By Adina Ba

lisa-russell-photo Lisa Russell is an independent documentary filmmaker whose background in international development work helps draw inspiration for her films about the health and well-being of our global society. Lisa’s films link different social issues together and look at the common threads of race, class, gender, privilege and non-privilege. She has filmed in many locations such as Brazil, Burkina Faso, and South Africa to Brooklyn, NY where she is currently a teaching artist at Urban Word NYC. Some of Lisa’s films highlight global health issues such as women’s reproductive rights. Other films Lisa has created spotlight artists and poets of different cultures speaking about social issues they care most about. While some of her work has aired on public television, most of her film work is tied into campaigns with the international community to affect social change through awareness, fundraising and legislative advocacy.  


Have you always worked in advocacy or did you start with a different career track?


 In my past, I ran a group home for a couple of years, but I didn’t have the language or know what to do with my background to make sense of the work I was destined to do.I thought I could be a doctor so I could help people. I was on my way to medical school during college, did my MCATS but wasn’t convinced it was what I wanted to do. I had grown up in California and never lived anywhere else. I decided I could not dedicate the next eight years of my life to just one thing. And so, I packed up and moved to Boston.


In Boston, I took adult education classes at Harvard University, specifically focused in the pre-med area. One day, in a particular class, we watched a fifteen minute film of a Harvard professor speaking about different social determinants (age, gender, and race) which perpetuated the AIDS epidemic. This film was a calling for me. International/global focus was very appealing to me. I ended up getting my Masters in Public Health and International Health.


Through development work, I was able to travel to St. Vincent. I also consulted for the UN and ended up in Kosovo during the Refugee Crisis. It was interesting and important, but I didn’t feel it was the most I could contribute. I was more of an activist, not a program person.


In 2000, I co-produced a film in Brazil for World AIDS Day. I interviewed and received hands on experience doing news reporting. This helped me learn a great skill. I was able to bring filmmaking together with my work in international development. I grabbed things from different experiences that I had, and it all came together at one point. I’m very lucky, but the path was not thought out, it happened.


What skills did you bring to your current work? What new skills did you gain?  

The first thing is that I had a desire to make a difference in the world, to have a purpose behind the work that I do. Secondly, I needed an outlet for my lifelong creative drive. When I was younger, my mom talked me out of becoming a dancer, and I ended up initially going premed. Becoming a filmmaker allowed me to use all of my skills and interests.   

What motivated you to start, what motivates you to continue this work?

I don’t exactly know. I grew up in a poor single parent home. I felt the place I grew up was way too small for my head, and so I became very independent and free. I chartered my own path. Coming from that background propelled me to want to do something. I was the first of my family to go to college.

To continue, I really love what I do. Until the need no longer exists, there’s still a reason to do it. Because there is challenge in my work, it keeps me engaged. I enjoy always working on new or different projects, speaking to new people, etc.


I’ve been around difficult stuff for a while. I don’t want to do “sad face” documentaries. I still make an effort to retain the dignity of the people I’m filming. I balance the challenges my subjects face with their culture’s beauty that we’ve lost in our society from being too focused on capitalism and commercialism.


When someone wants to begin advocacy work, does that mean they have to stop everything else they’re doing? (Current job, career, etc.)


Personally, I’d love to see a day when it’s not called advocacy work; a day when it becomes part of our culture. I speak to high school students and encourage them to use film with something they already care about. If you feel like you want to do good in the world, strive for it to be part of your daily life.



Do you have any other advice for people just starting out?



You have to start with passion for something to really get involved in it. You have to be engaged. I’m not a big pusher about getting everyone on a plane to volunteer in Africa. Local community service is just as great and in our backyards. If you want to make lives better for people that are less fortunate than you, get outside your comfort zone and volunteer. What is it you can do? How far can you take it? For one person, being a big brother or big sister is just as meaningful as another person doing Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Without that connection, it’s hard to commit yourself to something you’re not passionate about. Without passion, you won’t stay involved. You can read and understand social issues intellectually but unless you get out there and volunteer hands on, there’s no emotional connection and no outcome.



What response would you give to someone who has never volunteered before and their argument is that it would take too much work/energy to create change in our communities or our world? 



We are involved and contribute our time to something every day. It takes the same amount of energy to make the world a worse place as it does a better place. For example, we can throw something in the trash can or the recycle bin. We need to prioritize what’s good for our collective humanity on this planet. On a global level, children die from hunger every day. We have the resources to distribute the food, but since we don’t prioritize, this doesn’t happen. First, one must believe in this philosophy, second, they need the dedication to persevere.



After watching many of Lisa’s films, I wanted to share one with you about a spoken word artist from South Africa. It’s great to learn about someone’s culture from their own voice.