CSIS Alum Spotlight: Leah Warshawski

Vaughn Sayers
November 25, 2019
Alumni Stories, Executive Programs

Have you ever heard a story that moved you to act? Your heart races, goosebumps rise on your neck, and before you know it you’re googling “How to…” and almost intuitively Google auto fills in the rest “make this world a better place”. The power of story comes to life through film and film is the medium through which Leah Warshawski is creating social impact globally. Leah demonstrates through her work that, “stories have the power to change the world if the world chooses to listen”. Gain insight on Leah’s journey as a social impact leader at her production company Inflatable Film and learn how the Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy provided support on her journey as a change agent.  

How would you describe intimate storytelling? Why is it important for these stories to be heard? 

That’s a great question and the word “intimate” has certainly become a documentary buzz-word lately. To me, “intimate storytelling” means getting your hands dirty – doing the exhausting and uncomfortable work required to tell stories over time; having access or a unique point of view based on your relationship to the story. Intimate stories are the underdogs, the quiet moments, the punch-you-in-the-gut stories that change your mind and make you feel like you’ve just learned a family secret that nobody else knows. These stories do have the power to change the world if the world chooses to listen. Unfortunately, many intimate stories have an uphill battle to make it to the mainstream market, so a lot of the work I do as a producer and impact producer involves making sure these stories are seen by the largest audience possible.

How can the film industry’s unique platform be used as a tool to create social impact and advance the public good? 

Good films have the power to create emotions that convert passive viewers to active do-ers.

Have you ever seen a film that you’re still thinking about a week later? Or a film that changes your mind or gives you a new perspective [or]education on an important issue? How many times have you been inspired enough by a film to do more research on the topic afterwards, or get involved in the film’s impact campaign? 

In the documentary world we talk about “social impact” all the time – how will our films actually change peoples’ behavior and how do we measure that? My husband and I watched The Gamechangers last week and we vowed not to eat meat again. After seeing the documentary  Blackfish I promised never to go to another zoo or sea-life park and signed numerous petitions and campaigns. When a film sparks emotion, and that emotion turns into passion, anything is possible. Imagine what can happen on a global scale if enough people decide to do something to advance the public good?

Despite all of the digital platforms available from your couch, I’m still a big advocate of seeing films in a theater or community setting. Something powerful happens when you experience a film with community versus on your own, and we see it over and over again with documentary audiences. I call it “group therapy”. Many films cause you to think about your own life differently and we have many people come up after a film and tell us how the film changed their lives. People in the audience become friends with each other and create human bonds / shared emotions that have collective impact beyond what’s possible in the digital realm.

Throughout the documentary BIG SONIA the idea of a “wounded healer”, which you also proposed in your TEDx Talk, is pervasive. Do you find this to be a common thread connecting other stories you have captured on film?

Yes. I seem to be drawn to character-driven stories about resilience, overcoming challenges, trauma, and perseverance. One thing BIG SONIA has taught me is that we all have a story to tell and that all families have things they don’t talk about. At every single screening people come up afterwards and tell us how some aspect of the film relates to their own lives – BIG SONIA is more relatable and universal than we ever imagined. The term “wounded healer” came from our story producer (Eric Frith) and it’s the perfect way to describe Sonia. Despite her trauma, Sonia (94 years old) chooses to drive to work six days a week and “heal” others. It’s a form of redemption – for Sonia and for her customers – and people flock to her tailor shop just to be in her presence. 

How has the Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy affected your capacity to create social impact?

Filmmakers often work in isolation for long periods of time, and the program gave me a way to collaborate, socialize, and brainstorm with like-minded “do-ers”. It gave me professional “tools” for my toolkit that I utilize in my impact work and consulting work with other filmmakers. I feel more confident about coming up with ways to uniquely measure impact for specific projects, and I’m honored to be a part of the 2019 cohort. It’s powerful to feel like I’m not alone in my efforts and goals to create social impact and I’m inspired to work smarter versus just working harder.

Which course(s) in the Executive Program do you reflect on most during your current work?

Learning how to create and track logic models is something that I reflect on quite a bit when I’m creating an impact strategy. What are the differences between outcomes and impact, and what does success look like? Also, learning about different business models for social enterprise was enlightening for me. In the filmmaking world the term “non-profit” can often have a negative connotation, but the course helped me understand how nonprofit and for-profit models can work together and when each might be advantageous.

What are you currently working on and how do you hope to increase your social impact?

I’m currently working on a few feature documentary projects as an Impact Producer – PERSONHOOD (world premiere today at DOC NYC) THE WILD, and BIG SONIA – and developing documentary shorts and features all currently in different stages. I’d like to increase my social impact through my production company Inflatable Film by becoming a go-to impact and outreach company. I want to collaborate with filmmakers and projects that I believe in and work with regional and global orgs who understand the power of film to change the world. My dream is to be able to work with and/or lead a talented and passionate impact team for important films that will have broad distribution through festivals, theaters, broadcast platforms, digital outlets, etc. It’s not enough anymore to make a beautiful and impactful film – people need to see it, and be moved enough by it to want to change themselves, their communities, and the world.

Leah Warshawski produces features, television, commercials, and branded entertainment around the world. Leah’s career in film began in Hawaii working in the Marine Department for LOST and HAWAII. Her first feature film, FINDING HILLYWOOD (2013) won 6 awards and screened at 65 festivals around the world. Leah’s most recent feature documentary BIG SONIA (2017), profiles her 93-year old grandmother (and Holocaust survivor) who still drives herself to work everyday. BIG SONIA won 22 awards at more than 75 film festivals and was eligible for an Academy Award. In 2017, Leah gave a TEDx talk entitled How Do You Cope With the Trauma You Didn’t Experience? She also advises filmmakers on social impact, outreach, marketing, festival strategy and hybrid distribution plans. In addition, Leah co-founded in 2012, a LinkedIn for Rwandan filmmakers supported by Bpeace and The Academy of Motion Pictures. This year, Leah earned an Executive for Social Impact Strategy certificate from UPenn. For a full credit list, please see Leah’s IMDB page.