Dreamer & Disrupter: Sophia Kruz uses her films and nonprofit to help women worldwide
On Wednesday, February 8 at 6 pm, "Dreamers and Disruptors" will invade the University of Michigan campus. That's the theme of this year's TEDxUofM event, which aims to “showcase some of the most fascinating thinkers and doers from the University of Michigan community.” (The event is sold out, but it will be livestreamed for free.)
Sophia Kruz, a filmmaker and Ann Arbor native, is one of this year’s dreamers and disrupters, and she'll give a talk about her new movie, Little Stones. In an email conversation with Pulp, Kruz described the film as "an uplifting story of four women artists in India, Brazil, Senegal, Kenya, Germany, and the U.S. courageously working to end female genital mutilation (FGM), extreme poverty, sex trafficking, and domestic violence through art -- dance, graffiti, fashion, and music."
We talked to the Los Angeles-based Kruz about her project, how it’s changed since the inauguration, her new nonprofit Driftseed, and more.
Q: The theme of TEDxUofM this year is “Dreamers and Disruptors.” Do you think the women whose stories you tell fit that description? How about yourself?
A: Absolutely, these women are dreamers and disruptors! With about 1 billion people living on less than $1 per day, you have to be a dreamer to believe you, as an individual, can make a dent in that issue. Luckily, Anna Taylor, an American fashion designer we profile in Little Stones, has figured out a way to impact the lives of hundreds of women who were living in poverty in Nairobi, Kenya, through her clothing line Judith & James.
Similarly, with an estimated 20 million women and girls trapped in forced prostitution globally, you’d have to be a dreamer to think you could have an impact on enough survivors to move the needle on such a massive issue. Thankfully, Sohini Chakraborty, who we also profile in Little Stones, has found a way to use dance movement therapy to heal thousands of women in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I find these women’s stories empowering because they are taking on these huge global issues and finding a way to use their own talents to bring about positive change in other women’s lives.
For myself, that’s harder to answer. I think from traveling around the world, talking to individual survivors, women who are using art to create change, and also experts in international development and women’s rights, I’ve had the chance to look closely at these issues from a variety of vantage points. I’m optimistic when thinking about the resilience of survivors and the audacity of the dreamers who believe they can make an impact on the issues -- and actually are! At the same time, I’ve had to confront the scale of these issues, and in some cases, particularly FGM, it was discouraging to hear from women and girls in rural villages in Senegal who didn’t really think it would be possible to eradicate that particular form of violence against women in their communities.
I’m generally a positive person, though, and hope that Little Stones inspires more women and MEN to think outside the box and use their own creativity to come up with solutions to these issues. I also think there are challenges in the way major non-governmental organizations (NGOs, or non-profits) operate globally and would like to see more of these smaller initiatives, like the ones I’ve featured in the film, which are developed primarily by local community leaders, championed in the press, and supported by donors. These smaller initiatives, to me, are able to be disruptive, creative, and scrappy because they are so close to the issue. To get off the ground, they require dreamers to think creatively around restraints (usually financial), but they have the potential to create a major impact on these issues that we’ve been aware of for decades. When there are multiple small, creative projects working simultaneously with different target populations, the cumulative impact will be great, particularly as these ideas begin to scale up. As Sister Fa says when reflecting on global FGM, “Each NGO will tell you that my approach is the best. I think everyone is doing a good job, but it’s still not enough. I think we need to join our power together to eradicate this practice in the very new future, and stop saying my own [approach] is good, and the others are not good.”
Q: I know it is important to you that the team working on the film is women-led. Why?
A: It started as a practical necessity, actually. I knew in certain interviews, like with survivors of FGM in Senegal and sex-trafficking in India, it just wouldn’t be possible to have men in the room. The subject matter is taboo, so getting women to talk about their experiences on camera, I knew we would need all-female interpreters and also a woman cinematographer behind the camera. I wanted the women onscreen to feel comfortable sharing their stories and for our interviews to be a positive, maybe even cathartic experience. At the very least, I didn’t want to retraumatize the women and girls we filmed.
Prior to shooting Little Stones, I had only worked with male cinematographers at PBS and on other projects. That’s actually not so crazy, considering only 3% of cinematographers are women. Eventually, I was connected to Meena Singh, who lives in Los Angeles. At the time, I was based in Ann Arbor, so we met for our first shoot at New York Fashion Week, which was only for a couple days. The next time I saw Meena, she was getting off the plane in Kolkata, and we spent the next three weeks pretty much side by side. Luckily, we hit it off and are now best friends.
We started a nonprofit together, along with Meena’s cousin Ankita Singh, called Driftseed, which will be running the Little Stones outreach and education campaign. This film never would’ve been made without Meena’s support. She kept me sane on the road, donated her camera and her time on shoots when funds were tight, and has championed the project to all the people she knows in Hollywood so we could get it done and out into the world. It’s not that I don’t think a man would’ve been as passionate about this project, because there are also talented men (including my future husband) who believed in Little Stones and lent their skills to help us get it done, but personally, having Meena on every shoot ended up being the key to my ability to do my job as producer/director.
