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Social Impact Heroes: “How filmmaker Cynthia Lowen is helping to fight digital abuse and strive for justice online”

Social Impact Heroes: “How filmmaker Cynthia Lowen is helping to fight digital abuse and strive for justice online”

I hope people will feel inspired to take part in the movement we’re creating with ‘Netizens’ to stop online abuses, demand greater privacy and safety protections from tech companies and law enforcers, and take part in transforming our digital communities, which are among the most important public spaces we share around the world.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Lowen.

Cynthia Lowen is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and writer. She’s the director and producer of ‘Netizens,’ a feature documentary about women and online harassment, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Bristling with rightful fury,” says Teen Vogue of the film, ‘Netizens’ follows three women, including Carrie Goldberg and Anita Sarkeesian, as they confront digital abuse and strive for justice online. Cynthia is also the producer and writer of ‘Bully,’ a feature documentary following five kids and families through “a year in the life” of America’s bullying crisis. Lauded by reviewers, ‘Bully’ was nominated for two Emmy-awards and screened at the White House. Cynthia is also the winner of The National Poetry Series for her collection ‘The Cloud That Contained the Lightning,’ about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the legacy of the atomic bomb.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve had a pretty unusual path to documentary filmmaking — after I graduated from Colorado College, where I focused on creative writing, I started working as an editor at an independent publishing house in lower Manhattan, called Four Way Books. From there, I got my MFA in poetry, and my collection ‘The Cloud That Contains the Lightning,’ about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the legacy of the atomic bomb, was published as part of the National Poetry Series. Around that time, I saw a documentary called ‘Favela Rising,’ at the Tribeca Film Festival, about a group of musicians who were transforming their community in Rio De Janeiro, through the power of music. Following the screening, several people from the film came on stage for the q&a, and I was completely moved by the way these people’s lives and stories were inspiring change in the world. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I started by interning on a movie about a Mexican-American Marine who was killed in the battle of Fallujah, and his family’s fight for him to receive a Medal of Honor. I then produced a film about youth incarcerated at Rikers Island, and from there, I produced and wrote ‘Bully,’ a feature documentary following five kids and families through a ‘year in the life’ of America’s bullying crisis. This film had a very wide reach and significant impact in transforming our ideas about bullying and peer violence, and ‘de-normalized’ this epidemic of violence in our schools and communities. With my current film, ‘Netizens,’ about women and online harassment which I directed and produced, I’m seeking to shed light on this form of violence that is ubiquitous yet often overlooked as ‘just the internet.’ Yet the ways targets are impacted is profound: you have women being threatened with very credible death threats; you have women who can’t get a job because someone has utterly trashed their Google search results; you have women whose lives are in danger because they’re being impersonated on dating sites, and dozens of men are showing up at their homes and workplaces. I want to shift attitudes that this is something we have to accept and challenge the notion that the internet is ‘the Wild West’ and abuse is the price of admission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I would say one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as an independent filmmaker was having the opportunity to screen ‘Bully’ at The White House. We brought several of the kids and families featured in the film to speak about their experiences, and following the screening, Valerie Jarrett announced President Obama’s support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act. This legislation mandated that the government review schools’ anti-bullying policies and procedures, and protect LGBTQ youth from harassment and bullying. This was a moment where we saw how the film had catalyzed an important movement, where educators, parents, youth, and policymakers were taking bold actions to prevent peer violence. When we started making ‘Bully,’ there were virtually no policies, guidelines or protections in place for how schools should respond to bullying; today all 50 US states have policies and/or laws in place for how schools must respond. We also were able to screen the film, free of cost, for five million kids in the United States, with wrap-around materials for their educators. That’s created a big change, and it’s been incredible to be part of this social transformation!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh gosh, there was one shoot, it was really late in the evening and it had been a really long day of filming, but I thought we’d fit in one more interview before we wrapped. About halfway through the interview, I noticed I had forgotten to press ‘record’ on the audio recorder, but figured it would be okay because we’d still have the sound from the camera microphones. As soon as I paused the interview to turn on the recorder, I noticed a look of total horror on my cinematographer’s face, and I immediately realized she had somehow not been recording video either! We called it the ghost interview, ha. Fortunately, we were able to do it again the next day and managed to more or less save face, but the moral of the story is, there’s definitely a point in a day of filmmaking where you’re only going to get diminishing returns, and it’s good to know when to call it a wrap!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

