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RBG, Malala, Elda Hartley and the Great Women in Media


Have you heard of Elda Hartley? Working out of her home in Cos Cob, Connecticut, Elda directed, produced, obtained, and promoted literally hundreds of spiritual films until her death at the age of ninety in 2001. She created Hartley Films from which one may screen hundreds of films about virtually every well-known spiritual practice, religion, Eastern philosophy, new age thinker, and visionary you can imagine.

Beginning in Broadway and Hollywood as a starlet, Elda later made a documentary film about Alan Watts, and quickly realized she was hooked on creating films featuring spirituality. Henceforth her films were documentaries featuring the leading visionaries of her day from Margaret Meade to Jean Huston.

If you go the Hartley Foundation’s website https://hartleyfoundation.org, you can all but become lost in the almost unlimited screenings of films of inspiration and worship. Elda’s ongoing voice through her films is just one of the unacknowledged women’s voices which made a major difference in media about our primal spirituality.

If you are interested in women’s films about rather than by spiritual leaders, you can find documentaries and features about everyone from Queen Esther, who is honored at Purim, and was born 2600 years ago, to Marianne Williamson who is very much alive today. And if you consider celebrities like Oprah to be spiritual, and many people do, then you could easily spend a lifetime watching film by and about spiritual female leaders.

Slowly but surely Hollywood is also beginning to acknowledge female genius in all the primary creative roles. For the first time this year a female cinematographer was an Oscar nominee and director Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman to be nominated for an academy award. You can view documentaries like Shooting Women (an unfortunate title) about other leading women creators in Hollywood. Throughout film history creative film-makers such as Leni Reifenstahl and Maya Deren have been acknowledged as artistic auteurs but a large number of women have been locked out of important roles, nominations, and awards.

In the age of Harvey Weinberg, Bill Cosby and so many others who harassed rather than promoted women, it is important to realize just how many women have strongly contributed to the media industries, to independent media and a far larger world of the arts, journalism, and other forms of global media. Indeed there are now many conferences, workshops, courses, and much more about many aspects of women’s leadership within the media.

The advent and advancement of women in every genre is pronounced. Even in predictable genre films such as “action heroes”, the new Wonder Woman holds her own with Batman and other blockbuster prototypes and even within male super-hero films like The Black Panther, the female leads are now highly intelligent warriors rather than eye candy or romantic heartthrobs. And in comedies, a large numbers of comic geniuses (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, etc.) have come forward to create their own vehicles and are steering the box office their way.

To my view, even the seemingly over-the-top recent women’s ensemble films such as Book Club (which employs the same “older women staying young” themes as TV shows like the Golden Girls, serve a purpose. When the combined talents of Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candace Bergen, and Diane Keaton are showcased in a script which says in effect “you’re still a valuable, romantic, sexy woman when you’re seventy-five”, it can be empowering to senior women who have been told by society that they are no longer attractive nor important.

To my view the most substantial documentary advancing women in 2018 is RBGabout 85-years-young Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It is not only a film about a transformative woman of justice, but it is also about the women’s dignity and rights she has advanced and protected. Moreover, the film is made by two strong women who co-direct–thus modeling for men the type of cooperation rather than competition which is possible in the creation of important art.

Since RBG seldom mentions religion nor uses spiritual language, I’m sure there are those who do not see it as a “spiritual” film at all. I respectfully disagree. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is shown to be a woman of steel with unflagging integrity who had been upholding social justice against great odds for over six decades. To my view she counters the human nature of others at every turn with her own balanced, innate wisdom and spirit. Her primal spirituality looms large whether identified or not.

Such leaders of ethical fortitude are substantial contributors to the spiritual leadership of the planet whether they use secular language or never worship in public. Ginsberg’s constant high standards, inspiration of the next generation of women lawyers, protection of the marginalized and denigrated, and ability to be a strong voice for truth-telling and fairness all place her quite high on the list of “most valuable players” in the public sector. I strongly recommend RBG.

Another current film about a young woman of justice is called He Named Me Malala. The 90 minute feature documentary by Davis Guggenheim tells the backstory and up story of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. A devout Muslim, Malala is far more overtly spiritual than Ginsberg. But like Ginsberg, her primary commitment is serving the larger community and especially women and girls.

At a very young age Malala joined her father in taking a strong stand for the education of girls and women in her native Pakistan, a practice frequently forbidden and punished by the Taliban. Malala was shot pointblank in the face by a would-be Taliban assassin for her stand on universal education and she narrowly survived to tell her story and become a spokesperson for children’s education. While still a teen-ager she received some of the greatest honors and tributes, including honorary degrees and most major Peace prizes, in the world. Like her autobiography entitled I am Malala, the film He Named Me Malala not only tells the backstory of Malala’s childhood and cultural roots, but also tells the “up story” of her values, strong faith in Allah (the Muslim word for God) and dedication to becoming a voice for women, children, education, and a larger Divine spirit.

It is high time that we paid tribute to such women as Malala and Ruth Ginsberg, and to the leadership role of many women in film and in global events. Indeed, Hollywood and world media have increasingly paid tribute to many strong women– from Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth to Norma Rae and Winnie Mandel–over the past century. But there is a growing awareness that so many significant women’s narratives are yet untold. Many great unrecognized women are also great media makers.

Fortunately a new wave of inspiring women–such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Malala –have attracted substantial media attention as they have become substantial voices in the current rising tide of change. Concurrently, women such as Elda Hartley and co-directors of RBG,Betsy West and Julie Cohen, have raised the bar in making films about such women and the spirit behind them.

It is also significant that many spiritual groups and religions which once referred to God or other names for the Creator as “He” now often refer to “She” or honor both “Mother God” and “Father God” or use similar language. The Divine Feminine is essential not only in the content and process of media that matter but also is a huge creative Source of the medium of light that we are.

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