In a Justice League of Her Own

Call her Hippolyta (Wonder Woman and Justice League), call her Lucilla (Gladiator), call her Christabella (Devil’s Advocate)…just don’t call Connie Inge-Lise Nielsen an underachiever. The Danish mother of five has graced the big screen for over thirty years, speaks eight languages trained six hours a day to perform her own stunts in Wonder Woman. She isn’t afraid to clap back at unjust institutions and passionately propels Human Needs Project, an organization she cofounded in 2010 that has changed thousands of lives in one of the world’s largest slums.

Connie will present the Social Impact Award at the festival’s Epic Anniversary Party on Saturday, June 1 at the Capitol Theatre. We caught up with the inspiring crusader to talk films, feminism, and why helping others take ownership of their future has been such a rewarding role.

GM: What does it mean to be Social Impact Juror for GIFF?

CN: Any event that creates a forum where we can talk about what it is that we’re doing and why we’re doing it is really what we’re there for. We’re there to find a way to talk about the efforts we’re making and to meet like-minded people and ask, “What’s your approach?” and “What can we learn from each other?”

GM: What films are you working on?
CN: I’m shooting two different indies in London right now, one with Jeffrey Dean Morgan called The Postcard Killings and another one with Lily Collins and Simon Pegg called Inheritance. They are both thrillers coming out next year.

GM: Was it a change of pace from big-budget action films like Wonder Woman, through which a new generation has come to know you?
CN: Throughout my career I have had a really healthy balance of big studio and action movies, such as Basic and The Hunted, with some really great actors. I think people are just not so used to recognizing me from one movie to another. I tend to kind of disappear into the characters, and people kind of go, “Wait, who is that person? I know her.” It is an example of the diverse type of roles that I tend to want to play. Just extremely different characters, like this Danish wife of a soldier who’s off in Afghanistan in this wonderful Dogme-style film called Brothers, which I did in Denmark, to characters in big budget films that tend to explore larger but not less, necessarily, universal themes.

GM: Denmark is regarded as one of the happiest populations in the world. How has your upbringing in Frederikshavn influenced your views on social justice?
CN: I think that there is a part of me that is definitely very egalitarian. Denmark is based on very egalitarian views that are reflected through our policies. Education and higher education is free, as is healthcare, which means that we believe the amount of money that you are able to produce in your professional life does not equate with your value as a human being.

I don’t think people talk a lot about that in America. Before I became an American, it horrified me that anyone could be seen as not essential to the state, not important to invest in and further, that there would be such a difference in the money set aside for say, a kid growing up in Greenwich compared to a kid growing up in the Bronx. What must it feel like being a kid knowing for some reason you are less important to invest in than another kid?

GM: What are your thoughts on the college admissions scandal?
CN: There are many ways to look at this. First of all, why is it this insane to get into college in America? If you have a good and decent average from high school and you’ve graduated, why does it take incredible amounts of testing and test preparation that only favors one type of student and not all the types of students who don’t test well? Who’s to say that in five years, they might be as important a collaborator as anyone else?

I think that the SAT really needs to be brought up for consideration. We need to really make sure that passion and discipline and innovative thinking and creativity are as valued as testing skills and also focus on social justice so there’s equal access to everything. I do not condone cheating in any way, shape or form, and I will tell you none of my kids have ever wanted to have it known who their parents were. Ever. They consistently wanted to attain what they had through their own merits. They worked extremely hard, but again, these are kids who had access to any amount of tutoring. My son, when he was getting ready for college, I was able to pay for all of this SAT prep that no kid in, say, Marin City, not far from where we live in Marin, would have access to. If I was so stressed with how I was going to pay the bills at the end of the month and choose whether to pay a bill or buy clothes for my kids or feed them, I don’t think I would have the wherewithal … And that right there brings us back to systemic issues. It is not meritocracy. It is an institutionalized form of injustice, in my opinion.

GM: In Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius tells your character Lucilla, “If only you had been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made.” Now women are the warrior-leaders, such as your character Hippolyta in Wonder Woman and next year’s Wonder Woman 1984. How does this bode for the future of parity in film?
CN: Every transition will take time, especially because the people who make it up in the first place are not necessarily interested in making change. Putting women into all leadership positions is a must, but not just women as a gender, but women who are progressive in terms of the type of change they want to create. Are they willing to take the call to provide systemic change that ensures that it is impossible to pay a man more for the same job than you pay a woman or a person of color? That is what will change things in boardrooms around the world and in the film industry in Hollywood, New York and all the places where we make films.

GM: Do films have to create worlds like Themyscira in Wonder Woman, where men are not allowed?
CN: The way I see it, we have to create allies among men. We have to include men in the conversation, and we have to question the assumptions that we make about ourselves as a community over and over, and these conversations should be open. The more we are prone to asking questions and coming together around answers to things that are inclusive, the faster we will start telling stories that truly express who we are.

We need to remember that when we say to young men that there’s a problem, we’re not making allies. We’re making enemies of feminism. These are conversations we have to continue having collaboratively. What happens is that there’s this outrage culture where, if you don’t follow the rules for precisely the kind of words that are the new keywords for change, there is an uproar and outrage again. We need to come to a place where when we discuss these things, we speak civilly to each other, and we describe—without fear—what it is we’re trying to say.

What happens is we hang people out to dry. I’m not excusing rape or sexual abuse because of power. MeToo has a role, and it needs to continue to play that role. I’m talking about people being pilloried online for using the wrong word. I don’t think the outrage culture is going to help us that much, because people will run out of gas. And what will we have created at the end of all this change?

