Educate girls to change the world
Ryan Summerlin April 1, 2013
Nine girls from nine countries –Cambodia, Haiti, Nepal, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Peru, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan – are represented in the recently released film “Girl Rising.” Their stories are not the same, but the overall theme certainly is: Education is the engine of change for impoverished girls around the world. Narrated by actors and actresses including Cate Blanchett, Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keys, Liam Neeson, Freida Pinto and Meryl Streep, the film screens at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek tonight as a benefit for the Vail Valley Foundation program Girl PowHER, which helps local middle and high school girls. Attendees at tonight’s film screening will meet girls like Sokha, an orphan who rises from a life in the garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to become a star student and an accomplished dancer; and Suma, who writes songs that help her endure forced servitude in Nepal and today crusades to free others.
The foundation is hosting the screening in “an effort to showcase the impact that education can have on girls’ lives, both here in the community and around the globe,” said John Dakin, the vice president of communications for the Vail Valley Foundation.
The film’s director, the Academy Award nominated Richard E. Robbins, took the time to answer a few questions.
Vail Daily: The film is a hybrid of a documentary and narrative film. Can you explain what that means?
Richard Robbins: Well, my approach to filmmaking is as much about problem solving as about any kind of artistic vision. So when we decided that we wanted to tell the stories of these girls, and once we understood what those stories were really about, then we began to talk about the most effective ways to do that. We wanted to keep them very close to the reality, but we also wanted to control the material so that we can be very specific about the story we are telling. I like to think that we have the best of both worlds – the truth of documentary with the control and flexibility of fiction. And each chapter is different. Some involve actors. Some involve no actors. Some involve scripted dialogue, while others have no speaking at all. For us it was really about the best way to tell each story.
VD: You found an incredible group of women from around the world. How did you cast the girls?
RR: We probably met thousands of girls in the pre-production and research. In each of our countries we worked with our partners on the ground who deal with these girls every day – organizations that work directly on girls’ education issues. They helped us meet girls. So we traveled a lot, doing dozens of interviews in each location.
But the final selection of each girl was made by the writer who helped tell her story. To us the whole idea was that we wanted our audience to hear a story from the girl’s point of view – so the story needed to be crafted by someone who understood the girl’s situation better than I could. Our writers are very accomplished women who come from the same country as the girl. These writers looked at the interviews and profiles we gathered in the field, and then chose a girl that she felt connected to. That emotional connection was really the most important thing, because we want to make the audience feel for the girls. Once the girls were chosen, then the writers and the girls spent some time together, and the stories emerged from that.
VD: The film is part of a larger cause led by the 10 X 10 Foundation, to educate girls around the world from impoverished countries. Can you talk about the overall goals and how the film contributes to them?
RR: We laid out three goals at the start. That’s pretty unusual to begin with for a film project, but we felt it was important. We began to talk about them in three simple phrases: Change minds. Change lives. Change policy. The lives we want to change are for the millions of girls out there struggling to get an education. The policies are made by our government, and those around the world. Achieving those changes is the core of 10×10’s mission. That is really channeling the money and energy we can generate into the right places.
But my job – the job of the film – is to change minds. If we can convince our audience that educating girls works, that girls matter, and that the situation out there in the developing world is one we really can affect – that’s a huge step.
My job as the filmmaker is not just to make people understand that girls’ education is important, but to make them believe that the change we need is possible. Those girls are just like our girls. Like girls everywhere. Smart, powerful, and eager to make the world better.
VD: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?
RR: I want the audience to care about these girls. To care about all girls – and I want them to care enough that they want to try and do something to help. Because they can help. It’s that simple.
VD: What was the most memorable part of shooting?
RR: Every one of our journeys overseas was a life changing experience. We shot in some of the roughest circumstances I’ve ever encountered. Worse even than when working in war zones for ABC News. Shooting in Peru at 17,000 feet in the snow. Taking a steadicam through a tent camp in Haiti. Filming on an insanely crowded street in 105 degree heat in Calcutta. So there is a lot of memorable hardship that was involved in the making of this movie.
But without question the things I remember most are the interactions with the girls themselves. Every time our energy flagged or we had problems on the production, we only needed to glance over at the girl whose story we were telling and everything seemed possible. They never felt sorry for themselves. They have boundless energy and optimism. They work harder than me… and I work pretty hard.
Most of all, I loved sitting down with each girl and showing her the pictures of the other girls in the film. I’d get to talk about their stores and kind of introduce this little group to each other. They understood inherently that what we were doing wasn’t just about them, it was about all girls. That was just incredible.
VD: What can viewers do to help the cause?
RR: Well, awareness counts for a lot. Understanding the issue. Talking about it. Reading about it. Tell your friends. Talk to your kids or your parents. Even before you act, just knowing and caring about these girls – that really matters to me, and I believe to the girls too.
But more directly, these girls need help. They are the most powerless inhabitants on the planet. They have the least money, the least protection, the least opportunity. And amazingly they have the most profound impact on changes we all want – less poverty, less injustice, less violence. So I would urge people to find a way to get involved with our partner organizations. These are people whose work we have seen first hand. They are doing incredible things out there in the world – we just need to help them do more of it.
VD: You have assembled an incredible group of female narrators and authors, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, and more. Can you talk about how you got them involved with the project?
RR: Well for me, the film is about giving a voice to these girls. We wanted the best voices we could find. Some of that was getting the writers to help with the words and the story structure. But another important piece was the literal voice. What these actresses can do with their voices – their ability to communicate complicated emotion solely through the sound they generate. That is a truly remarkable thing. Hearing Meryl Streep bring Maaza Mengiste’s words to life was one the absolute high points on this whole project for me.
VD: How did you get involved with this project?
RR: For better or worse, this project was my idea. I was researching a project on a related subject when I stumbled onto some the new studies about the power of educating girls. It blew my mind. I had the reaction that I hope our audience will have – “This is amazing!” and “I have to do something to help!” For me, help became making this movie. I never dreamed it would grow to the scale it has, but there are a handful of subjects that ought to be given as big and ambitious a treatment as we can muster – and this is surely one of them.