As the closing credits roll on the silver screen, the filmmaker gets up from her seat in the very back row and makes her way to the front of the room. The audience, having sprung to their feet, cheer and applaud her as she passes by. The outpouring of gleeful admiration brings the 26-year-old filmmaker to tears. Once at the microphone, she stands in silence for several seconds, hands resting over her heart, taking in her audience.
This moment did not happen at SXSW or Sundance. We were not at Cannes. We were a gathering of approximately 150 human beings inside a gymnasium in a women’s prison in the small Central Texas town of Lockhart.
I learned about 26-year-old Holli Rae and her first film, The Goddess Project, after watching the trailer on Facebook in early fall of last year. The documentary film — which imaginatively captures intimate conversations with women from across the United States on topics such as self-discovery and living your truth — spoke directly to me, as I’m in the midst of a career transition. Seven years of voluntarily helping women at Lockhart prison write their life stories has revealed to me a common narrative of childhood sexual abuse and violence. Their stories have called me into action. As I write this, I am seeking a new professional path to help change this narrative on a broader scale.
But back to the screening at the prison…
I was standing next to Holli as she was rendered speechless by the women’s standing ovation. In organizing the screening at Lockhart, I had been focused entirely on the film’s potential impact on the women behind bars; I had never stopped to think how it might affect this free woman from beyond bars.
In The Goddess Project, women from all walks of life are asked to speak to their experiences of being a woman in today’s world. The women speak candidly of defying stereotypes, challenging stigmas, overcoming hardships, finding their voices, the importance of sisterhood, and how the media and history books marginalize women and perpetuate inequity between the sexes. While the women’s experiences are wide-ranging, their takeaway is the same: We women have so much to offer — ourselves, each other and this world — when we believe in ourselves and empower each other.
About a month before the screening at Lockhart, I had reached out to Holli, who lives in California, to introduce myself and inquire about hosting a screening in Austin. However, Holli had another idea. It turns out she already knew of me. Only months earlier, she had stumbled upon and listened to my CreativeMornings podcast and was moved by my story. She wanted to know if I could arrange a screening at the prison where I volunteered.
“When I started making this film, I always dreamed that women from all over the world would see it,” she told me. “I never imagined I would be able to show it to women in prison.”
Those words — I never imagined — had energy behind them. I knew I had to move on her idea. It just so happened I was meeting with the warden the following day on a separate matter, so I pitched Holli’s idea of a screening. To my surprise and delight, he gave his approval, and the wheels began to turn.
I worked with the prison to set the date and reserve the gym. I posted on social media that I needed audio-visual equipment for this special screening and, within hours, people came forward to help. I asked a friend if she would design a promotional poster to display in the prison dormitories, and she produced it gladly. Holli secured a buddy pass to Austin from a friend in the airline business, and I found a place where Holli could stay for free. “Of course!” my friend had said when I asked if she would offer up her rental cottage.
“If you just trust and begin, things unfold. People show up.”
— Nancy B. Berggren, The Goddess Project
The day of the screening, the warden greeted us in the lobby with his usual beaming smile and strong Texas drawl. Seeing the 6x8-foot portable screen, loud speakers, tripod stands, projector and all the associated cables and cords we were unloading from my SUV, he called for two wheeled carts on his handheld radio. “It’ll be a moment,” he apologized. “We’re just finishing up chow.”
After being patted down at security and exchanging our drivers’ licenses for visitor badges, we steered our carts of equipment through multiple sets of heavy steel doors that buzzed open and closed before arriving at the gymnasium.
The chaplain’s crew, wearing purple vests over their white prison uniforms, had already set up multiple rows of white plastic chairs with an aisle down the middle — just like in a theater, except for the wooden signposts that designated separate seating for the prison’s four dormitories. I began unloading equipment and setting up the white screen and loud speakers, as Holli got to work connecting her offline laptop to the projector. I was so grateful that the warden, a male officer and three women from the chaplain’s crew were there to help us set up, so we could start on time.
About 20 minutes to the hour, the guards called out the women, who began filing into the gym. I was pleased to see so many familiar faces — former students from past semesters. We greeted each other with excited exclamations of “Happy new year!” and “Good to see you!” and “How’ve you been?”
Before the film, Holli shared with the audience that she began working on The Goddess Project at age 21 with her best friend. She spoke about growing up with pressure from her parents to pursue a pragmatic career, like law or medicine, but then choosing to be an artist instead. She spoke of earning a scholarship to art school because her parents wouldn’t support her impractical career choice. She mused that she then dropped out of art school to make this film. Holli and her best friend embarked on a seven-month, cross-country road trip in a school bus to record the stories of women — young and old, of all classes, of all colors — who were following their dreams. Two Kickstarter campaigns funded their journey and the making of “The Goddess Project.” She shared that although she has yet to make a penny on the film and she continues to work as a freelance graphic designer to make bills, she remains hopeful that someday soon major theaters will pick up her film.
