To say this woman is a true light to the advancement of women and girls all around the world would be an understatement. Executive Director of Women’s Voices Now, Heidi-Basch Harod is using her platform to elevate the lives of our girls through film. With a background as a journalist and activist, as well as being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the path Heidi has taken, her mission to tell the stories of women who are facing their challenges and working to overcome them, aligns with her values and plays a huge role in her passion to highlight what the world seems to dismiss.
Heidi has worked with the Los Angeles-based Women’s Voices Now non-profit since 2012. The organization hosts an annual film festival for women’s films that focus on issues affecting women and girls. Over the years they’ve received more than 825 films into their festival, with submissions from over 80 countries, and currently hold a collection of 200 films in 40 languages on their website. They also produce short films on social change through their youth program Girls’ Voices Now, with one of the films, Under the Scarf, winning a Daytime Emmy award in 2021.
In this interview, Heidi lets us in on her journey from working on the Hill and serving lemon water to the Dalai Lama, the personal event that molded her passion for fighting for women’s voices, why it’s important women and girls of color tell their stories behind a camera and what impact Women’s Voices Now works to have on our world.
The Realist Woman: A little about you. Where are you from originally?
Heidi Basch-Harod: I was born in San Pedro, CA, a small city that is part of Los Angeles. On my mother’s side, we are Sicilian, shepherds, and fishermen from two villages west of the City of Palermo. Her parents came to the United States as children because in Sicily there was little food and even less opportunity, and if there was, it meant the mafia was probably involved. On my dad’s side, his parents were both Holocaust survivors who came from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in what is today Ukraine but was Hungary during World War II. They had nothing left, including little to no family, and came to America to try to re-establish their humanity. I say this because these heritages and their histories have very much shaped my work and my worldview, and it’s very important to me to remember where I come from, who came before me. It keeps me grounded and focused.
The Realist Woman: What did life look like before Women’s Voices Now?
Heidi Basch-Harod: I left home at the age of 17 to study at UC Berkeley and I didn’t come home to live until I was 31. Between college and my early 30s, I lived many lives. I worked on Capitol Hill for Congressman Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S House of Representatives, founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and Chair of what was then called the House International Relations Committee. On the first day of my internship, I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and served him a cup of lemon water. This was so special to me because throughout college I was part of the Students for a Free Tibet movement, and a volunteer, and then a team member of the Tibetan Nuns Project. So meeting His Holiness in D.C. felt quite special.
After working in Congress I ended up living in Israel where I went to single-handedly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not so successful in that regard. I worked at the Palestine-Israel Journal and came to understand the role of history in the Middle East, how important it is, how alive it is, and how it contributes to the dynamics of the conflict. I decided to study Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University and focused on women’s rights movements in the Middle East. I was particularly captivated by the ongoing women’s rights revolution being experienced by Kurdish women and wrote a master’s thesis about Kurdish women’s struggle for gender parity in Turkey. It was published as a monograph by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. While living in Israel I also met my husband and lived a very exciting and full life in Tel Aviv, one of the most vibrant and happening cities in the world.
I love to travel and, before having my three precious children, used to do it quite often. Some of my favorite places to be in were and are Morocco and India.
The Realist Woman: What inspired the forming of Women’s Voices Now? How did it come to be?
Heidi Basch-Harod: WVN is a Los Angeles-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2010 on the idea that women’s voices and their struggle for equality around the world should be amplified. And furthermore, that film can bring awareness to girl’s and women’s rights issues while forming and mobilizing a community committed to action.
This was the vision of founder and seed-funder Leslie Sacks, that sparked WVN’s first project: “Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival.” Sadly, after a decade-long battle with cancer, Mr. Sacks died in 2013, but his untiring quest for justice lives on in WVN’s mission.
The organization has continued to evolve. Today, WVN strives to challenge gender-based stereotypes, change mindsets, and shift the culture in favor of women’s rights globally. Specifically, we work to address the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of women and girls, especially women and girls of color, in front of and behind the camera through three core programs: our online film festival; our youth development program, Girls’ Voices Now; and our free online film collection, Voices for Change.
“By supporting women filmmakers who produce social-change films about women’s issues, we engage audiences in advancing girls’ and women’s rights.”
The Realist Woman: What is your background with cinema? What are the reasons behind using this as your platform to enact change?
Heidi Basch-Harod: Prior to Women’s Voices Now, I had no background in cinema. Arguably, I still have very little background in the technical side of filmmaking. I come from an educational background, journalism, government, and activism. Nevertheless, film, as we know, has an incredible influence on all of us. Film reaches audiences far and wide, and with the internet, barriers to access this kind of content are fewer and fewer, year after year. Film is a powerful cultural influencer. Most importantly, film raises awareness and generates empathy on a scale that few other communications in media can.
As well, we know that the film industry perpetuates negative stereotypes against women and girls. But in that fact lies the opportunity to flip the script, so to speak. At Women’s Voices Now, we have developed a unique approach that challenges biases toward women in the industry, whether behind the camera or in front of the camera; and, the obstacles faced by women when seeking access to funding and the networks necessary to make their films. By supporting women filmmakers who produce social-change films about women’s issues, we engage audiences in advancing girls’ and women’s rights.
