Third on the list of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals – the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women – is unanimously regarded as pivotal to achieving the full set. Hopefully, they will be reached by 2015, but it seems there is still much that needs to be done. Mostly, it depends on what it means to be a 21st century woman. The answer to that question varies enormously in different parts of the world. For Western women, depending on the country, it entails sizeable salary differences, breaking through glass ceilings and the pandemic of domestic violence. For African women in warzones it is more likely to be about survival and access to basic education. There are as many different situations as there are women – the answer, therefore, is inevitably complex. Laetitia Belmadani, a Paris-based director who has previously called London and Munich her home, embarked on a world-wide quest to find a truthful response to the poignant problem of what it takes to accomplish a fair society in which women can be autonomous and have equal rights. Her documentary Lili’s Journey joins together 17 interviews with women and men who are committed to bring about change for women via initiatives in the private sector, the public sector and NGO’s.
Providing insight into the efforts of influential personalities such as Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and PPR’s Francois-Henri Pinault, to the engagements of inspiring fashion forces Diane Von Furstenberg and Christy Turlington Burns, the film paints a picture of the many issues still being faced, but also of the tangible progress already made. Seen through Lili’s eyes, the journey women pass through is hampered in many ways, but the end goal is the same.
What made you set out on Lili’s Journey?
It's quite a serendipitous story. My desire to make this film about women coincided with my sister Katia’s arrival in Paris for an internship. Our ideas collided and very quickly gave way to what we knew from the start was going to be quite an ambitious project. I firmly believe that our sisterhood is at the basis of this film.
How did you choose whose stories to feature?
We had a number of people we absolutely wanted to interview like Zainab Salbi, Michelle Bachelet and quite a few others and set out to do so. We didn't have a particular type in mind, we wanted to interview people who inspired us first and foremost, and people who would help us assemble this puzzle that is the women's cause. Our main goal was to understand the complexity of the women's issue in the world, as we know it. Most of the people we've interviewed subsequently were put on our path in quite a serendipitous way. Like Mel Lagomasino in our interview telling me that Diane von Furstenberg supported micro-entrepreneurs, and us running into Diane two days later at the airport in Paris having just returned from New York. We have countless stories like that, which really make me believe that we were meant to interview certain people. I cannot emphasise enough that the film is characterised by this serendipitous tone - you'll have to watch it to understand how for instance we came to meet with Christy Turlington Burns.
"The shift in mentalities will not happen automatically, it comes when people start to adjust to this more 'just’ vision, when they live it, breathe it, and start to radiate it around them."
What role do luxury groups like PPR play in current women’s affairs?
I can't talk on behalf of PPR. I interviewed Francois-Henri Pinault who seemed personable and very sympathetic to the women's cause – and I guess being married to Salma Hayek who is a very vocal women's rights defender, he couldn't stay immune to what was going on out there. I think there is a desire to make the group's resources stretch further, seek excellence, like he says in the film. And my hope is that that will be the case.
Do you feel that the fashion industry has an increased responsibility towards women’s emancipation because of its role in perpetuating certain women-unfriendly ideals?
I am almost inclined to say not in particular, because I think it is the corporate world as a whole, which has an increased responsibility to further development goals. They have the know-how, they have the funds. I always say that there is huge scope still in making corporate social responsibility mean more than just a do-good, handy tax alleviating type of activity. Only when it becomes entrenched with the bottom line will real progress take place. That said, I do think we live in a unique time where the increased visibility of everything a corporate does, will inevitably lead to a more pragmatic approach to the subject and hopefully with more results to show.
What more should they do?
To stop chasing the bottom line at all cost. Like Michelle Bachelet says, social good is not at the detriment of economic gain but can strengthen and further an organization’s mission. We live in a very complex world, or perhaps that is only how it seems to us and every generation has had their fair share of challenges to deal with, but still, I think doing what we mean and meaning what we do would be a great start...
What do you hope to accomplish with the film?
Certainly in making this film my sister and I wanted to portray a different side to women's empowerment. One that people would like to adhere to, and one that men can empathize with. I think it's fair to say progress for women across different societies around the world will ensure a better future for us all. And that we can not envisage to tackle the very serious development targets which were set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals, without considering the pivotal role of women. I hope my film will contribute to making that message crystal clear to the widest audience possible. It is my belief that we live in an increasingly apathetic world where individualism rules. The shift in mentalities will not happen automatically, it comes when people start to adjust to this more 'just’ vision, when they live it, breathe it, and start to radiate it around them.
Lili’s Journey will be released worldwide in late 2012, early 2013.
Text by Siska Lyssens
Siska Lyssens is a London-based fashion journalist.