Case Studies

THE QUIPU PROJECT: Elevating Voices

The objective of the Quipu Project was first and foremost to engage, connect, and mobilise women in communities across Peru who had been forcibly sterilised to share their stories. In so doing, the Quipu team aimed to amplify their testimonies for an international audience, which they hoped would in turn help them pressure the Peruvian state to act on the issue and also lead to greater support for these women, including among urban elites in Peru who often do not recognise the discriminatory nature of these policies.

Given the repressive nature of the Peruvian state, and the sensitive nature of the women’s experiences and stories, the Quipu team took precautions to protect the privacy and ensure the consent of the women who participated in the project. At the same time, they also made creative choices to ensure the rich and powerful character of their testimonies would be preserved, from using subtitles rather than dubbing over their voices, to centring their testimonies online and presenting them over moving images of the villages and environments they reside in, so that no voice was decontextualised. The result is a series of powerful testimonies, collected in an accountable way, and presented in a documentary and online format that has helped to garner a great deal of attention for the issue.

The team noted that in Lima, as in other parts of Peru, many resist the idea that the state policy on sterilisation was discriminatory and unjust. So, the team developed an engagement strategy that focused on screenings in the provinces where women had these experiences, and the promotion of both the web interactive documentary and the film internationally, where they hoped to build sympathy for their cause. This distribution strategy led to coverage of the web interactive documentary, the short film and therefore the issue in many international outlets, such as: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, Scroll India, Wired, BBC World Service, TV Perú Noticias, La República, The Conversation, Latin Correspondent, New Internationalist, El País, New Statesman and more.

The increased visibility brought more visitors to the website and opened possibilities for alliances with other organisations working on forced sterilisations in other countries like India and the Czech Republic. As a result, they were able to build even greater international support and cooperation around the issue. Esperanza Huayama Aguirre, who is featured in the film, has since become a renowned human rights activist in Peru, has met with Peruvian Ex-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, visited the UK Parliament looking for support on their case, and has appeared in national and international media including the BBC, Reuters, El País, Vice and other outlets to lobby for the recognition of their grievances.

The solidarity they have received has been important to the women. For many of them, this was the first time that their stories were acknowledged outside their own communities or families. Many reported that listening to other women’s stories showed them how their experiences were part of a broader pattern, and this encouraged them to share their story and join forces to seek justice.

Human rights organisations in Peru continue to draw from The Quipu Project archive to support their legal and advocacy work. Amnesty International’s Against Their Will campaign has used it to press Peruvian Ex-president Ollanta Humala to track down scores of Andean women who might have been forcibly sterilised by government doctors in the late 1990s, and create a list of potential victims of former President Alberto Fujimori’s controversial birth control program as a first step toward compensation. And the Asociación de Mujeres Afectadas por Esterilizaciones Forzadas/AMAEF-C (Association of Women Affected by Forced Sterilisations), a 15-year-old organisation that raises awareness of the issue and represents over 1,300 women who were forcibly sterilised, has seen an increase in the number of women interested in organising with them, and their organisation being more recognised national and internationally.

In the last two presidential elections in Peru, Keiko Fujimori (Alberto Fijumori’s daughter) ran and lost. Throughout her campaign, she consistently denied any wrongdoing by her father’s sterilisations programme, and her success would have certainly quashed the women’s efforts. While there is no way to directly measure the Quipu project’s impact on her campaign, what is clear is that the fight for justice of the women’s groups, presented in different forms and platforms, helped to create a more conscious and sympathetic perception of the sterilised women throughout the country. The film and project played a role in that, since every form of support for the women’s campaign, including the exposure of their own testimonies, was crucial in influencing the popular vote against Fujimori.

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Transgender, at War and in Love was a film that emerged out of the TransMilitary project, which strived to help elevate the stories of transgender service members who were still banned following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Activities to achieve transgender inclusion were driven by organisations such as the research think-tank The Palm Center and the advocacy organisation SPART*A, which worked with service members to educate people within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) about ending the ban. Fiona Dawson had never made a film before, but she was involved in this effort and knew they needed a way to communicate why some DoD policies were outdated and discriminatory against transgender service members. 

