I Made a Film About FGM for the UN. Here's What I Learned About Community, Survival, and Sense of Self.
Sara Elgamal’s film tells the story of three women leading the fight against FGM in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, nearly 8 in 10 girls and women are opposed to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) — and 9 in 10 boys and men feel the same way.
But because it is rooted in social norms — and upheld by social pressure — it can persist even as more and more believe that it should end. According to the UNFPA, FGM will only end when entire communities commit to abandoning the practice.
Global Citizen is campaigning with UNFPA Supplies to help ensure women around the world have access to good sexual health to improve gender equality, including contraception, sex education, dignitiy kits, and birth medicines. You can join us by signing our petition here.
Film director Sara Elgamal worked alongside UNFPA to create A Piece of Me, a series of three short films celebrating three women — Zahra, Abida, and Khadija — who are FGM survivors and who have become community champions in ending the practice.
Film director Sara Elgamal
Shot like a fashion film in the desert of the Afar region of Ethiopia with visually gripping and captivating images and colours, Elgamal celebrates the strength and story of these women who refuse to be defined by being victims of FGM.
This, in her own words, is Elgamal's story.
My name is Sara Elgamal, and I’m an international filmmaker. My passion is to create compelling visuals with the hopes of shifting narratives and telling meaningful stories.
I met the head of social at UNFPA, Usen Esiet, last year in London, after he approached me to pitch for a campaign on female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is extremely prevalent in Egypt, and so he expected that I would be interested in covering the topic (since I am Egyptian).
The truth is my understanding of the issue was actually quite limited at the time. So, I did my research and spoke to my mother about it.
In doing so I discovered that my own mother, aunts, and most of the older women in my family had been subjected to FGM.
It was extremely shocking and upsetting to find out that so many women close to me were subjected to such a cruel practice, and a lifetime void of sexual pleasure.
However, when it came time to create a concept for the campaign, it was clear to me that I could not view the women in my family as victims.
I decided to represent the women in the way that I understood them to be despite their past traumas: dignified, powerful, beautiful, complex.
I decided to create a campaign that celebrated women despite their past traumas, rather than another victim story.
The approach I took was to shoot this in a very similar aesthetic to fashion editorial on purpose.
I wanted to challenge the notion of who we see as “supermodels” or heroes and bring a level of high fashion and cinematic visuals that wouldn’t normally be associated with a UN campaign.
We ended up shooting the project in the vast desert of the Afar region of Ethiopia where we were invited into the pastoral communities of Zahra, Abida, and Khadija — three outspoken community leaders and teachers who have decided not to cut their own daughters and who are educating others on ending the practice.
Being there was a life-changing experience for me. I was humbled and gained so much perspective from these women — particularly on how they saw themselves as one with their communities, in contrast to our sense of self.
As both producer and director on the project, this beautiful journey and experience didn’t come without its challenges.
It was an uphill battle to try and bring the level of production I was used to (Arri Alexa Mini camera and 13 cases of film equipment) to the desert; along with my assistant camera operator, Ryan McIntire, who helped me lug everything from Toronto; director of photography David Bolen who met us from Los Angeles; and wardrobe designer Nadine Mosallam from London — I’m sure most of the members of the Mille Wereda Afar community didn’t know what to think of us at first, including community leader Adnan.
I even had to take part in diplomatic meetings with community leaders, something I have never had to do in past productions. But it was necessary in order to make sure that everyone was aligned on our goals and that we had permission.
This process became easier as the community saw the level of passion, heart, and hard work that we were bringing to the project — in order to tell our survivors stories in the most dignified, powerful, and beautiful way possible.
In the end one of the greatest takeaways was having the community leader tell us that our hard work and passion made him re-evaluate how he wants to do work for his community.
As well, giving Zahra, Abida, and Khadija a moment to shine and share their words with the world is something I am so grateful to have been able to help do.
UNFPA came to me with this opportunity — to provide a platform for three incredible survivors of FGM whose stories transcend the victimhood narrative.
The goal was to pivot from the FGM stories of tragedy we’ve been told and instead wrap our subjects in the beauty of their environment.
I wanted to tell a story of strong, beautiful women who are able to redefine their own version of passion and love, despite their past traumas — and I hope that this is what I was able to achieve with A Piece of Me.
“In My Own Words” is a content series that promotes and amplifies the voices of activists leading the fight against extreme poverty and its root causes — both in their own communities and around the world. We want to give people the opportunity to tell their own stories, unfiltered and in their own words, because everyone needs to be heard to achieve a world that’s equal and fair for all.