With an MD from Harvard Medical School and a PhD in cultural anthropology from Temple University, 2001 Fellow Mehret Mandefro is now an award-winning film and television producer, writer, and founder of the multimedia production company A51 Films based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is also the co-founder of the multimedia production company Truth Aid based in New York. As an artist and filmmaker, Mehret draws on her interdisciplinary training to reframe the narrative around the issues she cares about most. She produced the Sundance and Berlinale Audience Award winning feature film Difret, the New York Times’ Critic’s Pick feature documentary Little White Lie, and the 2021 Emmy nominated documentary How It Feels To Be Free.
I consider the work I do exclusively focused on shaping culture. Whether it's a dramatic TV show I am writing, a feature film I am producing, or the upcoming book I am writing, it all comes back to the same thing - shifting the ways in which people see the world through the lens of culture.
You have your own production company and have been working on producing films and TV shows for over a decade. You’re also a doctor and an anthropologist—why has working on film and TV felt like a meaningful way for you to make change?
I think as recent global events have shown, whoever controls the narrative often controls the outcome. I consider the work I do "visual medicine" because I think the discourse about issues I care about, namely race, health disparities, and power, are misrepresented in the public sphere and I believe we need stories that can heal us all.
A51 Pictures is part of Truth Aid Media, the for-profit arm of my business, and Realness Institute is part of Truth Aid Impact, the non-profit arm of my work. Straddling both the for-profit and non-profit sectors is important for creating sustainable change. My wildest dreams for both organizations is to create and distribute content that centers the narrative of women and people of color, as well as building an ecosystem that can train and support the next generation of global storytellers that can help shift culture.
I have always loved stories--even before medicine. And when I got to medical school, what I loved most was listening to my patient's stories. I joke now that I stopped practicing medicine because I decided you didn't have to be sick to talk to me. That's kind of how I think of it. I would have never imagined the life I am living now back when I was in medical school but I still think of myself as a healer.
I think all the stories I tend to tell have an outsider's lens on them and I think that is largely due to my own immigrant experience and being raised as a refugee for the formative years of my life. So I think it has very much informed my storytelling practice now and shaped what I want to do which I would articulate as expanding the narrative around who belongs where. ∎