"Women Are Rising". If there were words that could capture the tone of this year’s festival, it would be these, spoken by presenter Meme Styles — Founder and CEO of Measure. From visceral depictions of bravery to heartening stories of resilience, the 2023 ConnectHer Film Festival (CHFF) showcased the steady rise of talented, young female directors.
Held in Austin, TX, at St. Andrew's Dell Fine Arts Center, the 11th CHFF (that took place on a noteworthy “triple 11 day,” 11/11/2023) had 150 submissions from 24 countries on six continents, confirming our belief that women around the world are done being silent. An esteemed panel of judges narrowed the afternoon screening to 15 films from 21 new storytellers. In addition to the title, winners receive a grant ranging from $1000-$5000 to support future projects and film studies — funded generously by a collection of donors, with Eloise DeJoria serving as the presenting sponsor of the event for the 10th straight year.
When I first started [WomenServe], I really focused on storytelling: raising women’s voices, their stories and the power of stories; listening to women and giving them space,” shared Nioma Narissa Sadler, Founder of WomenServe, Gem & sponsor for the Educating Girls Award. “When I was introduced to Lila and ConnectHER and saw what she was doing here — this is exactly what I envisioned; I just need to support her, and it will be amazing. And it is amazing.
Nioma Narissa Sadler, Sponsor of the Educating Girls Award
“Amazing” was used often throughout the night to describe the caliber of the films, but another recurring word captured why festivalgoers attended the event in the first place.
“I wanted to be inspired.”
This sentiment, declared by semi-finalist judge and attendee Sara Mohazzebi, was an unmistakable characteristic of the audience, made of travelers from across the globe who came to watch and support female filmmakers and stories.
We are living in really complicated, messy times. I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to meet the filmmakers. I wanted to come celebrate them and see them in action.
Sara Mohazzebi, Semi-finalist Judge
And celebrate we did. It's always fun to see old friends gathering at the festival, and it's equally enjoyable to meet people in person for the first time. Meeting two of ConnectHER’s board members, Marne Keller-Krikava and Saba Ternikar (in person!) at our film festival was a highlight. Their authentic passion for our festival and the fact that they came from out of state to join us meant so much. Marne’s organization, Invest in Her Foundation was also a sponsor of this year’s festival! Her genuine enthusiasm, along with her daughter Maddie’s company, added an extra layer of warmth to the occasion.
The films covered the physical abuse of women through genital cutting (highlighted in Judge’s Choice 1st Runner-Up Lydia Okon’s A Girl Born in the Wrong Place) to the emotional and psychological abuse endured in digital spaces (finalist Olivia Koop’s The Virtual Reality), it’s easy to find sorrow and even anger in the glaring disparities brought to life that women and girls go through in their daily endeavors. But it’s because of these stories that we gather at all. It’s because of these stories that we find tenacity and perseverance. We see victims become victors and strangers becoming advocates. We celebrate not only the courage of our filmmakers to tell these stories but also the inevitable change they’re creating.
Echoing the need for celebration was the beautiful performance by “Let It Happen,” a Netherlands-based dance group consisting of Rosa and her older twin sisters, Norah and Yarah. With styles influenced by Hip-Hop, R&B and their father’s Congolese roots, the trio uses dance to spark joy and inspire connection across borders and generations with their infectious blend of high energy and positivity.
At a young age, it always felt good to dance. It felt very natural because music was always in our home. We hope to inspire people, spread positivity, and hopefully make a change with dancing.
Yarah, Member of Let It Happen
The theme of change continued as the day’s festivities transitioned into the meet and greet portion, with exclusive first looks at two ConnectHer Films in partnership with the Gates Foundation and a panel discussion with ConnectHer alumnae hosted by 14X award-winning filmmaker and Founder/CEO of Women Rising®, Sara Hirsh Bordo. Ms. Hirsh Bordo was joined on stage by filmmakers Anabella Funk, Aneta Felix and newly added alumna Aria Harrell to discuss how they find inspiration, encourage it and what the next level of storytelling looks like post-CHFF.
Hirsh Bordo: “Is storytelling enough anymore? Or does it have to have an element of change?”
Harrell: “You tell a story to tell a story, and then the impact comes. Telling a story is beautiful in itself. My brain is like a metaphor for life: If people get the message from that, you've done your job.
Felix: “I think that telling a story can be enough, and when it comes to impact, impact can differ in several ways. [There are] situations where [people] agreed to speak to me, and at the end of the interview, they tell me this was therapy.”
Funk: “I agree. I would say that sometimes you don't know how much of an impact you will have on a viewer [... or] the next generation of changemakers.”
Halimah Tariq, past CHFF winner and current ConnectHER fellow, also took part in the panel and shared more details about her upcoming documentary release, “Shadow” — one of the two films selected by the Gates Foundation at this year’s PitchFest. The partnership stemmed from the two organizations’ mutual focus on global health and financial independence for women. When asked how she hopes to define the impact of her latest project, which highlights the current taboos about mental illness in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Ms. Tariq responded that dismantling this stigma is the impact she’s championing:
“Personally, when I make a film, when I'm putting it together, I think of people who will end up watching it and the women who are, let's say, experiencing that moment or experiencing that issue, and ask: ‘Will this film or will this story be able to help them in any way? What kind of impact would it have on them?”
We concluded the night with the award ceremony, with the final category, Judges’ Choice Award, presented by CHFF Judge Sydney Chandler.
Stories have saved me: They are one of the few things to challenge, change and heal.
Sydney Chandler, Actor, Judge & Presenter for the Judges’ Choice Award
After the Judge’s 2nd and 1st Choice Runner-Ups were announced (respectively Pirouz, Anonymous and A Girl Born in the Wrong Place, Lydia Okon), Chenxi “Rita” Xiang was awarded the Grand Prize with her piece “One Step Forward,” a documentation of her childhood friend, Ade, and her journey to becoming a physician. Growing up in Tibet as neighbors, Ms. Xiang had a first-hand view of Ade’s growth and knew that one day, she would share her story with others. Ade was not only the inspiration for her film but also inspired Chenxi to study abroad and supported her throughout the process. It was this message of empowerment and stepping outside of one’s comfort that Chenxi wished to share with audiences.
This is why the documentary is called "One Step Forward": I want to share with more people how, if you take one step outside of your comfort zone, if you take one step outside and have that encouragement to take that step, then things will be very different.
Chenxi “Rita” Xiang, Filmmaker
ConnectHER exists to create that difference. A world where things are different for women and girls to express themselves freely. The stories we saw highlighted the intense need for change, with the absences of filmmakers from Gaza and anonymous film submissions stark reminders of how far we still have to go.
But we’re going. These films inspire us to keep going.