“Presenting the data alone just wasn’t going to do that. We also needed to touch hearts and minds,” she explained.

When the New York Times learned she had started documenting the stories of transgender service members to raise awareness of their concerns, they teamed her up with director Gabriel Silverman  and producer Jamie Coughlin of SideXSide Studios. Things started moving quickly after that. Within six weeks time they had their short about Logan and Laila, an emotionally compelling love story that helps audience members understand the impact of these policies on people’s lives. The timing worked in the film’s favor: Caitlin Jenner had her Vanity Fair cover that same week, so the media was abuzz with the story and anything related. As a result, Transgender, at War and in Love became one of the most viewed Op-Docs.

The same afternoon of the film’s release, the Air Force elevated discharges to the Pentagon level, meaning that if a leader wanted to discharge an Airman for being transgender they had to send the directive up to the the central Air Force review board. “We’re sure this directive didn’t get put together in a few hours and had likely been in motion for some time, but we think the Op-Doc probably nudged it forward a bit more quickly than it might have otherwise,” says Dawson.

Whether this was simply a moment of stars aligning or if there was a bit of cause and effect, we may never know. But what’s certain is that when it comes to using film to raise awareness and “change minds,” timing can make all the difference. A well-crafted release plan can build on existing momentum, add nuance to the popular narrative, and direct it in strategic directions (such as the military) to help the broader public make new connections and build public pressure.

Transgender, at War and in Love has been used within the military in various local units and educational institutions, and one of the film’s subjects, Army veteran Laila Ireland has given numerous speaking engagements after the short’s screening. The free availability of the piece online through the Op-Docs platform means the team was not able to track all the ways it was used. But three years after the film’s release, in June 2016, the ban was lifted. This was the work of countless unsung organisers and institutions across the country, the sacrifices of transgender service members, the efforts of civic and military leadership, and various other media stories about the issue. They all worked in concert to make it happen. And this short film also played a part in that.

For her work on the film, Fiona Dawson received the White House LGBTQ Artist Champion of Change award in 2015 and Transgender, at War and in Love won the White House News Photographers Association's Best Documentary. It was nominated for a GLAAD Award in the Outstanding Digital Journalism  – Multimedia category, and was a nominee for 'Outstanding Short Documentary' in the 37th Annual News & Documentary Emmy® Awards.

The team has since continued to leverage the momentum towards the development of their next feature-length doc, TransMilitary, and Dawson is in post-production on a short narrative film she directed which tells a bisexual story, More Than He Knows.

WATER WARRIORS: Building Power and Community

This powerful 22 minute story takes place in Mi'kma'ki territory, in New Brunswick, Canada, just north of the U.S. state of Maine. It captures a multicultural group of unlikely warriors, including members of the Mi’kmaq Elsipogtog First Nation, French-speaking Acadians and white anglophone families, who mobilise resistance to prevent oil exploration on their lands. After months of resistance, setting up a series of road blockades, their efforts not only halted drilling, but they also elected a new government and in 2016 won an indefinite moratorium on fracking in the province.

Filmmaker Michael Premo initially thought they would make a longer piece, as there was enough footage and he was not committed to a short. But as the story unfolded he realised that, structurally, to create the rhythm and pacing that was evocative of the intensity of being in a direct action blockade, a short would work better. 

Water Warriors became the centerpiece of a transmedia project that included showings of the film, discussions and presentations from community organisations, a touring multimedia exhibit with photos, and regular FaceTime tours of the exhibit in order to connect communities in real time. It was important to the film team to use the story and exhibit to create spaces where other communities could engage and discuss the project in real-time, and be inspired to also mobilise resistance. So they worked with Indigenous educators to offer communities a kit with film posters and promotional images, a curriculum on colonisation/decolonisation, and a 32-page Screening Guide with discussion prompts, a sample event agenda, and background info on the film and the struggle it documents.

