I don’t want to bury the lead. Girl Rising was beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. I know I’m pretty invested in the issue of girls’ education, but I was in tears through most of the film and afterward I sat in the car and sobbed. The film was an overwhelming experience, but in the best way possible. tl/dr: See this film.
Girl Rising is playing in Regal Cinemas nationwide from yesterday until Saturday, April 27th. Find your local theater here. Do it.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the myriad programs and initiatives to raise funds and awareness to educate girls in the developing world. It’s been kind of amazing, because when I started my research and started following these programs, there wasn’t much buzz about them outside of the UN and NGO club. Suddenly, however, awareness is everywhere. Something is working!
In my analysis of these programs, I’ve focused mostly on the way they portray girls in the developing world and the rhetoric of investment used when discussing their education. While I fully support the cause for universal education (Get the Facts), I’ve been pretty critical of the way these programs tend to reduce education to an economic investment and portray the girls as a resource or as victims of systems beyond their control.
Girl Rising, directed by Richard Robbins and funded by 10×10, CNN Films, and other corporate partners, tells the story of nine girls who fought against their own oppression, often with the help of family or other women. The girls were paired with writers from their own country to capture the story they wanted to tell. Then, the girls play themselves (with the exception of two girls who didn’t feel safe doing so) in the dramatization of their story. The film is really more creative nonfiction than straight documentary as each chapter combines poetry, art, fact, and imagination to capture not just what really happened, but what the girl and the writer want to convey about what happened. The stories look and sound like a collaboration between the filmmakers, writers, and the girls. I think that collaboration is key because it shows that the girls are empowered to share their stories. They have a subjectivity in the process and aren’t being used as mascots for the cause. The film also resists exploiting the girls stories, as there are moments throughout in which the unspeakable happens to the girls and the narratives work around these moments conveying the unspeakableness, not the moment about which the girl does not wish to speak.
When I read about the film, I was concerned that this format would take the girls’ voices from them. I wondered why they weren’t telling their own stories. In the film, however, there are breakthrough moments when the girls do speak, either in acting out their stories or directly to camera. In these moments, through declarative statements, it’s clear that the girls are invested and involved in telling their stories. Further, each chapter is unique visually and in tone, emphasizing that the girls are individuals. Still, there’s the implication that though each girl is unique, she is also just one of many girls struggling with similar obstacles. In this way, the film accomplishes what so many other artifacts for the cause have failed to do. Girl Rising treats girls in the developing world as individuals with interiority while also building a transnational coalition through shared experience. It’s beautiful. And the film is laced with so much joy.
Further, the film does not promote the narrative that the girls are victims or that NGOs and western do-gooders are their heroes. In the stories, the girls make changes through standing their ground and/or through the help of other people in their communities, parents, advocates, or other women. In this way, the film depicts NGOs and donors as helping to facilitate change, not as the changers. The girls are portrayed as intelligent, empowered, and deeply loved.
Finally, though the transitions between chapters, narrated by Liam Neeson, use the typical discourse about investment in a financial sort of way, the narratives of the girls do not depict girls’ education as a financial investment. It’s always bothered me that these discourses reduce education to increased wages and lower birth rates. These discourses seem to just take the objectification of girls in one context and transpose it to another–“we’ll liberate her, but for economic purposes.” In the stories, however, you see that education frees girls, empowers them, and gives them a path to purse what they love for themselves. The girls are smart, and many of them are interested in math and science, but they are also artists, poets, songwriters, dancers, talk show hosts, etc. The film doesn’t engage with a false binary between education as an economic boon and education as enrichment. Instead, it shows how a well-rounded education impacts the entire way a girl thinks of herself and the way her community sees her too.
I want to close with the words of Director Richard Robbins on his skeptical journey to committing to the cause: “So why did I doubt it for so long? Why do you? And that’s when I realized that I’d been lied to. And the sad truth was that I wanted to be lied to. The lie ‘they’ told me was that nothing worked. That extreme poverty — the crippling, mind-bending deprivation that hundreds of millions of people endure — was just too big and too deep. And sure, maybe you can make a difference here and there. Maybe you could find a way to do some good. Help one deserving person. But really, at the end of the day, don’t worry yourself about it too much, because really nothing works…And then, along came girls’ education — something that worked. And it wasn’t obscure or complicated or implausible. And every time I dug deeper, there was more evidence, studies, and statistics. Nobody is saying that educating girls is a cure-all for what ails the world. But it is so empirically and universally effective, that it demands we pay attention.” (HuffPo)
The film ends with a call for donations. I knew it was coming and it felt a little off-putting to pass the plate after such a beautiful film. But the thing is, the villain in the film is crushing poverty. Fundraising makes all the sense in the world, especially as the film has already established that the girls have the drive and desire, they just need things like books and pens, and safe places to learn. As a teacher and someone who studies these issues, I just want to do more.
