The trailer for Lisa Russell’s newest film opens with Ethiopian b-roll layered against ethereal chanting and birdsong—a boy drives a donkey cart, pelicans lounge in a scruffy lagoon. The camera pans from a pair of green flip-flops up a long orange skirt, to a teenage girl’s pink-and-white jacket. She strolls away, towards a thatch-fenced village. “My name is Tigist,” she tells us in Amharic.
In the next shot, Tigist leans against a lime-colored wall. Her body is angled defensively, but she faces the camera. Here, with our first glimpse of her even features and enviable cheekbones, Tigist tells us not about herself, but that her father is named Dawit, amplifying a reality of Ethiopian culture—to be female is to be “other,” defined in relation to men.
Tigist recounts her rape at the tea-room where she worked, how she has no support, how she needs an abortion. When Tigist faces us again, her expression is almost bemused. “I’m afraid of the procedure, but what shall I do?”
Bekah Dinnerstein was Russell’s on-location camera assistant in Zeway, Eithiopia. “Tigist was so sweet-faced,” Dinnerstein recalls. “Her innocence—she’s been through this horrible thing and she’s still wide-eyed. These girls expected ‘mama-ness’ from Lisa. That doesn’t usually happen, so I think it shook her.”
Russell, 39, and Dinnerstein, 20, met Tigist in March of 2008 while working on the short Not Yet Rain. Funded by the NGO Ipas and scheduled for a Washington D.C. premiere on World Health Day (April 7), Not Yet Rain documents the challenges Ethiopian women face in seeking safe abortions.
From her Clinton Hill basement kitchen, Russell ticks off countries she’s visited, recycling fingers to get through the round. When’s she’s not skimming continents, she walks her dogs, drinks at neighborhood bars (“You can get her on a plane, but you can’t get her to leave Brooklyn,” her roommate Louvisa Inserra jokes), and tries to coax veggies from a semi-cooperative plot of backyard.
A neighborhood acquaintance, hip-hop artist Pete Miser labels Russell “a Brooklyn hipster, but not in the Williamsburg sense of the word.” As a Clinton Hill hipster, Russell “doesn’t have the expensive hat, but she has the inexpensive hat tilted just the right way.”
Brooklyn is home now, but Russell was raised in Ventura, California—a place she labels “too small for my head.” Her single mother was savvy enough to support two kids and a schizophrenic grandmother on waitress tips, yet callow enough to remark upon visiting Clinton Hill, “I almost moved us to a black neighborhood, but I worried. And you go and move there yourself!”
Russell tosses her eyes ceiling-ward, like maybe the details of her past are written on air. “It was hard for me in high school, I challenged her a lot on it,” she remembers. “It might be because my mother was the way she was.”
Inserra puts it less clinically—“Lisa’s self-made. Now she wants to help the underdog.”
Her thrifty mother advised against dance, so Russell entered pre-med at UC Santa Barbara. She volunteered in the ER, ran a group home, and worked with the Red Cross in HIV/AIDS education. But she wanted to leave California more than she wanted med school so she packed her car and moved to Boston.
There, she took Harvard continuing-ed classes. In 1992 “nobody was talking about HIV/AIDS in terms of human rights or social issues. It was scientific and medical, and that’s how they were teaching it,” she surmises. “And then there was Jonathan Mann.”
One day her professor showed a video of the late Jonathan Mann, former head of the World Health Organization’s AIDS division. Fifteen years later, Russell becomes reverent as she describes the experience. She tugs her sleeves over her fists, her lithe body rocking under the enormousness of this legacy.
“He talked about sex workers in Thailand and pregnant women in Zaire,” she recounts. “In that 15 minute film, everything started to come together for me.”
Mann taught at Harvard, but as a continuing ed. student, Russell wasn’t able to register for his class. She left a rambling message on his machine. She must have been persuasive, because he called back and said, “You’re welcome to sit in.” A few years later, Russell graduated from Boston University with a Masters of Public Health. The shiny degree landed her a consulting gig with UN AIDS and soon after, an administrative position at refuge camps in Albania and Kosovo.
