Girls Impact the World Film Festival Works to Make Change Globally, Giving Youth a Voice

Photo by: Jennifer M. Ramos

A non-profit hoping to give voices to student filmmakers is now making its mark on the world.

A film festival called Girls Impact the World, which held its sixth annual festival in Austin, Texas on April 7 is working to reshape how youth can express their activism through film. And while it may be small right now, since its debut in 2013, the festival has quickly grown, highlighting women’s issues globally.

Girls Impact the World is a film festival which encourages high school and college students to submit short 3-6 minute films about a subject which addresses women’s issues. As co-director Layla Yu noted, each film submitted is unique to that year of the festival.

“Every film that is submitted is created especially for our film fest. Then, later on, you’re welcome to submit it to any other film festival,” Yu said. “It creates original content, not just for us, but for them as well, to focus on these issues from girl’s education, to domestic violence…”

Although it’s called Girls Impact the World, students of all identities are welcome to submit. No prior filmmaking experience is required either. So long as a student’s story pertains to a woman’s issue, their film is eligible for the festival.

“That’s something I love about Girls Impact the World is that we prioritize the story and not necessarily production value,” Yu said. “We want to encourage anyone to make a film whether you are a filmmaker or you aren’t because I believe that everybody has a story to tell and change starts with a story.”

The festival began when a more massive non-profit called Connecther, who has been working since 2011 to support projects that help women around the world, decided they wanted to design a program which advocates for youth as well as women and encourages individuals to make a change in their local communities.

This year, the festival received over 200 submissions from students in New York, Austin, California, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and more places from around the world.

Something the festival prides themselves on is their ability to provide opportunities for students to submit to the festival without all of the typical film festival fees.

Yu, who has worked with other film festivals in the past, says that they wanted to avoid these fees since often, so filmmakers have to designate a certain portion of their funding just for the film festival circuit.

“I think this is a great starting point for those who want to have a film career in the future too because it’s free entry,” Yu said. “We always offer free tickets for the filmmakers and a couple of family members to attend the event as well. We want to make it as open and accessible as possible.”

The prizes for the festival include anywhere from $1,000-$5,000 scholarships for the students.

Previously, Connecther and Girls Impact the World would host an annual awards ceremony and a screening of the top five films, inviting filmmakers and families along with performers and guest speakers to participate.

This year, however, the festival was able to put on their first full day event, something that Yu and executive director Lila Igram wanted to do to help elevate the festival and its impact on participating filmmakers.

“It’s challenging, but I think progress isn’t supposed to be easy,” Yu said, commenting on their experience organizing this year’s fest.

The day began with panels such “The Powerful Women in Media” where attendees such as screenwriter Pamela Ribon, CNN anchor Zain Asher, and producer Elizabeth Avellan, a donor to the festival, spoke about the industry.

Another of the panels at this year’s event was a Girls Impact the World alumni session, which featured filmmakers who were previous festival finalists, now making a change in their communities.

“What’s so rewarding about this panel is that we want to let the filmmakers know that your leaders and mentors do not have to be somebody older than you,” Yu said. “It doesn’t have to be somebody who’s already making it in the industry. They are also your fellow people in your own generation.”

Attendees for this panel included Rebecca Dharmapalan, the 2013 grand prize winner who made a film about sex trafficking in the Bay area. Since winning in 2013, Dharmapalan’s film has been featured in Teen Vogue and Glamour magazine, and she’s also given a Ted Talk as well.

Another, Sarah Jahaan Khan, a student currently attending Oxford University, who was the 2015 winner after making a film about environmentalism in a rural village in Pakistan. After the festival, she was able to take her film back to her local government in Pakistan, helping them to get more resources to the village.

As for this year, one of the top 20 finalists Candace Castillo, made a documentary film titled Me Too, which she collaborated with her friends to tell a story that focused on bringing awareness to matters of sexual harassment and assault. The film also featured prominent public figure, Wendy Davis.

After making the film, which was her first time making a documentary on a larger scale such as this, Castillo reflected on the aftermath of the process.

“We’re just really happy with how this film turned out and the impact it’s had on all of the students around us and the people in our community,” Castillo said.

Remarking on the festival’s impact as a whole, Castillo says that Girls Impact the World gives an opportunity to highlight a variety of topics.

“It’s a great platform for us to help spread the word on things that we are passionate about,” Castillo said. “And I think it does a great job on that.”

More than just your typical film festival, however, Girls Impact the World works toward building a community of filmmakers.

“We don’t want to just invite people for the sake of the event and let them go. We like to create this community and this family. And we like to keep in touch with our filmmakers afterward,” Yu said.

When asked where she hopes to see the festival in ten years, Yu says that attracting more donors is key since they are a non-profit, but that their primary goal beyond funding is to raise awareness and take the event to other cities.

Later this year, for the International Day of the Girl in October, a Girls Impact the World event will be held in Los Angeles. Yu also continues to work toward building a chapter in New York, where she’s based.

But for now, Yu expressed her pride in the progress that’s been made so far.

“We really are so happy that this festival exists and we really want to make sure that other people know about it,” Yu said. “Because we’re still small, but as we gain momentum, it’s such a great opportunity.”

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