‘Netizens’ is forging partnerships with domestic violence advocates, anti-discrimination organizations, attorneys, tech companies, law enforcement officials and others, and are making the film available as a tool for education and change. I feel that documentary films have a unique ability to shift attitudes and change hearts and minds, and so our work with ‘Netizens’ is focussed on sharing these stories with a focus on catalyzing positive action beyond the movie screen. The good news is, we all use the internet, so we all have a stake in demanding greater accountability for our privacy and safety online, and everyone can take an active role in shaping our digital communities. We are currently launching a national community screening tour in New York, Washington, DC, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco, where each one-night-only screening is followed by a panel with key voices on this issue including those featured in the film. With our partner organizations, including the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, the Anti-Defamation League, Without My Consent, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and others, we’re providing tools and resources to educate audiences and support to targets. We have also been working with tech companies and screened the film at Microsoft this spring with participation in the panel/q&a with Facebook’s Head of Global Security, policymakers, attorneys and those from the film. Online harassment and digital abuse is such a huge issue, and so we are striving to build a broad coalition of stakeholders who are tackling this problem from really diverse perspectives!

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

In making ‘Netizens,’ I was following in the footsteps and depicting the pioneering work of those confronting digital abuse and putting this issue on the map. For example, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) founded by Holly Jacobs, is working with policymakers to pass legislation regarding nonconsensual porn, and is the driving force behind the fact there are now 46 states with ‘revenge porn’ laws. They also have a helpline for victims of harassment, connecting them to resources and legal assistance. I met one of the main women in the film through CCRI, Tina Reine. Tina was being harassed by an ex who’d created numerous websites with very damaging, reputation-harming materials that had completely derailed her career in finance. She’d been struggling to get help for four years from law enforcement and was totally shrugged off. Tina eventually heard about CCRI, which was the first time she realized she was not alone in what she was going through and that cyber-harassment was affecting many many women. Through this organization, Tina was able to access a network of support and was connected to pro-bono legal representation through the associated Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project at K&L Gates, which was co-founded by the amazing Elisa D’Amico. They brought a case to obtain a copyright transfer for the websites from the perpetrator so that Tina would be able to remove the websites from the internet; this is how she was eventually successful in getting the websites down.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1) We can hold tech companies and policymakers accountable for our digital safety and privacy

2) We can foster gender equality in our schools, homes, and workplaces — especially in tech, law enforcement, and policy

3) We can be empowered to shape our digital communities — if you see harassment, don’t contribute to it; if you witness a privacy violation, don’t spread it; if you disagree with someone online, find a constructive way to express that, which doesn’t involve rape or death threats!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think there are tons of ways to define leadership, it can manifest in so many ways — how you treat others, how you overcome hurdles, how you problem-solve. One facet of leadership is identifying injustices that have become ‘normalized’ and refusing to accept the status quo. A person whose courageous leadership on that level that I’ve witnessed first-hand is Carrie Goldberg, one of the women featured in ‘Netizens.’ Carrie went through a harrowing experience of online harassment resulting from an ex-boyfriend; when she sought legal advice, she couldn’t find anyone to effectively represent her, or get intervention from law enforcement. She was an attorney at the time, then focusing on elder law, and she decided to leave that job, and start her own law firm representing victims of online harassment, privacy violations, and sexual assault. In just a few years, Carrie’s firm, C.A. Goldberg PLLC, has grown exponentially and is now the premier victim rights law firm for digital abuses and sexual harassment. Carrie has also written a fantastic book about her experiences and her law firm, called ‘Nobody’s Victim,’ which everyone should read!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I hope people will feel inspired to take part in the movement we’re creating with ‘Netizens’ to stop online abuses, demand greater privacy and safety protections from tech companies and law enforcers, and take part in transforming our digital communities, which are among the most important public spaces we share around the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think it goes something like, ‘Leap, then grow wings.’ I take this to mean that it’s okay to take risks and fight for the things you really believe in, and to not totally know, when you take that first step, how it’s all going to work out. As an independent documentary filmmaker, every film is a total leap of faith, and you’re asking people to trust you with the most precious thing they have: their life story. It takes so much collaboration and commitment from so many people to get each film made and out into the world, and there are so, so, so many worthy projects that never get there. But you have to jump, believing it can be done, and somewhere along the way, you’ll figure out how to fly!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂 Yes! LIZZO. She is completely amazing. Every time I listen to her music or hear her interviews, I’m just cheering. We still live in times were to be fully yourself as a woman is an act of determination and defiance and grace, and her positivity is absolutely contagious and inspiring. She makes me want to take more risks as a filmmaker and a human, and she gives me so much hope that the world isn’t just full of people being jerks to each other on the internet. (I was also an orchestra girl, which was a really influential part of getting through those tough middle school years, so, you know, band nerds are the best!) When I think of someone who makes me want to jump up and down and be like, ‘we’ve got this’, it’s her! I mean, marching bands across the US are playing her music, flute sections are twerking, talk about leadership! For me, she fully embodies that concept.

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