Below is my summary of the girls’ stories and the way they were constructed. It’s pretty detailed in case you can’t see the film—I had to drive an hour each way and it was so so so worth it. But I fully recommend you see it if you can and I hope there will be a DVD release.
The Girls Rising
Sokha, Cambodia (Writer: Loung Ung)
Sokha was a child living in the dump until she was found and sent to school. Once there she studied so hard that she quickly rose to the top of her class and was moved to a better school. She’s now college-bound. Sokha’s story is told through emphasizing her love of dance, inter-cut with moments showing her dancing, punctuating the movement of her narrative.
Wadley, Haiti (Writer: Edwidge Danticat)
Wadley was a 7 year-old schoolgirl memorizing the words of Toussant Louverture (and wishing she had words of brave and strong women like her mother to memorize) when Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake brought her world down around her. After the earthquake, she discovers that the school is open again, but her family no longer has enough money to send her. Money is still unclear to Wadley, but she understands that it affects a person’s status, health, and safety. Wadley goes to school and is sent away by her teacher until she can pay. Undeterred, Wadley returns the next day, and promises to return every day after until the teacher lets her stay. With a half-smile, the teacher tells her to take her seat, and one of Wadley’s classmates gives her hand a squeeze under the desk. Wadley’s story is structured around the metaphor of the wildflowers that Wadley loves. As if by magic, the flowers bloom during the dry season.
Suma, Nepal (Writer: Manjushree Thapa)
At 6 years old, Suma was bonded as a kamlari, forced to do hard labor and endure cruel treatment by a series of three masters because her parents could not afford to keep her at home. At her second master’s house—where she is called “unlucky girl”–Suma begins to write songs to express her feelings about unspeakable things. There are beautiful scenes in which present-day Suma sings her songs to the depiction of younger Suma. When she was 11, her third master had a lodger, a school teacher, who enrolled her in a night class designed for kamlari and taught by social workers. It was the first time Suma had been to school and where she learned that her bondage was illegal slavery. Her teachers went to the house of her master every day, demanding her freedom until Suma was liberated and returned to her parents. Suma says that she is her own master now and after her everyone in her family will be free. Suma has continued her education and also fights to liberate other kamlari. Her songwriting is used as a metaphor for her shared fight, as “others pick up the tune and start singing too.”
Yasmin, Egypt (Writer: Mona Eltahawy)
Yasmin does not play herself in the film. She has never been to school. Her story takes place in a police department as Yasmin and her tearful mother report an attack against her. The police ask Yasmin why she is there and she replies “I am a superhero.” As she recounts her story, the film cuts to an animated, comic book-like reenactment. Yasmin tells the officers about how a man offered her a ride on his cart and she ended up in a dark place with him where he threatened her. But she is a superhero so she fought him in a long battle. “He was a bad man. He left me no choice,” she says. The narrative works around Yasmin’s inability to verbalize that the man was trying to rape her in a way that also resists casting her as a victim. Instead, 12 year-old Yasmin is the hero of the story. One of the officers tells her “It’s good you didn’t kill the man. I’d hate to put a smart girl like you in jail.” and later that he has a daughter younger than her and maybe they should meet so she can learn to be a superhero too. At 13, Yasmin has still never been to school and is engaged to be married. Girl Rising’s partner NGO tried to enroll her in literacy classes, but her mother thought that marriage would provide her more security. Girl Rising has since lost touch with Yasmin and her family.
Azmera, Ethiopia (Writer: Maaza Mengiste)
Azmera’s story is book ended by the Icarus myth, but focuses on Azmera as her own legend—named for the harvest, trapped, and fiercely loved. Azmera is the only living daughter of her mother, Itenish, a widow who also grieves the loss of a daughter. In her rural community, most girls are married young and it is said that if a girl is married too young, she will be split in half by her husband. The story asks, “What does it mean to split a girl? Is it like tearing a photo down the middle while each half witnesses the other made a ghost?” When a man comes and asks for Azmera’s hand, Itenish can see no other way to assure a future for her daughter. Azmera’s brother, however, came in from the fields and said he would sell all he had and work all his life to ensure Azmera could stay at home. He gave her the gift to say “no” and wanted her to have a life with choices. Azmera’s story asserts that “we must reach out with both hands and hold [girls] until the halves fit again” and turns a brother’s love into the stuff of legend. Currently, Azmera is studying to be a teacher so she can help other girls have a life full of choices.
