4,500 viewers. 100 mentions in the media. 61 Polish and foreign documentary films, animations and videos. 46 screenings. 36 partners and matrons. 20 female directors. 20 accompanying events. 5 days of debates in a safe space about equality, fundamental rights, sexuality, body, identity, and stereotypes in the perception of gender and social roles. That is, in a nutshell, HER Docs. In other words, an action project of two Polish Humanity in Action fellows. With their work, HER Docs became the highly successful, first, and only Polish film festival presenting the works of female film auteurs.
The seeds for HER Docs were planted back in 2018 when Katarzyna Korytowska, a creative arts manager, and Maja Szydłowska, a lawyer, met during a Humanity in Action Fellowship in Berlin.
While sharpening their activists skills and expanding their human rights knowledge, they realized that by joining forces, they could address their mutual passion: women in film-making. They saw the potential of film in the framework of human rights. It could become one of the most effective approaches for enhancing activism, raising awareness, and triggering social change.
As Katarzyna stresses: “We treat the medium of film as a tool that inspires us to ask important questions, for example about the condition of democracy, the shadows of global production and capitalism, but also about the attitude to the body and motherhood, or ways of dealing with disability. With recurring, outrageous political projects that violate women’s rights or prohibit sex education, our activity as an independent and alternative education platform seems all the more needed! We want to build a space for engaging discussions around the challenges of the present day and the situation of women in Poland and in the world, to create a place for women’s multiplicity of voices, promoting their film work and a variety of perspectives.”
Moreover, by placing the female perspective in the foreground, Katarzyna and Maja aim to address and fill the existing gap in the film and festival industry. Namely, female voices, opinions, analyses, and perspectives on history, also known as herstories, remain underrepresented world-wide. The Polish case study illustrates a wider pattern of invisibility and marginalization of female film-makers.
According to the research of professor Monika Talarczyk from the Lodz Film School, in the years between 2006 and 2017, only 28% of Polish films were made by women. At film festivals, female directed films rarely exceeded 40% of the program, often even missing the 25-30% mark. Despite the huge number of documentary film festivals and the growing number of so-called women’s festivals around the world, there had not been a festival in Europe that combined these two trends, showcasing documentary films specifically directed by women. Moreover, large and significant film festivals in the world, and in Poland, do not typically have a part of their program dedicated to female filmmakers.
Importantly, the decision to present films directed solely by women did not end up narrowing the overall focus of the festival or the debates it triggered. Instead, it allowed for a rich and more nuanced take on contemporary societies and issues.
Maja explains this phenomenon as follows: “Cinema is a window to the world, what we see on the screen goes to our minds and hearts. That is why it is so important to pay attention to whose stories are reaching us and whose stories are being left out, as well as who is telling the stories and who is behind the camera. Therefore, the HER Docs program includes films dealing with burning social topics, such as violence against women, the trauma of societies emerging from ethnic conflicts and genocide, and the climate crisis. “The Story of a Panty and of Those Who Make It” film, which tells the story of employees in the global textile production chain and this situation’s impact on the environment turned out to be the hit of the festival. This shows that people want to talk about these difficult topics, ask themselves often uncomfortable questions, and that they look for stories which are often unavailable in the mainstream distribution.”
HER Docs Film Festival is a spectacular example of what an Action Project might become if it is fueled by passion, determination, and wide-ranging support. Katarzyna and Maja, for many months prior to the first edition of the festival (6-10.03.2020, Warsaw, Poland), worked in close cooperation with Humanity in Action Poland to build strategic alliances with relevant institutions, organizations and founders while also on creating a community of activists and artists who would support the project in a variety of ways (e.g. voluntary work, promotion). Building on this success and in order to strengthen the sustainability of HER Docs, they established a foundation and are currently busy working on the next editions of the festival and other interconnected initiatives.