GM: How do you have the capacity to do so much?
CN: It starts with good health. I work out a lot, I eat extremely well, and I try to sleep as much as I can. I try to enjoy life, love, food, wine, and my incredible, beautiful children. I just get so much out of the sheer joy that I feel for these gorgeous people that I’ve been so blessed to have in my life. I have five sons. The eldest is my foster son from Kenya who is thirty-one and is married to an Ethiopian American. They live with me and my eleven-year-old biological son in San Francisco. I have another biological son who is twenty-nine, and twenty-year-old and seventeen-year-old stepsons.

GM: What led you to cofound Human Needs Project in Kibera?
CN: In 2010 I went to do a movie in a slum called Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. It is one of the four largest slums in the world, with 300,000 to a million people living on two muddy banks of the Nairobi River, which is hugely toxic and has no sewer system, very little access to working sanitation, and a hodgepodge water cartel delivery, which is often not abiding by normal standards for health. That is why the child mortality rate in Kibera is as high as
18 percent for under five [years of age].

When you look at poverty at that level, it’s like a prison with no end to your sentence. Your death is the end of your sentence. And that is because the prison of poverty works like a thick wall between you and the rest of the world. To just finish school when it’s hard to get food or clean water, or you are exposed to sexual violence or you get toxic stress from the amount of violence and shooting and drugs around you, just by the mere lottery of where you’re born, that child will not get to develop the same as everyone else. It creates generational poverty because that access is denied.

Yet what you learn when you go there is that people are not any different from you and me. You have incredible photographers, singers and dancers, computer people, business people, all types, and all they need is access.

GM: How is HNP opening those doors?
CN: Together with my partner [David Warner], who is an incredible constructor, we created the technology—with academics from UC Davis and UC Berkeley and an incredible architect from Harvard University—to come up with a format that provides access to services that you and I take for granted every day. [We established] one centralized place, the Kibera Town Center (KTC), where everyone can come out of their huts and get a hot shower, use a flush toilet. We have given half a million toilet uses, a quarter of a million hot showers. We have recycled 16,000 gallons of black water every day and made it clean. We have built a green infrastructure model that we feel every slum should have, because every slum deserves a place where you can get ready to go to work every morning, shower, pick up your clean laundry and get dressed professionally, grab a cup of chai and get to work.

We give access to as many computers as we can cram into a room to teach people IT, professional skills, so that they know how to access a job, and from there, digital learning that we can bring out into corporations. We offer coding classes, because there are a lot of young coders in Kibera who are extremely bright. We have taken 2,500 young people in less than four years and given them career track IT jobs, career track videographer jobs, helped them build businesses. Whoever has not finished primary or secondary school has the opportunity to come to the KTC and finish, which gets them ready for the next level of jobs.

GM: What philosophy guides your organization?
CN: Any NGO, any organization, has to be led by personal values, and those values have to be part of the culture of what you’re doing. In Kibera, more than 1,000 people were killed between 2007 and 2008 in tribal violence during the presidential elections. It was a volatile melting pot of all of the tribes of Kenya coming together in a place where they would have to compete and lobby for the very meager resources that were there.

How were we going to address raising the beautiful structure of the KTC that provides services to everyone? We would make sure it was seen not as the program of one tribe versus another. This is a peace project, it is
for peace between all tribes, and therefore it has to provide access to everybody.

I said, “If one tribe lived at a river and was able to have all of that water but then told all the other tribes beyond that river that they couldn’t get access to it, what would happen?” They said there would be war. “That’s right,” I said, “because the other people need the water, too. Okay, well then, do you want war or do you want to share?” That is what this is about. All these values are here for a reason. The same for women. I told them if women don’t get the same opportunities, your daughters will not fare any better than your mothers.

GM: How visible are women in this process?
CN: I stood for years inside of small huts in many, many meetings and I kept on saying to the men, “Why are you all sitting up here and the women, the few that are here, are sitting at the back? I need you all to first understand that I need men and women from all tribes in these meetings. Where are the women?” I keep on saying that, every time I walk into a room.

When I first started with HNP, it was just me alone on a board with men. And I consistently said, whatever we’re dictating to the Kibera Town Center in terms of gender equality, we have to have the same rules apply to us. I just continued adding women to the board, and the board is better for it.

Research shows that two women in a room cannot make a difference on a board. You have to have more than two. Once you have three or four women on a board at a minimum, that provides that energy. I think it should be a gender-neutral project that builds into it equal access to the benefits from the system. I can understand why many take issue and make it directly female-oriented. Because it’s a reaction to an enormous inequality that’s out there. But when you’re working inside of a community, you should make sure you’re not creating an even bigger counter-reaction.

GM: How does KTC’s business-nonprofit hybrid promote self-sustainability?
CN: By coming to KTC, you can mentally and in practical terms, prepare yourself for getting a professional-level job. And for all of that, you are paying as a customer, so you’re in charge. You’re the person with the power, not us. And that makes all the difference in our approach to helping. You’ve got to make people believe that they are the ones who are going to make a difference. You can’t use gratitude and grace and pity for that. You’ve got to inspire people and make them believe that you believe in them.

When I see the ladies who come through the Center and say, “Can you help me with this? Can you give me that?” I say, “You know what, I really believe that you can do that. I believe in you. You don’t need me. What you need to do is figure out how to work, to save, so you can study. And then you get a better job. And then you work, to save, so you can study more. You work, you save, you study, repeat.”



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