The director of a soon-to-be-released film charting the lives of girls struggling to get an education in some of the world’s toughest places deliberately abandoned the techniques of conventional documentary filmmaking.
The film Girl Rising, whose narrators include Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Selena Gomez, is due for theatrical release in March.
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The film tells the stories of 10 girls from 10 different countries. They include a girl who lives on the streets in India, one who survives on a city dump in Cambodia, and another who lives in a slum in Sierra Leone.
But Academy Award-nominated director Richard Robbins says he was insistent that the focus of the film should be on the girls and not upon their dire circumstances.
“I think that Western audiences visiting the developing world tend to see the surroundings because that is what is unfamiliar to us. But the characters get lost in that picture,” he says.
To bring the girls to life on screen, Richard found published women writers in each of the 10 featured countries. He was convinced that local female writers could best capture the perspective of each girl because of their shared background.
“There’s no sort of omniscient, authoritative filmmaker voice here. We really tried to enter the girls’ world and see it the way that the girls see it,” Richard says.
Each writer was paired with one girl. After becoming closely acquainted with the girl, the writers wrote down their stories in a variety of formats. Some emerged as short stories, some as screenplays, and some as reportage.
As a result, each of the 10 “chapters” of the film has its own unique flavor, says Richard. Sometimes the girls become actors in their own stories; other times the camera follows them as they live out their lives.
He says one of the continual surprises was to discover strength and resilience in the girls when he expected to find despair.
“Whenever I would get overwhelmed I would look back to the girl and think she’s not overwhelmed, she is not discouraged, so I should not be either,” he says.
Another common theme was the girls’ thirst for education.
“I think there is something inherent in childhood — the desire for a better life than your parents had or what you see around you. Then the tools that will help get you where you want to be become something that’s desirable,” Richard says.
Girl Rising is part of the 10x10 social action campaign designed to raise awareness about girls’ education and provoke action to increase their access to it. helped the filmmakers identify two girls for the documentary. World Vision programs to advance the cause of girls’ education will benefit from funds raised by the 10x10 campaign, along with several other humanitarian organizations.
Richard says he’s learned from talking to the makers of other films that hoped to effect positive change in the world — notably Super Size Me and An Inconvenient Truth. While a lot of energy had been put into such films, their makers sometimes confessed insufficient consideration had been given to how the enthusiasm generated among audiences could be harnessed for meaningful change.
For this reason, Richard decided to make the campaign an integral part of the film project from the outset.
“They are coequal branches, and they depend on each other for their success,” he says.
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