The team hoped this film about this movement, a precursor to the Standing Rock protests, could be used as a resource to support communities on the frontlines of struggles to protect natural resources, assert Indigenous sovereignty, and promote a just transition to equitable clean energy solutions. So they designed a campaign plan to help them do that. 

Because they had a very modest budget, they had to remain nimble so that they could build off momentum when and where it was being generated. The campaign kicked off with a robust film festival tour; to date it has screened at 75 festivals in twelve countries, including Tribeca, Doc NYC, DOXA International, Black Star, American Indian Film Festival and Red Nation Film Festival. So the team leveraged these festival showings and the enthusiasm they generated toward a series of new opportunities, such as a deal - brokered by the Tribeca Film Festival - to get Water Warriors onto TVs in airports and waiting rooms through the ReachTV service. 

Tribeca also brokered a deal to get the film onto 1,295 United Airlines in-flight entertainment systems, serving about 150 millions customers annually. And the Black Star Film festival screening led to a deal to show the film through the Xfinity Streampix, Comcast Cable’s streaming service. A Canadian SVOD company, Dokku, also picked the film up. Eventually the film launched into educational distribution through New Day Films and is currently also available for streaming through Kanopy. 

Without a national broadcast or a theatrical run, the film team also had to get creative about how to create a moment with the film to generate interest in the movement. So, they leveraged a partnership with The Council of Canadians, Canada's leading social action organisation, which has over 60 active chapters, to successfully mobilise hundreds of constituents for an international day of action. As a result, Water Warriors premiered almost simultaneously in small communities across eight provinces where the story might not otherwise have traveled, including the Northwest Territories, rural Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba. This led to a profile of the campaign in Canada’s top progressive online publication,, and also became part of the United Nation’s World Water Day celebrations in Toronto, Washington, DC and Rio de Janeiro, among others.

Another characteristic of the Water Warriors impact campaign was that it had a hyperlocal strategy. This posed both challenges and rewards. It was challenging because the local groups were varied in type, focus, and composition. Some were volunteer-run, others were staffed. All of these differences required a customised outreach plan for each, which can be a time consuming endeavor and therefore costly. However, this allowed them to be attentive to the varied contexts and points of focus where they screened, and targeted in their efforts. 

The result was customised partnerships with over 100 organisations and grassroots groups to host events in Oregon, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Brunswick, Canada - each of them locations threatened by pipelines, fracking and offshore drilling - including less-publicised projects such as the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, Line 3 in Minnesota, and Site C dam in Northern British Columbia. The events each incorporated different activities designed to increase organisations’ membership, build awareness around environmental issues and bring together diverse groups of residents who don’t often intersect, who aren’t already involved with an advocacy or organising effort,and who might not normally attend a typical “activist” meeting. 

These activities led a variety of groups to take action in their communities, from school and small grassroots groups such as People’s Place Library in Antigonish Nova Scotia to national-level membership organisations such as the Green Party of Canada and gatherings like the Red Tide International Indigenous Climate Action Summit in Te Kaha, Aotearoa (New Zealand). For example, one screening inspired a group to pressure the San Francisco Estuary Institute to pay a voluntary land tax. Another led a group to gather at their MP’s office to voice objectives to the Kinder Morgan expansion. And other anecdotal reports from partners suggested people were using the film as part of meetings and events to attract new members. 

The team has continued to fundraise to support indigenous leaders to use the film to inspire others. With support from Patagonia, they were able to help at least one of the young First Nation activists in the film, Nipwai, travel through rural areas of western Canada to encampments actively blocking infrastructure, to help spread the story of their success. In fact, they translated the film into French and Spanish and sent copies to people working to block infrastructure developments in Mexico, Central American and Puerto Rico.

Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation Dox Box DOCSP Ambulante MX