FILMANTHROPY'S BIG NIGHT

Natalie PortmanDocumentaries about war, HIV/AIDS and gender inequalities rarely pack a New York City auditorium. But Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse brimmed with ticket-buyers last Thursday--in honour of International Women’s Day--to watch "A Powerful Noise", a film about three women in different countries who triumph over serious challenges (war, HIV/AIDS, etc). Perhaps the all-star panel helped. It's not every day you get to see Natalie Portman mix it up with Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, over women's rights.

Sheila Johnson, founder of BET and the film's executive producer, took the stage to introduce "A Powerful Noise", which was simultaneously being screened in 450 American cinemas that night. Directed by Tom Cappello, the documentary tells the stories of an HIV-positive Vietnamese widow who educates others about the disease; a Bosnian woman working to rebuild ethnic relations and create jobs for women in her war-torn region; and a feisty Malian mamma-figure determined to make fathers send their daughters to school. The work is meant to be inspiring, and to drum up support (and dollars) for the cause of empowering women, particularly in developing nations.

Afterwards Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Helene Gayle, the head of CARE, an anti-poverty NGO (which helped produce the film), hashed out the issues with the likes of Christy Turlington Burns, Portman and Albright.

Naturally, there wasn't much sparring (it's hard to argue with grass-roots efforts to empower women). Gayle shared a wealth of sobering statistics on the status of women worldwide (rape rates in Congo brought gasps from the audience). Turlington Burns plugged her work in the field of maternal health. "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women," Albright said, resurrecting one of her favourite quotes to huge applause. As for why Hollywood isn't doing more social-issue filmmaking? Portman replied, "No one likes art to be didactic." But the actress, who works as an ambassador for FINCA, a microfinance organisation, praised films such as "An Inconvenient Truth" for generating the kind of "collective social active empathy" to which other "filmanthropists" should aspire.

While the live simulcast format is not new, the one-night-only release of "A Powerful Noise" was a unique way of promoting the film and the cause. Tens of thousands of tickets were sold across the country. NCM Fathom, an event sponsor, also donated money for every marked Twitter entry over a four-day period--a "Tweet-a-thon"--and Saks Fifth Avenue gave one dollar for every audience member who texted “join” during the simulcast.

All of this points to new ways to raise money for nonprofits such as CARE during an economic downturn. But it can’t hurt to have Natalie Portman on board.

~ KRISTI YORK WOOTEN

Picture credit: Alison Mayfield