and honest. Both physically and emotionally it strips you down and bares you for yourself and others to see. The people you're with, they get to go along on that ride with you, so it can be quite bumpy sometimes.
WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS? WERE THEY REALISTIC, OR VASTLY DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU EXPERIENCED THERE?
The good thing about having traveled so much in the past, is that I went in with pretty much no expectations. I just figured let's see what happens. I knew it would be challenging, they were probably going to get me to do more than I was comfortable with so I tried to set boundaries for myself. They changed once I got there, but I really tried to make rules for myself that I tried not to break.
Just because I was working in a hospital didn't mean I was a doctor, and I wasn't going to do things that would put people's lives at risk. A lot of people think 'oh it's Africa, and that doesn't mean the lives are worth the same as they are here.' And ethically speaking, you have to pay attention to that, and you have to be careful with that.
IN YOUR BLOG YOU TALK ABOUT A BASIC RULE, TO WASH YOUR HANDS WHEN THEY GOT BLOOD ON THEM. AND HOW IT WAS SO DIFFICULT TO KEEP THIS RULE, BECAUSE THERE WAS NO SOAP.
Yes, no soap, no water, and sometimes there were no gloves. I had run out of the box my mom had gotten for me, and I was letting some of the other students use my gloves, because I didn't want them to be treating patients without gloves either. And so I started sharing them and before I knew it they were quickly gone, and the hospital didn't have any more.
IT'S GOOD YOU HAVE THESE RULES BUT IT MUST HAVE BEEN FRUSTRATING TO NOT BE ABLE TO ALWAYS FOLLOWED THROUGH WITH THEM.
Yeah it was. And I could've said no, but you're doing this, and think 'should I leave the patient without care and take care of myself?' It's really hard, and when you're in the moment nothing you've ever thought before really matters. You're just in that moment. You have to live with your decisions afterward.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY IN UGANDA?
I would wake up in the morning very early at 6:30/7. I would drag myself out of bed. It's very very hot, especially when you've been sleeping all night, and you're very sticky. They actually had a small TV there, so if the power was on we were able to watch the news, Al Jazeera news. Sometimes we showered before, it all depended on who wanted to shower first, and by shower I mean take a bucket outside and try to wash yourself. Wash your hair if you can, you get really good at it. I'd put my scrubs on and grab a pen. I would go off in one direction and the other volunteers were going in another direction. I would walk to the hospital and on the way I would run into a lot of children. They'd run up to me and say, "Mzungu, Mzungu" which is Lusoga for 'white person', and some of them would hold my hand.
A couple of the girls who I became fond of would try and teach me some of the language. They would find it funny. I think they just wanted me to learn the language, and once they found out I was learning the language I think they were happy. They'd laugh and say, "she's learning Lusoga". I think they didn't expect me to stay that long. I'd show up to the hospital and they'd say, "You're still here! Most people have left by now."
Most mornings were nice and easy. I'd go into prenatal and help them set up. It would get really hot very very quickly. Especially in the scrubs, you'd feel the heat very quickly. So I'd sit down and start going through the patients. Sometimes we'd have 60 women. Depending on the day. Always more than 30. It was quite packed. It was a rather small room and they'd all sit on benches. It was a lengthy process doing it all by hand. I would either take their blood pressure, or weigh them, register them, go through what I knew how to say. "What's your name? How old are you?" We'd mark down whether this was their first baby, second baby, third baby, and how far along in their pregnancy they were too. These were some of the things they taught me to do. They'd give these educational talks to the women, and they went through and found out who had been HIV tested.
This is Part I of my conversation with Eryn Wright about her trip to Uganda. For Part II click here.
I am an advocate for gender parity in the entertainment world and write, act, and produce with a mind to facilitate that change.