Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Joanna Lipper (The Supreme Price)

Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Joanna Lipper (The Supreme Price)

Joanna
Lipper
 is an award-winning filmmaker and a lecturer at Harvard University, where she
teaches a course called “Using Film for Social
Change.” Her work as a documentary filmmaker has been supported by the MacArthur
Foundation, Ford Foundation/Just Films, ITVS, Britdoc Foundation, the Gucci
Tribeca Documentary Fund, Women Make Movies and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Her
latest documentary, The Supreme Price, received the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Award. An
extended trailer from the film was commissioned to launch Gucci’s
Chime for Change Women’s Empowerment Campaign at TED2013
. Women Make
Movies has acquired the film for distribution. Previous films Lipper has
produced and directed include Inside
Out: Portraits of Children
, Growing Up Fast, and Little Fugitive. Lipper is the author
of the nationally acclaimed book Growing
Up Fast
. Her photography has been published and exhibited in the US and
overseas. (Press materials)

The Supreme Price will play at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 19 and at AFI Docs on June 20 and 22. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

JL: The
Supreme Price
 illuminates
Nigeria’s past and present through the remarkable story of Hafsat Abiola,
daughter of Nigerian human rights heroine Kudirat Abiola and Nigeria’s
President-elect M.K.O. Abiola, who won a historic vote in 1993 that promised to
end years of military dictatorship. 

Shortly after the election, Abiola’s victory
was annulled and he was arrested. While he was imprisoned, his wife Kudirat
took over leadership of the pro-democracy movement, organizing strikes and rallies and winning international attention for the Nigerian struggle against human-rights
violations perpetrated by the military dictatorship. 

In this political
thriller, the Abiola family’s intimate story unfolds against the epic backdrop
of Nigeria’s evolution from independence in 1960 — through the Biafra War,
subsequent military dictatorships, and the tumultuous transition to civilian
rule — through to the present day — as Hafsat continues to face the challenge of
transforming a corrupt culture of governance into a democracy capable of
serving Nigeria’s most marginalized population: women.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JL: I
was drawn to this particular story because it highlights the efforts of heroic
Nigerian women past and present and portrays their efforts to educate and
protect women, to fight corruption, to hold Nigerian leaders accountable, to
empower the masses to demand true democracy, and to improve their country so
that Nigeria can realize its enormous potential. 

When I began
working on my documentary several years ago, I had no way of knowing that in the months leading
up to the film’s New York premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival,
Nigeria would be front and center in news around the world in response to the
kidnapping of over 250 schoolgirls. My film aims to provide social, political
and cultural context, as well as a historical backdrop for understanding these
recent developments.

Since
completing the film, I have established formal partnerships with Vital Voices, Women for Women International, and Gucci’s
Chime for Change. Audience members who are inspired to act and make a
difference in the lives of Nigerian women after seeing my film can donate
directly to these organizations.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JL: I
would advise women who are producing and directing documentary films to make a
conscious effort to seek out advocates and funders who have a history and
mandate of championing films by and about women. The Supreme Price was fortunate to win the Gucci Tribeca
Spotlighting Women Documentary Award. Subsequently, an extended trailer from my
film was commissioned to launch Gucci’s
Chime for Change Campaign
 for women’s empowerment at the TED Conference and globally. 

Now that the film
has been completed and is ready to launch, the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women
Documentary Award in partnership with the Kering Foundation are presenting the New York Premiere of The Supreme Price at Human Rights Watch Film Festival at
Lincoln Center
. 

IFP
Spotlight on Documentaries supports women directors year after year. I was
invited to present my film there at a very early stage of its development. Through
that forum I made many essential contacts, including Cinephil,
the international sales agent for the film.

Good
Pitch
 creates an
environment that places films by and about women front and center. Filmmakers
who participate in Good Pitch make contacts that are crucial both for
completion of films and for maximizing impact and outreach strategy after a
film is completed. My film was included in Good Pitch in 2012 and that exposure
was crucial to securing completion funding for the film.

The
Supreme Price
 was also funded by MacArthur Foundation, Ford
Foundation/Just Films, ITVS, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and the Gucci Tribeca
Documentary Fund. Most of them hold open calls once or twice a year so
filmmakers can easily apply to their initiatives.

From
an early stage of development onwards, my film was part of Women Makes Movies’ production assistance and fiscal sponsorship program. Women Make Movies has recently acquired The Supreme Price for distribution in North America.

W&H: Name your favorite woman directed film and why.

JL: My
favorite human-rights themed film directed by a woman is Water by Deepa Mehta. This Oscar-nominated
film was the third film in Mehta’s brilliant Elements Trilogy (after Earth and Fire).
It portrays the lives of widows in India in the 1930s.

The
central character in the film is a seven-year old Hindu girl named Chuyia who
is married and widowed before she even has any sense of the meaning of either
state of being. Like millions of other widows from childhood to old age, from
the moment of her husband’s death onwards, she is ripped from her mother’s arms
and dumped by her father at an ashram far away from the family home. Her hair
is immediately shorn down to the scalp and she is expected to live a chaste
life of total mourning and self-renunciation, eating just one meal a day,
dressing only in white, marginalized, isolated, and ostracized in an ashram with
other widows, forbidden from remarrying — forever tainted and devalued by her
husband’s death, which is attributed in part to her sins, for which in accordance
to interpretations of sacred texts, she must spend her life atoning.

The
rebellious spirit of this little girl awakens dormant desire, resilience, and
hope amongst other members of the widow’s house, causing defiance and tension. A
few widows finally dare to question and challenge the crippling rules that have
deprived them of hope, dignity, agency, freedom, and love. One of them, Kalyani, falls in love with Narayan, a progressive-minded young man who is a follower
of Gandhi. But then a series of brutal events intervene, exposing the emotional
and physical violence, perversion, manipulation, hypocrisy, sense of
entitlement, and self-justification that goes on in patriarchal societies — with
devastating impact.

One
life is tragically lost, but another life — that of Chuyia — is saved, and she becomes a symbol of hope, change, and resilience. A stunning musical
score by Mychael Danna and A.R. Rahman adds depth and lyricism as this drama
unfolds.

Deepa
Mehta’s extraordinary film demands contemplation of vital questions that she
herself has eloquently articulated: “As
women, when do we start making compromises with ourselves and at what point do
those compromises become unbearable?”

“How
difficult is it for a woman today anywhere in the world to follow the counsel
of the Bhagvad Gita and, ‘Live like a lotus flower in filthy water — yet remain
untouched by it?”

Deepa
Mehta risked her life to create a powerful, enraging film that thousands, if not
millions, of people — including the government of India — did not want
onscreen. Production of this film was shut down due to death threats made to the filmmaker and the actresses. 

Mehta was targeted because she makes
films that question the interpretations that current Hindu leaders are giving
to the Sacred Texts, in particular as they relate to the treatment of women. There
were riots and protest marches across the country and effigies of the
filmmaker’s body and the film’s sets were ignited on fire. 

Deepa Mehta
was forced to put her film on hold for several years, but she persevered and
finally got to realize her vision in Sri Lanka, where sets were rebuilt and
locations chosen to recreate the period look and feel of Varanasi, India, in the
1930s. She persevered against great adversity to make one of the most gorgeous,
meditative, poetic, deeply emotionally resonant films I have ever seen. 

The
film is extremely rare in that it portrays the many stages of a woman’s life
through its depiction of four distinct female characters, ranging in age from
early childhood to old age — all depicted in beautifully directed, poignant,
exquisitely rendered performances.

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