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Elizabeth Avellán plants seeds of change through Connecther film fest

Sumaiya Malik Special to the American-Statesman
Elizabeth Avellan speaks at a previous Girls Impact the World Film Festival, which is produced by Connecther. The festival spotlights short films made by students from around the world. [Contributed by Jennifer Ramos]

Elizabeth Avellán — mother to five boys and one girl — is all about tough love, self-help and giving back when it comes to children. The Venezuelan-American film producer and co-owner of Austin’s Troublemaker Studios will list the advantages of home schooling and talk in depth about how each one of her kids is already making a mark in society. She is against fitting the norm and is proud that her children are unafraid, something she’d like for all young people. One of her passions is helping children by planting “the seeds of change” they need to lift themselves up.

One of the ways she supports young people is through high school and college filmmaking students whose short documentaries about global women’s issues are a part of the annual Girls Impact the World Film Festival. The festival, which is Sunday at Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew's High School, is the capstone event of local nonprofit Connecther, a crowdfunding website that invests in women who are impacting their communities, both locally and internationally. Avellán is a finalist judge, year-round supporter and ambassador and an adviser-at-large for the organization.

“This is what I love about Connecther — an opportunity to give a voice to young girls to express themselves,” says Avellán, who shared that the nonprofit had short films entered from 42 countries this year. The three- to six-minute documentaries highlight women’s issues.

Avellán says she identifies as a woman of color who is both local and international, something she immediately noticed in Lila Igram, the founder of Connecther. The two met at an Austin Woman Magazine panel discussion in 2014. Avellán was immediately interested when Igram told her about how she had just launched an international film festival for students. “So for Lila to reach (out) globally to help directly fascinated me… how different she wanted to do it and I (too) wanted to help filmmakers. This was a way to start early and tell the girls their stories are valid,” Avellán says.

She is all for supporting causes that give a voice to younger generations. She says she hopes the festival will act as a platform for those voices and that the cash prizes (worth $25,000 this year) will help the young filmmakers break down any walls in the way of their self-expression.

Avellán’s grandfather was able to remove some of the boundaries from Avellán’s life growing up, through his investment in Caruao, a small beach town on the coast of Venezuela bordering the Caribbean Sea. Gonzalo Veloz Mancera, founder of 14 radio stations in Venezuela and the founding president of the Chamber of the Broadcasting Industry until 1952, “built a plaza, school and church in Caruao,” Avellán says. “We spent (lots and lots of) time in that town with dirt roads. We loved going there, as there were no walls. We ran wild with the town children.” The town with dirt roads was transformed as the people benefited from the facilities.

Avellán understood the value of that kind of out-of-the-box carefree childhood and removed the walls while raising her own kids. All of her children are home-schooled except for one (who was in part), and she says they are unafraid of adults, and each one is unique and expressive. Four of them are national level figure skaters — Rebel and Byrdee got second place in the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and Rogue, and Rhiannon earned fourth place in the juvenile division of ice dance in the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Her oldest son, Aaron Burns, has already made a name in filmmaking.

Avellán mentors the young filmmakers whose films are recognized at the festival. Some winners of previous years have already worked on mature subjects and used the Connecther platform to reach higher goals. Halimah Tariq, a lawyer and aspiring documentary filmmaker, won two awards at the fest in 2016 for her film "Scarred Reality" while she was studying at the University of London. She has set up her own film company. Rebecca Dharmapalan’s film "Tune Your Ears," from University of California, Berkeley, received recognition at the fest, and she is now pursuing a master’s degree in human rights law. Dharmapalan also is working on her first feature-length documentary addressing genocide. The seeds of change are already sprouting.

The young filmmakers realize the responsibility behind quality work even more after their voices are validated at the festival, and they then have a bigger desire to excel. “It helps to have responsibility,” Avellán says.

She explained that when she moved to the United States from Venezuela at age 13 with her parents, seven siblings and two cousins, every child was assigned some responsibilities, as her parents were both graduate students. Hers was cooking for 11 family members daily, plus one neighbor’s kid who somehow also needed to be fed. These experiences informed her as a producer and mother.

Academic by nature, Avellán says she remembers fondly how she never complained about the responsibility, and when she went early to Rice University she was more mature than a typical 16-year-old; she realized the value of this opportunity. “I see girls in villages have these responsibilities, and it is not a bad thing,” Avellán adds, referencing some of the short film entries. Avellán has tried to instill this same sense of responsibility in her children, who “have to do laundry, self-care, know how to iron.”

Some of the subjects in the fest’s short films include education, child marriage, economic independence, the gender pay gap, sex trafficking, refugee stories, mortality, poverty, violence against women in media, business, environment and STEM.

One might think the entries focus only on devastating conditions faced by those outside the U.S. “Things happen in our own backyard in this country where we think we have everything,” Avellán says, talking about last year’s runner-up documentary, "The Truth," made by St. Stephen’s High school student Susannah Joffe. The film revealed the story of a young girl from an affluent Austin family who was sex trafficked by her father.

Avellán has been a member of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nine years.

“One of the things we do is to keep an eye out for those who are coming up in filmmaking,” she says. By encouraging young women to have a voice, Connecther is actively supporting new filmmakers.

“Someday, some of these women will become producers, writers … in film and be judged one day by professionals in the academy. For me, it ties together as we are actively building new filmmakers,” she says. "In my lifetime, (I am going) to see someone come out with the encouragement of being in a festival and knowing that (this person) can become a filmmaker.”

(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rhiannon and the spelling and location of Caruao.)

Girls Impact the World Film Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: St. Andrew's Dell Fine Arts Center,  5901 Southwest Parkway

Cost: $25 to $100

Information and tickets: