The LA Times called it illuminating. The Huffington Post hailed it as inspiring. I call it the nonprofit world’s cinematic version of chivalry. New documentary Girl Rising is a problematic implementation of good intentions.
For Girl Rising, 10x10, The Documentary Group, Vulcan Productions, GATHR, CNNFilm, and Intel teamed up to bring us, well, precisely what we might expect from a philanthropic film financed by a subsidiary of the world’s largest media conglomerate and a multi-billion dollar corporation.
Girl Rising opens with a lone Cambodian girl dancing to a Khmer proverb-infused monologue by Alicia Keys but quickly gets to the point, cutting to footage of tiny, grime-covered children picking through mountains of garbage. Liam Neeson introduces us to the smiling faces of Wadley, Sokha, Senna, Azmera, Suma, Mariama, Ruksana, Yasmin, and Amina—nine determined, inspiring girls from Haiti, Cambodia, Peru, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, India, Egypt, and Afghanistan respectively, whose tales of trial and triumph are about to be laid out for us, forming a united and compelling call for girls’ education worldwide.
Of course, it’s not the girls themselves who make this call—it’s American celebrities. The concerned voices of the likes of Cate Blanchett and Selena Gomez recount the tales of these girls, often in first-person. The documentary’s writers take undeniable linguistic liberties in translating and transforming each girl’s story. That is to say, while we watch footage of the girls re-enacting their stories (all but two of the girls play themselves in the documentary), it is not their voices that we hear, nor their own words that are being spoken.
Imagine an American film about women’s oppression in the United States being conceptualized, written, and directed entirely by men. How absurd would it be to hear Leonardo DiCaprio recounting in first-person a woman’s story of domestic violence while that very woman silently reenacted her trauma for the camera? We’d be laughing through our tears.
After a while, this seen-and-not-heard blend of docudrama starts to evoke an eerily familiar feeling: the greasy, guilty unease that stews in the pit of your stomach when your late-night cable comedy is interrupted by a celebrity telethon imploring you to text a number at the bottom of your screen while shocking footage of unimaginable suffering plays in the background. You believe in the cause being promoted, but something about that style of appeal just doesn’t sit right. It’s well-meaning, but it feels exploitative—not to mention that the fundraising appeal at the Girl Rising’s end does little more than confirm that this film is no film at all. There’s no work of art. Seeing “text GIVE to 55155” with a personal appeal from Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto reminded me that a painting stamped with a literal call to action is nothing more than a poster. A film with the same is just a long, expensive PSA.
So, why are Hollywood and the American public so enamored with Girl Rising? Because in the same way that only an annoyingly naïve guy would applaud a male-dominated film about women’s oppression, so too will liberal citizens of the world’s most powerful, controlling country—whose imperialistic policies contributed insurmountable damage to the economies and cultures of these girls’ countries—laud the benevolence of a film that offers them the status of savior in exchange for a simple donation.
It’s a shame that this film’s execution overshadows its own strengths: the stories of these nine girls and the vital cause that is girls’ education. The girls’ stories themselves are truly inspiring. Their tales are not of victimhood, but of bravery and self-determination. In Haiti, Wadley told her teacher that she would come back to school every day until they stopped turning her away. In Nepal, Suma confronts masters of child slaves alongside girls who were rescued, like her, by their female teachers. In Egypt, the self-proclaimed superhero Yasmin stabs her rapist and spares his life, only because he begs for it. These stories unfold throughout the film, powerful in their own right. But their impact is constantly interrupted by the statistics sprinkled throughout and the fact that the voices telling their life stories are not their own.
The team of journalists and executives who hired white, American, male director Richard Robbins to make this film get props for taking on a good cause. But their noble goal doesn’t justify the means.