The Realist Woman: What prompted you to become an advocate for women’s rights? Was it any specific news story or event in your life?
Heidi Basch-Harod: This is both complicated and personal, so bear with me. I mentioned I have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. I never met my grandmother, but I was close with my grandfather who survived Buchenwald and Dachau. He spent the last 15 years of his life telling his story to children ages 10-18 at schools throughout Southern California. He re-lived his experiences regularly to do his part to teach what happens when people “other” one another, to the point of complete dehumanization. He always ended his presentations with something of a fable where two children, a little boy, and a little girl, are asked to remember that we must be each other’s keepers. That we must care about each other, be kind, and resist hatred and fear. I took that to heart at the age of 10 and know it is the founding principle of my work.
The more complicated part. I have a biological father. He and my mother’s marriage was an arranged one. Not a forced one, but an arranged one. My mother had no voice at the age of 17 when she met him, and no self-agency when she married him at 19. And when she had me at 21 and saw that his physical and psychological abuse would be extended to me as well as her, she found the courage to leave.
Growing up, I recognized a pattern amongst the women in my mother’s family. Women must accept their destinies as wives and mothers. They are not expected or encouraged to have their own dreams, an education, a sense of self outside the family unit. I have witnessed how it affects the health and well-being of women and the men in my family. Then I realized it’s all around us and it really stems from women not having a voice, a say, in the trajectory of their own lives — personally and professionally.
I was very fortunate that my mother recognized how she got to the place she did. She raised me differently, always listening to my voice and what I thought I wanted to learn, who I wanted to become, the experiences I needed to have in order to self-actualize. She couldn’t do it for herself but she figured out how to help me be my own person.
Since this is so personal, and since my mom fought for me, I feel that I need to fight for women and their voices every day of my life. I understand it is not my job to save anyone or to “lead them to the light”. But, to be part of creating a space where that light does shine and reaching women who might be inspired because they didn’t know it shines for them too. That’s why I do this. To bring about a little more light into the world. Especially these days, I feel we need all that we can get.
The Realist Woman: Is there an issue involving women WVN hasn’t covered thus far?
Heidi Basch-Harod: While we have films that cover tens of salient women’s rights topics, I hope to see stories of Rohingya women who had to flee from Myanmar. I’m curious to see what filmmakers are seeking to understand from the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also so many fights over the legalization of abortion — not only in the United States but also in several countries in South America, Central Europe. The ongoing controversy over a women’s right to choose whether or not to reproduce is something I cannot wrap my head around. I would love to understand more about why this is so challenging a concept to accept. Perhaps, through film, I will get a glimpse into mindsets with which I don’t see eye to eye, and from there see if there isn’t a way to move the needle on this issue that seems to be the most prominent indication of the ongoing denial of women’s humanity.
“In our experience of sharing films with audiences all over the world, the feedback we receive or witness ourselves is how space is created for difficult conversations about taboo issues.”
The Realist Woman: What is the process for submitting a film to the Women’s Voices Now film festival? Walk us through the process, eligibility requirements, and what determines eligibility for a submission to be accepted?
Heidi Basch-Harod: Over the years the WVN team has worked to eliminate the barriers to enter films in our festival. We do have a submission fee which helps to cover the administrative costs of reviewing films for the festival. We use the very user-friendly FilmFreeway platform to receive submissions.
Our Film Festival promotes women and femme-identifying filmmakers using social-change films to advocate for women’s and girls’ rights around the world. So the goals of the festival include:
– Providing a platform for emerging filmmakers telling essential, authentic stories.
– Supporting them with cash prizes and visibility.
– Connecting them with each other, and with media industry professionals.
The Film Festival seeks to address the significant lack of representation of women in film, as well as the lack of access to essential funding of women in film. To be accepted into the Film Festival, the film must address or shine light upon issues affecting women and/or girls through a social-change lens. We are looking for films that explore an issue, event, or reality that disproportionately affects women and or girls; or, a film that tells the story of a woman or girl, her experience, and/or her perspective of an issue. While there is no time limit by which the film must have been completed, we give preference to relevant and salient subject matter. You have to be at least 13 years old with permission from a parent or legal guardian, or are at least 18 years old.
In the simplest way of stating it: Films that have to do with issues faced by women and girls, and that are produced with the idea of inspiring change, are the films we seek.
The Realist Woman: How have your films within the film collection of WVN made an impact on women around the world? It’s hard to measure impact but are there any changes to women’s rights or localized change for women in certain regions of the world you are aware of?
Heidi-Basch-Harod: Many of our collection films have made an impact on individuals and groups alike. It’s important to remember that a film can be likened to a mirror. Through the story a film sets out to tell, the film offers a reflection of ourselves, of our families, our communities, our societies. What do we see when we look into that mirror? What do we need more of? What do we need less of? What do we need to change? In our experience of sharing films with audiences all over the world, the feedback we receive or witness ourselves is how space is created for difficult conversations about taboo issues. Whether it’s talking about rape culture and domestic violence in traditional societies, challenging FGM, or giving men the opportunity to view the world through a woman’s eyes, the film viewing experience sets a tone for a willingness to question and reflect, and contemplate what it would be like were things different.