Russell recalls that in Kosovo: “We were in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy, and there were these two women, heads of NGOs, and I could tell they were pissed off. They asked, ‘what’s going on with the journalists?’ They said there was a journalist who went into the camp and said ‘I’m doing a story on the use of rape as a weapon in times of crisis, if you’ve been raped, can you raise your hand?’”
Her eyes widen—“yeah”—she nods and opens her palms, a nonverbal “really?” to communicate her horror. “They said ‘you know, at the end of this war, we will no longer be remembered as Kosovar women, but as Kosovar women who’ve been raped.’ And that stuck with me.”
In 2000, Russell’s friend Julia Black sought help in co-producing a Channel 4 London segment for World AIDS Day. Still mulling over the insensitivity of the camp journalists, Russell traveled to Brazil to document the government’s struggle against pharmaceutical patents. If the government could manufacture its own generic HIV meds, Brazil could treat more patients for less money. It was an action story: somebody was doing something to make things better. This was what she wanted to see in the media.
Russell speaks of Brazil as another “evolution in realizing...basically, I wanted to meet people and tell their stories, advocate for people. But I wanted to use filmmaking as a tool, instead of sitting at a desk as program manager…it allows me to feel more in tune with the people I’m trying to help.”
When Russell made Love Labor Loss in 2003, obstetric fistula was virtually unknown in the developed world. In 2003 Russell went to Niger and tracked five women seeking treatment for this preventable and treatable condition that results from prolonged labor or rape. The film avoids narration and interpretation. The women simply tell their own stories, in their own voices.
In 2005 Russell and Zap Mama, who donated music to the film, arranged a 16-city Woman Tour that combined screenings with concerts and Q&As. Four years later, there are still requests for the film. “When people walk away from Love Labor Loss, I want them to know how they can help,” Russell says.
In her short career as a filmmaker, Russell has been unbelievably prolific. Or perhaps “visionary” is a more apt term. Since Love Labor Loss, she has shot and edited two features and a dozen short documentaries. Her docs are about African activists, Palestinian-American slam poets and food insecurity in Malawi.
Palestinian-American poet Tahani Saleh, who has collaborated with Russell, notes that she “leaves an open space. There’s this whole idea of judging from behind the lens, and she wants people to let go of that and be comfortable sharing.”
Despite the (sometimes grudging) attention Russell has received for her ability to go into Africa alone and anytime, and return with the raw makings of a film, she doesn’t come across as a diva. In a tour of her “office”—really, a large closet off the bedroom—with neon-green walls and towering piles of digital video tapes, Russell seems very real. It’s this mischievous, excitable, jeans-and-Brooklyn-hoodie, hair-in-need-of-a-trim kind of real. When she says she doesn’t have Sundance ambitions, you’re inclined to believe her.
But the fact remains, the “advocacy” she provides is plagued with inherent controversy. She’s a Westerner in Africa, flashing camera equipment that the average African could never hope to own in a lifetime, asking the “natives” to share the most intimate and traumatic details of their lives. What’s more, she’s a white Westerner.
Activist, musician and former Black Panther Charlotte O’Neal hosted Russell during a Tanzanian shoot. “I don’t consider Lisa a ‘white American’…because of the way that she moves through the world, sans the baggage and privilege of what being ‘white’ entails,” she explains.
Russell describes herself as “a fourth Chinese, raised in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood.”
“She has Chinese, she has Hawaiian,” says Saleh.
“I don’t want to be seen as the white girl that saves Africa. I don’t.” Russell slams her palm on the table for emphasis. “My work focuses on social injustice, and you can’t talk about social injustice without talking about women and without talking about black people. The places I’m going to end up are the places where people are most marginalized.”
Saleh says, “People seem to believe in what Lisa does. There’s not a lot of her opinion in her films. It’s more the opinion of the people in the situation she’s dealing with. It’s like, through the lens, Lisa is the facilitator of the discussion,” she explains.
