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

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood June 19, 2014 at 2:22PM

"When I began working on my documentary several years ago, I had no way of knowing that 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 for understanding these recent developments."
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"The Supreme Price"
"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.

This article is related to: Women Directors, Interviews, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Documentary, Joanna Lipper, The Supreme Price


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