By Austin Bernales
In the digital age, when storytelling has become more accessible than ever, UC Santa Barbara alum Lisa Russell, has made it her mission to promote social justice and promote change in online behavior. Russell, who won an Emmy award for her short film Bi-Racial Hair, currently works with the UN to create global health documentaries.
She travels across the globe to inspire storytellers to tell stories responsibly and to create a global network of artists for social good. “The challenge and priority for me now is that I really want to teach. I want to inspire and train responsible storytellers,” Russell said in a recent interview.
Russell has recently directed, produced, and edited a global health documentary called Heroines of Health which reports on women from different nations and the health struggles they are trying to overcome every day. The film focuses on three women from India, Kenya, and Indonesia who balance career and family, and how they fight the obstacles their communities face to bring better health and hope. It was released last summer and has screened at California State University, Channel Islands as well as at the University of Southern California and will screen at more universities in the future.
Russell was not always a storyteller, but her experiences after graduating UCSB in pre-Med led her to the craft of digital storytelling. Everything she saw in 1999 around the AIDS crisis, global health, and war and conflict made her feel as if the entire story was not being told. Her first hand experiences while working during a war in Albania were not reflected in what she was seeing on the news. That motivated her to produce, shoot, edit, and write films to bring human stories to the public.
Russell says the stereotypical view of stories that come out of the United Nations or international community consists of kids with big bellies with flies in their eyes and a lot of suffering. But that’s not their whole story, and telling a more complete and nuanced version is what drives her storytelling -- to enhance people's dignity.
“Understanding the power balance between the people that you’re filming and showing that they’re multidimensional instead of one-dimensional means a lot,” she said.
Get to know her as a woman, before a woman with HIV.”
Russell’s seeks to create this multidimensionality in her work instead of displaying a “savior complex” relationship. “I did always struggle with how to tell these stories responsibly and most importantly, accurately,” Russell said.
Storytelling that affects social good is needed more than ever now that global platforms are available, Russell says. After 12 years of filmmaking, she now wants to teach and inspire a new wave of responsible storytellers in digital formats.
She has made it a priority to give a chance to younger or international storytellers to speak up. As a creative entrepreneur, she is currently screening her films globally while taking the time to hold international webinars on responsible storytelling. She believes younger filmmakers need to use film as leverage in social justice, as an effective way to close the gap and help solve global issues.
Russell has focused on changing the narrative of global stories because she believes journalists often disrespect the international struggles people are going through by covering only their problems. Lisa Russell believes in enhancing the dignity of her subjects rather than prioritizing their immediate struggles.
“When I started my career there weren’t a lot of people that had the expertise or equipment needed to make broadcast quality films and that's changing,” Russell said. “There are more and more established filmmakers in every country- and that’s great.”
Austin Bernales is a Fourth Year Film and Media Studies student at UC Santa Barbara.