When Paula Kweskin Weiss gathers her fellow women’s rights filmmakers for the first The 49% Festival, she’ll greet them in Jerusalem, her adopted hometown.
The festival, which will take place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday, March 6 through Thursday, March 7, just ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, is the flagship program of The 49%, a new organization founded by Kweskin Weiss, whose mission is to develop, advance and promote women’s stories through film and media.
It’s named for the percentage of women in the global population, and the Jerusalem festival, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Grassroots Events program, is its inaugural event.
A series of films will be shown, including one about a Muslim woman seeking succor in Israel, female genital mutilation in Egypt, child marriage in Pakistan and the glass ceiling in Israel.
“Many people think women are a greater portion of the population than men,” said Kweskin Weiss. “The fact that we’re 49% is a story in itself. But the name of the organization is also a call to action.”
Kweskin Weiss, 35, a lawyer and documentary filmmaker, splits her time between Israel and Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was raised. She earned her law degree, at the University of North Carolina and also holds an LL.M in Human Rights and International Law from the Hebrew University.
She was first exposed to the world of human rights as a teenager, when she heard a Chinese dissident speak about how the geography of where one is born is a happenstance occurrence that has an effect on everything in one’s life.
“He was born captive in China, and we were born free in America,” she said.
She started out as a human rights lawyer, writing briefs for the United Nations, but felt she wasn’t getting anywhere, and found her way into documentary filmmaking.
Kweskin Weiss’ first film, “Honor Diaries” (2014), dissected honor-based violence worldwide and introduced her to the world of women’s rights activists. The film did well, winning awards and getting distributed on Netflix and Amazon, but it was also censored in a few places, and that experience stuck with her.
She followed up with “Faithkeepers,” which told the personal stories of Christian and minority persecution in the Middle East.
Then Kweskin Weiss began the Censored Women’s Film Festival, gathering censored filmmakers and running the festival in Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and other major cities. She soon realized there was a bigger issue at hand and sought to expand it beyond censorship.
The project morphed into The 49%, which aims to advance women’s rights through film and media projects.
For the festival, Kweskin Weiss is bringing fellow filmmakers and activists from Egypt, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Canada and the US, as well as women from Israel, including a Bedouin activist and an ultra-Orthodox activist.
“I can’t wait to be together and collectively address these issues together,” she said.
The event is opening at WeWork Jerusalem, a partner in the film festival and “an oasis of tolerance in Jerusalem,” said Kweskin Weiss. Beyond the two days of screenings, The 49% activists and filmmakers will meet with female corporate executives in Tel Aviv, as well as social entrepreneurs and activists, with a day of strategic planning as well.
It will be the first time in Israel for many of the women attending the festival, said Kweskin Weiss.
“These women know the pushback they’re going to get, and they don’t care,” she said.
It’s more proof of the power that women can bring to global issues, added Kweskin Weiss.
“I’ve learned in my work that there really is a possibility to transcend politics and religion when women come together to look at women’s rights,” she said. “We are told over and over by male politicians that we have to identify first with our ethnic background, religious background and citizenship and that is false, that is not necessary. We share much more than what separates us, and that’s what this project is about.”
A full list of the screenings and discussions is available on the Jerusalem Cinematheque site.