Ruksana, India (Writer: Sooni Taraporevala)
Ruksana and her family live in a slum on the pavement in their city. Her mother often wonders why they left the happy life of their village to come to homelessness in the city, but her father insists that their three girls have a chance at education. Ruksana is kicked out of math class one day for drawing in her notebook. Instead of getting in trouble with her father, she is escorted to an art store where he buys her a notebook and markers. “Somedays there was not enough money for food, but today there was a notebook and colored pens!” she exclaims. She promises her father that she will only draw in her art book and will study hard every day. When the monsoons come, her family’s slum is broken up by the police. “Everyone was crying, even my drawings,” Ruksana says. Now it is her father who wishes to go back to the village, but her mother asserts that they haven’t struggled this long just to leave because they’re told to. Ruksana’s story is full of moments when her drawings come to life, representing her dreams for a better world. Currently, she is still in school. Her parents can’t afford a place to live, but they make sure they have the money for tuition, uniforms, and other supplies.
Senna, Peru (Writer: Marie Arana)
Senna, 14, is named for Xena: Warrior Princess, because her father wanted her to grow up to be a warrior, a fearless defender for the poor. Senna grew up in a mining town high in the Andes. The harsh environment and poverty made life hard for everyone. After her father has an accident in the mines, her mother and sister go to work, but her father insists that she stay in school, saying she had the makings of an engineer. As her father’s health declines, Senna is too worried to focus in class, but she finds refuge in poetry: “Poetry is how I turn fear into will.” Though she is from “the poorest family in a mud hole of poor people,” Senna perseveres through personal tragedy to continue with her education, claiming that the fortune her father searched for in the gold mines was in her all along. Senna’s story is told in black and white, structured by poetry recitation and photography. It’s also really critical of the the effects of poverty. Currently, Senna was moved to a city down the mountain and to a better school. She continues to write poetry and fight for the poor.
Mariama, Sierra Leon (Writer: Aminatta Forna)
Mariama excels in school and loves science. She also works as a host on a local radio station. She lives with her mother, a widow who married her husband’s younger brother per tradition, and the woman her step-father married for love. After her step-father faces criticism because of Mariama’s show on the radio and her thriving social life, he demands that she quits. Mariama uses Newton’s laws of physics to solve the problem. She realizes that her step-father’s generation feared that educated children lost respect for their parents. She seeks an equal and opposite reaction by playing her show for her step-mother and explaining how she uses her show to help other girls in the community. Her step-mother convinces her step-father that he overreacted and she’s back on the air. Mariama dreams of hosting her own TV show and of being the first African in space. She’s insatiably optimistic and adorable. Mariama’s story is told through a combination of film and illustration. It also sounds a lot like the opening to Clueless. “I actually have an average life for a teenage girl…” Currently, she’s co-authoring a report on gender equality in Sierra Leon and on track for college.
Amina, Afghanistan (Writer: Zarghuna Kargar)
In stark contrast with Mariama, Amina says she is “a girl masked and muted. So what can you truly know of me.” She has no birthdate, no power, and has lived a life of servitude. The few short years she spent at school were the happiest of her life, but at 11 years-old she was sold into marriage: “My body is a resource which can be spent for men’s pleasure or profit.” For her hand, her father received ~$5,000, which he used to buy her older brother a used car. Amina has a deep anger because she knows that things were not always this way in her country. She knows the stories of women just 100 years ago who were educated and had a voice. On her wedding night, she says, her new husband planted the seed of their son and the seed of her anger. When her son is born she nurses him and her resentment for the life she lives, caged in a shroud. Amina’s story ends with a call to action. It’s not clear if she’s addressing her oppressors or the audience as she vows to endure and prevail and calls out the systems that keep her where she is: “I don’t believe in your resignation…Your silence has already spoken for you.” It will give you chills and actually seems to dialogue with the director’s comments above. Though there are now more girls in school in Afghanistan than any other time in the country’s history, Girl Rising cannot offer an update on Amina because continued communication could endanger her safety.
Buy Girl Rising at Amazon March 4th, 2014 or preorder today.