“She sometimes gets the feeling that other people think it’s weird. But I think it’s not so much Africa, it’s more the issues. You have to start somewhere,” says Inserra.
Myth of the Motherland co-producer Carlos Gomez acknowledges the elephant. “Africans have their own films but they aren’t going to be seen here, as unjust as that is. If Lisa tells the story, it will have more power.”
Myth of the Motherland, Russell’s first film that isn’t backed by an organization, is part absolution, part self-interrogation. The promotional poster bears the face of a teenage African boy and the words, “AIDS, famine, poor, illiteracy, slave, war, violence.” The tag reads, “Is this all we know about Africa?” Despite her self-conscious approach, despite the use of African voices, Russell knows her films are dangerous on topic alone, threatening to propagate the dismally proverbial “African” image that pervades American sensibility.
When she finishes Myth Russell hopes to “put the film in the hands of the poets” so they can “go out, do performances, screen the film and talk to their peers.” The goal of the project is to celebrate African diversity, to capture different religions, cultures and geographies, and to provoke creative discussion around these issues. To that end, her poet-collaborators have kept a blog and composed poetry about their journeys.
Ultimately Russell gains the trust of others because she absolutely trusts herself. In an interview, a Congolese woman told her, “If you go back to the States and you don’t make things better for us, it is as if you are raping us twice.”
Recalling her response, Russell clasps her hands in conviction. “I said, ‘Fair enough. I will.’” Russell has no doubt that her work will have positive consequences, and she liberally makes her films available to the public. On World AIDS Day 2008, We Will Not Die Like Dogs became available online at SnagFilms.
We Will Not Die Like Dogs inverts the script of “victimized Africa” through presenting African voices and keeping the focus positive. The film’s characters educate and counsel, flirt with their husbands, celebrate their children. Yes, they have HIV, but they are healthy, strong and mobilized.
“Lisa wants you to see that this woman is worth caring about, that she’s like you and me, your mom, your sister, your girlfriend,” Dinnerstein says. “But Lisa’s also a poet. She doesn’t think she’s a poet, and if she writes, she doesn’t share it. But she definitely has a poet’s sensibility of noticing things. She has a poet’s heart.”
And she has a former painter’s cinematography—tight shots, attention to eyes and expressions—a former dancer’s rhythmic edits and a piano player’s skillfully chosen music. “Everything I’ve done, everything in my life, has led me to this point,” Russell muses.
If you’re Russell, if you go to work and realize that, first off, you’ll need to comfort a teenage rape victim, if you’re faced with a girl, who, just now through violence, learned the how-come of conception, if it’s your job to convince her that during her abortion, she’s not going to die, if something like this happens often in your typical workday, the notion that the universe bears any kind of divine logic must seem cruel and absurd. But simultaneously, without a vague sense that on some plane or in some reality, justice does exist, it would be impossible to muster the courage and empathy to keep doing your job.
“She’s seen a lot of hard things, but her heart’s standard is that the world should be good,” Dinnerstein says.
Russell’s brand is an eyes-wide-open kind of optimism. “Anyone who tries to tell these stories has to be hopeful. She chooses to be hopeful. And she’s led by that,” insists Gomez.
At the moment, Russell is beyond hopeful. She laughs, tremendously and authentically, her head thrown back, mouth open, palms bracing dark wood. Her peals puncture the orange glow. Russell’s laughter is an event. It’s disarming, oddly wizened and ingenuous, like the woman herself.
On the Myth of the Motherland blog, Dinnerstein chronicles her impressions from Ethiopia: “The true language is laughter and stomach growl, that’s the real poem; everything in between can be a lesson in grammar.”
For Lisa Russell, it starts with stomach growl and it ends with laughter. And there are a few continents in between.
Cheree Franco will graduate from Columbia University in May, with an M.A. in Arts & Culture Journalism.