Can I tell you how FUN it was to watch the women’s expressions as this mild-mannered twentysomething in a jean jacket recollected the past five years of her young adult life? The women were leaning forward in their chairs, grinning from ear to ear and bursting into applause with each new revelation of boldness that this young woman exemplified.
“We are here on this Earth only for one reason, and that is to serve as each other’s examples.” — Basia Kowalik, The Goddess Project
During the film, Holli and I sat at the very back because she wanted to watch the audience’s reactions.
The women delighted in watching 78-year-old Nancy B. Berggren, whose high spirits and hutzpah shatter stereotypes of how “old women” should act and behave. When the senior actress spontaneously broke into a little ditty, singing about traveling the world and finding new romance, infectious laughter rippled through the audience. As Nancy hit her final note, the women clapped and cheered as if at a live concert.
During a short animation on the social stigmas surrounding menstruation, I heard nervous giggling and gasps from the audience as a cartoon figure of a little girl, entangled in toilet paper, hopped from the toilet to the bathroom sink, desperate to clean herself up after discovering she had gotten her period. As the animation culminated with the little girl triumphantly surfing “a red sea” on a maxi pad because she had learned to be unashamed and comfortable with her body’s natural processes, the stifled giggles erupted into laughter.
In another scene about the importance of self-love, a woman shared a game-changing moment in her life when her friend plainly stated: “You know, if you talked to me the way you talk to yourself, we wouldn’t be friends.”
Upon hearing this, a woman sitting across the aisle from me let out a sharp “Hmmm.” Truth recognized and acknowledged.
After the film, I facilitated a Q&A with Holli, and we opened the floor for comments. A woman who introduced herself as a peer educator at the prison was the first to speak. She thanked Holli for making the film. In particular, she remarked on the film’s message of women empowering women.
“We have to stop putting each other down,” she said. “We need to support each other.” Her words elicited applause, head nods and several enthusiastic declarations of “YES!” from the audience.
The next woman to speak walked up to the microphone with the assistance of a cane. “Thank you for making this film; it reminded me that I once had dreams,” she began. “I think all of us, at some point, had dreams.”
She went on to say that she felt inspired to go back to school when she gets out later this year, despite being in her latter 50s. She cited Holli’s mom — who shared in the film about going back to school after raising her kids to become a professional baker — as her inspiration.
“It’s never too late to make something of yourself,” she said.
Another woman, wearing a picture of her daughter around her neck, was next to approach the microphone — all the while her head down and still writing in her notebook.
“I’ve been taking notes through this whole movie,” she admitted. “How do you spell Noramay’s last name?”
“C-A-D-E-N-A,” Holli said, spelling the last name of Noramay Cadena, a rocket engineer and a founder of Latinas in STEM. Cadena, who grew up in a poor neighborhood and had a baby while still in high school, changed the trajectory of her life when she followed a mentor’s advice to pursue engineering because she was good at math and science. After applying and getting accepted to MIT, the young mother traveled across the country with her 1-year-old daughter to earn her degree.
The woman with the picture of her daughter around her neck wrote Noramay’s last name in her notebook and then thanked Holli for coming to Lockhart and returned to her seat.
In addition to their questions, the women had so many encouraging words for Holli — and for me, because I shared a little about following my heart to forge a new career path in prison rehabilitation and re-entry work. They applauded us, told us we could do it and to not give up. They wanted us to know they sincerely believed in our dreams.
“Others see their possibilities in you.” — The Goddess Project
The following evening, Holli and I met up again, this time at the Regal Arbor Theater in Austin for a one-time screening of her film, thanks to a “theater on demand” platform that enables independent documentaries to be shown in major theaters if enough people buy tickets online beforehand. It was a sold-out show.
About 20 minutes to the hour, women from all parts of Austin started filing into the theater. I was pleased to see so many familiar faces. We greeted each other with excited exclamations of “Happy new year!” and “Good to see you!” and “How’ve you been?”
When the house lights turned down, everyone quickly settled into their red-cushioned theater seats, and “The Goddess Project” played on the big silver screen.
Infectious laughter rippled through the theater as 78-year-old Nancy B. Berggren spontaneously burst into song. And when the senior actress hit her final note, the audience clapped and cheered as if at a live concert.
I heard nervous giggling and gasps as the cartoon girl, entangled in toilet paper, made her way to the sink, and outright laughter as she triumphantly surfed the red sea on a maxi pad.
When the woman shared her friend’s words — “You know, if you talked to me the way you talk to yourself, we wouldn’t be friends” — my girlfriend sitting next to me let out a breathless, “Wow.” Truth recognized and acknowledged.
The moment the film was over, the audience cheered and applauded. And when they saw Holli making her way to the front of the room, they sprung to their feet. Another standing ovation.