Social enterprise and the Oscars

What what one film can teach us about the beautiful struggle

Last week I read an incredible NYT interview from the director of the first Oscar-nominated film from Jordan, a beautiful coming-of-age movie in a nearly-forgotten Bedouin culture in the Arab deserts. The director is asked how he conceived of his unique style of filmmaking, writing as he went along, recruiting local /untrained actors. His response is something I will likely never forget:

We didn’t do it because we had a preconceived style or philosophy. It was just a pragmatic solution to the problems we faced in making this film. We didn’t have actors — most professional Jordanian actors are horrifically soap opera-ish, and we couldn’t afford them anyway — and we wanted the film to have an authenticity to it.

I hope I never forget this because it resonates so strongly with the struggle that I believe many social enterprises — particularly those based in the developing world — face on a regular basis. More specifically, it beautifully illustrates several of the lessons we’re learning at Amal.

A few weeks ago, I read an article about a classmate who just raised $60M for his startup, a venture he and a fellow classmate incubated in the same Stanford course where I incubated Amal Academy. I shared this with one of my mentors and she stressed how important it was not to compare, telling a story of a multimillionaire she met that day on Wall Street who was the exact opposite, desperate for the impact and purpose often found in social enterprises.

Perhaps the reason the grass isn’t really greener on the other side is because it’s not actually grass? Each world is so entirely different, it’s just not helpful to compare.

As Naji (the Jordanian director) highlights in his interview:

It’s not like I’m in America or England and I can say, “Hey, I’m a movie director, and I think you got what it takes,” and they [the potential Bedouin actors] think that’s cool. Instead they go: “No, I don’t want to play silly games with you. I’m a man, I’m going hunting.”

It’s so easy to read the latest management books, the latest Medium posts, the latest TED talks and podcasts and think that we’re falling behind because we don’t have the same access to resources, talent, funding, infrastructure, ecosystem, etc. But that’s only one side of the story.

The other side of the story is that these gaps create massive opportunities to be a part of something that has perhaps never been done before, or a part of an emerging ecosystem of “firsts.” For example, if Theeb was not shot in this remote Bedouin community — with all the difficulties and struggle involved — it’s very unlikely that it would have become Jordan’s first Oscar nomination. And many social entrepreneurs face very similar opportunities, which are often disguised as challenges.

Ben Horowitz talks and writes a lot about the psychology battles that CEOs have to face:

By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology… It’s like the fight club of management: The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.

For me, this is the main battle and the key to sustaining: to learn to embrace the opportunities (beauty) that the journey presents, rather than fixating on the endless challenges (struggle).

And if we are able to focus on the opportunities, then we have an incredible chance of innovating in powerful ways. Just like Naji was able to achieve an Oscar-nominated film by overcoming what might have otherwise seemed like a desperate situation (e.g., no actors, no awareness of films, and very little funding to pay for real actors).

In a similar way, social entrepreneurs have a chance to pave new paths. Which first requires the ability to see a potential path in the vastness of the desert, and secondly a courage to move forward one step at a time, accepting that the path might only emerge along the way.

In the words of Jacqueline Novogratz:

You do it, you learn how to do it better. You start to see a path to doing it deeper and in a way that can have exponential impact. And before you know it, a corner of the world starts to change.

It’s said that desperation is the mother of all innovation, but perhaps it’s more accurate for social enterprises to say that it’s really the stepmother, as this innovation won’t happen naturally but only as the result of intentionally looking beyond the desperation.

Finally, it’s possible that we might have to learn how to redefine success. And certainly not to measure it as you would in more traditional start ups (or even other socents): raising $60M, hitting 100 employees, receiving XYZ award or getting press in XYZ magazine, etc.

Perhaps success has to be individually defined and realized. Perhaps, like Narji, it lies less in the achievements and more in the experience and in the moments:

Honestly, I don’t care if I win [the Oscar] at this point because I’ve already won. When the film world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival, we took the Bedouin actors and Bedouin producers with us. I had to get passports for them — it was the first time they were ever on a plane. They arrived in Venice, the exact opposite of the desert, and went into their first cinema to see their first film, which was their film. They got a 10-minute standing ovation. I’ve never seen anyone cry in the village the entire time I was there, but tears were shed that day.

And I know I’ll never have a better experience in my life. Hopefully, I’ll do bigger and better films. But I’ll never again have a moment like that.

All images are screenshots from the film; watch the trailer here and rent/purchase the movie here.

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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