LOS ANGELES - A harrowing trip to Africa cemented a filmmaker's bond with Facebook and created a new way for human rights activists to spread the word -- while promoting the social networking site's month-old streaming video channel.
A week into Michealene Cristini Risley's trip to the Republic of Zimbabwe in August 2007 to make a documentary exposing sexual abuse by men who believed raping virgin girls would cure their HIV/AIDS, the Bay Area filmmaker was arrested on trumped-up charges and thrown into prison -- putting her in danger of being raped herself.
After three days, an American journalist who read about Risley's predicament on her Facebook page alerted a CIA agent, who made a call to Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe. She was released unharmed and fled the country with her HD footage.
On Sept. 28, Risley will be at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to thank its employees for the company's role in her release and to go on Facebook's LIVE streaming video channel to share her story and answer questions. It's all part of the coordinated launch of the documentary, "Tapestries of Hope," that came out of her trip.
Her Facebook appearance, which will be available for replay after the initial airing, serves as the centerpiece of an innovative marketing and promotional strategy employing new media -- especially social media -- as well as a limited theatrical release, cable TV and in-theater ads and hundreds of house parties, all to raise awareness of the issue and encourage Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, now winding its way through the U.S. Senate.
It also marks a nice promotional moment for Facebook as "The Social Network" -- the David Fincher film about the origins of the company -- gets ready to hit theaters without the cooperation of Facebook.
"We're taking all the different platforms and putting them together to use them in the best possible way," said Risley, who has told the story of her own childhood sexual abuse in a book and exposed the problem of sexual abuse in America in the 2005 short film "Flashcards."
Now married and the mother of three boys, Risley said that for her, "Tapestries" "is a mission, not a movie."
To serve that mission, she has put together a coalition that includes Brainstorm Media of Beverly Hills (and its Something to Talk About documentary program), the Family Violence Prevention Fund, CARE and advocacy group Women Thrive Worldwide.
The effort includes promotions on Facebook's corporate and networking pages, ads on DirecTV and advertising through the Screenvision network in about 100 theaters (and 50 others in the same areas) that will screen the documentary on Sept. 28 after live discussions on the issues.
The idea of doing more than just a screening was put forward by Meyer Shwarzstein, president of Brainstorm Media. "To get people into the theater, you've got to make it an event," he said. "No one has done this before, using this combination of live events, theatrical, social media and digital platforms."
Brainstorm is backing the one-night showing, which will be distributed electronically via Screenvision's in-theater video network (it usually only plays ads before a movie). Shwarzstein also is working on sales for TV, VOD and video. After those are set, the documentary will air free on a Facebook page as well.
Facebook execs got involved after hearing how their social media network helped in Risley's release. Besides the streaming presentation, there are articles and promos on numerous Facebook corporate and networking pages, messages to members and more.
"A lot of people think of Facebook as a place to connect to all the people in their lives they care about," said Nicky Jackson Colaco, public policy manager for Facebook. "We think of Facebook as a place where you can also connect to the causes you care about. This is a reflection of what is going on in the real world every day, women fighting for human rights. It's absolutely natural they should also be doing it online."
Suzanne DePasse, who is exec producing the documentary with her partner Madison Jones, said there is no way they could get the level of promotion necessary if they had to rely on traditional paid media and advertising.
"What is beautiful about today's world is you can literally sit at your desk and reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, by virtue of the Internet and new media," DePasse said.
While the promos will flash through cyberspace and on TV and movie screens, the message also will be reinforced at some 500 house parties (with eight to a dozen people at each) in the week leading to the screening. They are being organized and hosted by Pink Papaya, a direct sales company with 1,200 sales consultants in 35 states that sells aromatherapy, body and bath and other products.
Pink Papaya got involved several years ago with Betty Makoni, the woman who founded the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe and is featured in the documentary. "We're going to have a 'synergy week' leading up to the movie to promote awareness," said Susan Huneke, Pink Papaya founder and CEO.
Each attendee will get a flyer with info on the nearest theater showing the doc, sign-up sheets to pledge they will attend, prizes for party hosts and an offer to donate a package of merchandise to a girl in Zimbabwe for each "Pinkyini" package of products sold in the U.S. The company also will provide a $10 gift certificate for its products to anyone who pays to see the movie.
Ruth Sharma, founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, said this documentary might be what is needed to get legislation -- which would involve the U.S. in supporting women's human rights globally -- passed by Congress. More than 10 members of Congress were solicited and signed up over Facebook.
"'Tapestries of Hope' is really important because it makes the issues real, connects with people and talks about what can be done," Sharma said. "Legislation can seem dry and arcane, but when you see what Betty has done, it really brings this home to people."
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