At this year’s Skoll World Forum, I spoke on a panel about Empathetic Storytelling and the Moral Imagination and referenced Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and the Auden poem “Musee des Beaux Arts’ that is now its companion.
The tiny white legs of Icarus disappearing into the sea are the subject of the work but, off to one side and barely visible, they will pass into the depths unnoticed unless someone calls attention to them. That act of drawing the eye to the urgent unwitnessed is an essential work of many documentary filmmakers.
At the Forum’s Closing Plenary, Tabitha Jackson (director of Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program) sat on the stage asking beautifully sculptured questions of the activist and rapper Sonita, subject of the documentary directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and winner of both the Word Cinema’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
In the documentary filmed by Ghaem Maghami in her homeland of Iran, Sonita’s energy imbues every frame. Even when she is disconsolate and without hope for her position having fled forced marriage in Afghanistan, her fierce determination reaches us and moves us.
On stage on this last day at the Forum we saw a young woman artist finding her way to speak as she wants to speak and walking the delicate line of love for family and struggle for identity, in her case sharpened to a scissor point by the family's attempts to sell her into marriage.
In this moment, what struck me most was the awesome power of film and why, therefore, this very event showed that the Skoll | Stories of Change partnership makes sense. Though Sonita was not a film fostered through the partnership, it gave evidence to the very reason such an alliance can work.
Sonita was a young woman facing a horrible challenge—forced child marriage—one that is faced by many young Afghani girls. But she crossed paths with a skillful, passionate filmmaker. The revelation of her struggles and her strength revealed through film elevated Sonita’s individual crisis to something akin to a cause.
She went from being a young woman trying to forge her own life with her dreams and hopes in tact to one who can stand and speak for many now, not just herself. The act of art is to elevate the individual into a universal. The life-altering factor in Sonita’s evolution was film: both the documentary that Ghaem Maghami made and, as part of that process, the music video she helped the fledgling hip hop artist create so her voice could be heard.
I am always conscious of the stories not told, the passionate moments not written down, the remarkable lives lived in private that no one sees. We fool ourselves into thinking that the stories we need to hear are the ones that get told, but stories and films come from artists attuned to their particular resonance. The ones who notice the “white legs.” The other stories—amazing, powerful life affirming tales that are lived but not noted by an artist or storyteller—stay in the realm of the private and pass away often without adding to our collective knowing.
That’s why I loved that moment onstage at the end of the Forum. Sonita quietly answering Tabitha’s questions, which were carefully constructed not to overstep the private considerations of the young woman, who is still a teenager, trying to speak for herself and learning to speak for others. Sonita has been cast in the role of a global activist as a result of the observation of a filmmaker. That is a role she is slowly learning to inhabit.
The film can travel now, and it is, and it can be watched over and over again repeatedly revealing to new audiences the challenge at its heart. But the person elevated into the light by a documentary has to evolve the public voice they want to speak with, in a life made visible. They may be asked to tell their story over and again, but the heart needs privacy and life needs time.
As Tabitha mentioned that day, Sonita is often now juggling multiple commitments—to meet with the first lady, for example, to develop her artistry, and to complete her geometry homework. But the Sonita held in the film can forever evidence her message.
Nicole Newnham and I brought our virtual reality film Collisions to the World Forum as well, another story locked away for 70 years waiting for a means to travel and be heard. At the Forum, the Skoll Awarded Social Entrepreneurs who watched it saw in it the potential to take the audience to the very ground where their stories live, where terrible things are happening and no one is paying attention.
The sense of being present is the mark of virtual reality and it is clear there is much it could contribute to the aims of social entrepreneurs who struggle in remote corners of the world to ignite a passion for something we might all otherwise easily ignore—the soundless tragedy happening off to one side.
There is no doubt their stories are powerful, and they are many. I held my breath slightly at every card carefully handed to me after each viewing of Collisions. I knew the person offering me their connection had in their mind a story that was probably profound, important, and needing to be told… and I also knew I could not tell them all.
Some might emerge because they ring with a tone that I believe resonates with me and therefore I can sculpt, and others from the Sundance delegation may find a note that calls them too. For the rest, these are the stories we may never know, the Sonitas who might have found their way out of forced marriage but not into our hearts via the sheer determination not just of herself but of her filmmaker.
This Stories of Change partnership is a visionary one because of what it has the potential to connect, the obsessive passions of both a filmmaker and a social activist. Those of us who attended with Sundance were inspired and humbled everyday by the people we encountered and the work they are doing.
I have in mind a work I think I could create with a social entrepreneur I feel a particular bond with. If it happens it will take years and it will take effort and a large slice of my life. Those other beautiful stories that I cannot tell, I offer them my hope that another artist might find them and bring them into the light.