The Realist Woman: Who came up with WVN’s Youth Program?
Heidi Basch-Harod: Girls’ Voices Now is the name of our youth development program. In 2018, we collaborated with GlobalGirl Media and carried out the Los Angeles chapter’s summer training program with a group of 19 girls from Los Angeles. In lieu of working with their curriculum, which focuses on a more journalistic approach to bringing light to important issues through the eyes of girls, we experimented with the WVN approach to things. That is, exploring how a film can bring people from empathy to action. It was incredibly successful and fulfilling for the WVN Staff and we got positive reviews from the participating girls. We decided to continue refining our program, producing short social-change documentaries that also have specific calls to action, determined by the girls making the films.
We were beyond proud and excited this year, when one of the 2018 films, “Under the Scarf,” won a Daytime Emmy. We couldn’t be more excited for our youth filmmakers and so grateful that so much hard work received such prestigious recognition.
“In a supportive, nurturing environment, we encourage our girls to really look inside to discover the person waiting to be seen and heard for who she authentically is.”
The Realist Woman: Why was starting this program important?
Heidi Basch-Harod: There are so many good reasons to run programs like these.
Girls’ Voices Now seeks to amplify the voices of youth in Los Angeles that come from under-resourced communities. These girls have incredible creative talent and life experiences that we gain so much from learning about, but they aren’t always encouraged to pursue careers in the film industry. Families consider this professional pathway too risky, or as not leading to self-sufficiency. But this is a shame because we live in Los Angeles where so many work in the film industry and where there are so many gainful jobs to be had. So there is the aspect of working with a group of girls to help them fulfill their dreams and to introduce them to people and opportunities in the film industry that can also help them provide for their families with good jobs.
Then there is working with teenage girls who face unending pressure from school, family, social media, and harmful aspects of mainstream culture. Our program focuses a lot on confidence-building and pushing back against how things are “supposed to be” or “supposed to look.” In a supportive, nurturing environment, we encourage our girls to really look inside to discover the person waiting to be seen and heard for who she authentically is. And as she is revealing that person to herself, she is also witnessed by her fellow cohort members, our instructors, and the WVN team. In that experience, there is accountability and empowerment.
As well, a central understanding of Women’s Voices Now is that we can only truly realize women’s rights when persistent gender-based stereotypes are overturned. Film is one of the greatest cultural influencers of our time, and increasingly so in our digital world. We feel it’s a good investment to get young people thinking about this, creating media that challenges the status quo, and fostering the value that they can make change with their points of view on issues that matter to them. And since we know that women’s voices in the media are still disproportionately heard compared to men’s, we need more women and girls creating content and getting it out there. The storyteller and their lived experience matters. Their fresh perspectives allow us older folks to co-generate new solutions to old problems, and their films help us to fastrack understanding on how they view and experience the world.
This program is also important for the women who are involved in it. There is a healing that occurs. We were all teenage girls once and we all didn’t get what we needed at some point or another. Each of us that interacts with the girls in some capacity — as an instructor, guest speaker, media chaperone — we try to be for those girls who we needed when we were at their stage of life. And when their eyes light up with understanding, and their voices become more sure in conversation, and their ideas turn into an actual film, our wounded teenage self is soothed.
The Realist Woman: Can you talk a little about the program and how it impacts young girls?
Heidi Basch-Harod: The program begins in the summer with five weeks of intensive days filled with acquiring filmmaking technical skills, working with a group of peers, identifying the subject of the film and who to include in it, and beginning the editing process. Simultaneously we invite professional women from the film industry to share their experiences and career paths. There are also guest speakers who specialize in communication and self-care. After the summer program, the next time we meet is the Los Angeles premiere of their films where we invite friends, family members, the WVN community, and the community at large to watch the films, hear the girls talk about their process and inspiration, and they share calls to action with the audience.
As our program gains more support and recognition, we are now able to offer year-round workshops that we curate based on the needs of the girls. So it can be college essay workshops or learning how to submit their films to film festivals or holiday reunions. A variety of activities that help us maintain and grow a sense of community that includes the alumnae of each summer’s program.
The Realist Woman: What do you want people to know about this organization and how can one help further WVN’s mission and goals? What are the goals of this organization?
Heidi Basch-Harod: We envision a global culture shift powered by impact film, in which communities and institutions believe in gender equality, and adapt their behaviors and actions to support the systematic advancement of women’s and girls’ rights. We believe that every single one of us is capable of helping to catalyze this shift and that it can start with watching a truly engaging film about women’s rights issues, and doing something about what we see on the screen.
The goals of our programs and services are to empower filmmakers, produce social-change films, and engage audience members to advance girls’ and women’s rights.
We are a small organization and all contributions help us make great strides in our work. We are working to build our monthly subscriber program and seeking out corporate sponsors for our film festival and Girls’ Voices Now. So much of our work relies on professionals volunteering their time and expertise to help us with PR and Communications, tech issues, and networking. We are a friendly group of women who’ve lived, worked, and studied all over the world and we love to welcome people into our community.