Sofie Wolthers is a filmmaker and photographer living in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She is the director of the documentary A New Society, following a collective of over 300 social experts who are using research to address the world’s most pressing crises, from gender inequality to economic injustice. Today, she is sharing her experience as an independent filmmaker and how she sees documentary as a tool for women’s empowerment.

Tell us about your experience using media for social justice – what drew you to using film compared to other mediums?

When I was younger, I remember asking my mom how she chose her career path (she was a midwife at the time). She told me that she wanted to help others, and this was the way she knew how. For me, documentary is the best way I know how to help others. I believe that information has the power to change people’s behaviors or thoughts, and documentary is a vehicle for information to reach a large amount of people in a short period of time. Documentary film can transport people to a different country, show them life in a different time period, and even place them in someone else’s shoes for a moment. It is this ability to explore the world through the perspectives of others that creates empathy, and for some, film is their only means of travel.

Sofie Wolthers and Columbia University sociologist and woman’s rights activist Saskia Sassen

How did you come to find the International Panel on Social Progress? 

This is quite a funny story. Back in 2014 when I was still a journalism major in college, I had a social justice blog called Chi People’s Rights where I’d post weekly about human rights issues in Chicago, Illinois. One week, I remember feeling like I wanted to post about something a bit more global. While doing some research on social justice initiatives, I somehow stumbled onto this strange PDF document by the International Panel on Social Progress, who at the time didn’t even have a website. I found what they were doing revolutionary and decided to post what I thought at the time was a very professional broadcast about their work (you can see a snippet of this broadcast in A New Society).

When I received an email from Princeton University economist and IPSP co-founder Marc Fleurbaey I was really confused, but next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Princeton and interning for the IPSP as their social media and outreach person. I eventually became their head of social media until I finished University in 2016 and moved to Amsterdam. Then, in 2017 I was contacted by filmmaker and journalist Eileen Jerrett (owner of Wilma’s Wish Productions) to direct a documentary about the IPSP. I decided to take on the challenge and together we made A New Society, a film aiming to spark dialogue between activists, academics, and policymakers.

How does the IPSP view the role of women’s empowerment in achieving social progress?

From what I’ve gathered in interviews with panelists and through my own experience, the IPSP’s research dissects where the world is today, what got us here and what we can do to avoid future catastrophe. They’ve shown that gender inequality ties to almost every major threat we’re facing today, from climate change, to extreme poverty, to systemic oppression. We simply can’t target these issues as a society while women around the world are still earning less for the same hours of work, laws failing to include women are excluding them, and they’re underrepresented in almost every position of power in every country on earth. Giving women access, resources, and a voice through groups like the Women’s Organisation is a central part of the IPSP’s vision for social progress.

What did the process of directing A New Society look like?

A New Society is the first feature-length documentary I directed in my life, so of course that came with its challenges. I owe many thanks to Eileen Jerrett, my producer and mentor, for believing in me and taking me through the process of directing a documentary from beginning to end. We worked together as a two-woman team while oceans apart (Eileen in Seattle and I in Amsterdam).

The 9-hour time difference didn’t make things much easier, but we were both so passionate about the project we made it work. Once we picked the panelists to interview, I researched each person, visited them in their homes, and took part in their daily lives for a few days. The toughest part was cutting all 8 authors down to one 56min film. For several months, I painstakingly transcribed the 2-4 hour interviews with Eileen, then I’d edit each interview to about an hour and send the cut over to her for further notes. We’re both incredibly happy with how the film turned out, and I’m thankful for the experience of directing A New Society and all the lessons it taught me.

As a part of a 2-woman filmmaking team, what was the transition like for you making this career change? 

Eileen and I did our best to empower and encourage each other while making this documentary. The hardest part was working together while we were thousands of miles apart. It was also a huge transition for me because I had recently moved to Amsterdam, a city completely foreign to me, and was working from home. I had to really make an effort to meet people and assimilate because I didn’t have the luxury of meeting people through work. Now that I’ve been self-employed for about two years, I absolutely love the freedom it gives me and I’m very used to collaborating with people internationally. It’s opened many doors for me because I am no longer confined to working with someone in the same city as me, and technology allows me to work with others on personal and intimate projects while being oceans apart.

Do you have any advice for women looking to go into film-making or to dedicate their careers to social justice?

My advice to other women going into filmmaking, social justice or any career is that hard work pays off. Don’t expect to start at the top, there’s really no such thing as an overnight success. If you want something, fight for it, then fight for it some more and I promise you’ll achieve your goal eventually. You also don’t have to go through the journey alone: find your mentors early on to guide you and keep you grounded. Don’t let the patriarchy get you down, and don’t compete with your fellow woman. There is room for all of us to succeed, and there is strength in our solidarity.

What’s next for you?

Filmmaking has become a part of who I am, and I want to continue using it to shed light on underrepresented issues that affect women in particular. I’m currently developing a documentary series called Period Piece, which will be dissecting the role of menstruation in Western society today. To keep up with our developments, follow @periodpiecedoc on Instagram!

Author’s Bio: Mously Lo is studying Economics at Princeton University. She is passionate about women’s rights, economic inequality, and racial injustice. With the International Panel on Social Progress, she aims to bring together activists, academics, and policymakers to redefine social progress.