As we moved into the post-production phase and I started hiring more artists to work on the film, it started to become more of a mission to get as many women on the team as possible. I learned that, like cinematographers, on top-grossing films most composers are men -- only 2% are women! -- and that there aren’t nearly enough women editors (only 17%!), so the least I could do was try to hire women.
We also had a small budget and were asking people to work below their normal rate, and women in the film industry totally “got” the project and wanted to help. They made this film great, from Morningstar Schott at Technicolor, who got us in the door for color correction and sound mix at one of the top studios in L.A., to Karoliina Tuovinen, our wonderful editor who helped shape the film and tied each of the four stories into one, to our exceptional composer Amritha Vaz who made it her personal mission to get as many female musicians as possible to record the score -- even on traditionally male-dominated instruments like the kora -- to Rose Jaffe and Dawn Mendelson who designed and created the mosaic for our title animation, and all the young women who worked as volunteers and interns throughout production, post, and now in our outreach campaign. I love that this film is about women artists, by a team of talented, passionate, diverse, women artists.
Q: Has the meaning of the project shifted since the election and inauguration?
A: I don’t think it’s shifted, but it’s certainly become more urgent and meaningful to American women. For example, we created T-shirts for the Ann Arbor test screening of Little Stones and I got a number of texts from friends, family, and colleagues saying they wore their tees to the Women’s March. As one woman said, “I wore my Little Stones shirt as I carried a sign and wore pink kitty ears with my daughter and friends at the Women's March in A2 on Saturday. Those beautiful women speaking out about gender-based violence seemed like the perfect shirt for the occasion.”
I’ve also had a few organizations reach out since the march, asking if they can screen the film on their campus or at their community movie theater. Yes, you can! Here’s how: littlestones.org/hostscreening. So it’s clear Americans are ready to hear more POSITIVE stories about individuals working to create social change.
Personally, after working on Little Stones for nearly 4 years, I’ve felt a renewed sense of purpose, and hope that although the stories we tell in the film are global, it will inspire more dialogue and action within the U.S. around gender-based violence, domestic violence, forced labor and trafficking, the gender-pay gap, reproductive rights, and more. As I travel and speak about Little Stones in the coming months, I’ll be focusing my talks on women’s issues closer to home and what American audiences, including MEN, can do to support gender equality locally.
Q: Talk more about the nonprofit you started alongside the film. How can people learn more about supporting the film and the organization?
A: Driftseed is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that was founded by me, Little Stones cinematographer/co-producer Meena Singh, and Meena’s cousin Ankita Singh, who is a lawyer based in Washington, D.C. Driftseed seeks to empower women and girls locally and globally through documentary storytelling. We’ve partnered with the University of Michigan School of Education to create lesson plans, resources, and discussion guides to support high school and university screenings of Little Stones. We’re also working with them to develop a TAKE ACTION resource guide, so viewers of Little Stones can learn more about how they can donate, volunteer, shop, create art, and otherwise support the fight for gender equality globally. These bonus materials, along with bonus educational videos, clips from the film and interviews with Meena and I, will be free on the Little Stones website later this year.
Driftseed is also starting to develop new documentary projects, including a feature focused on American women in the modern workplace. Driftseed also offers fiscal sponsorship to other women filmmakers creating documentaries about women’s issues, lending our non-profit status to other worthy projects. Our first fiscally sponsored film is called Break the Chain about human trafficking in Michigan by former Driftseed intern and documentary producer/director Laura Swanson, and everyone should go watch the trailer for her film now, and make sure to go to one of her upcoming screenings in Michigan that start in February 2017.
Q: You are coming back from L.A. where you recently moved, for the first time as a visitor to Ann Arbor after having lived here your whole life. What's that like?
A: Cold! Just kidding. I love Ann Arbor. Family, friends, former colleagues, and nearly all our organizational, funding, and education partners for Little Stones are based in Michigan. It’s fun and energizing to see everyone again, but also a bittersweet reminder of the wonderful community that I’m no longer a member of. Los Angeles is big, and I’m still finding my way there. I love how small and supportive Ann Arbor is, but my dream is to reach more people and have an impact beyond my hometown. To do that, I feel the need to be in a place that funds larger-budget documentaries and distributes them to an international audience. In L.A., that really seems possible.
Anna Prushinskaya is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. More at annaprushinskaya.com.
Catch Sophia Kruz, and many other Dreamers and Disruptors at TEDxUofM on Wednesday, February 8 at 6 pm on campus or via livestream. To learn more about Driftseed and to stay up to date on "Little Stones," join the mailing list. To make a tax-deductible donation to support future Driftseed films and the "Little Stones" outreach and education campaign, head to driftseed.org/donate.