When Academy-Award nominated director Richard Robbins set out to make “Girl Rising” — a film about girls in the developing world struggling to get an education — he enlisted prominent women writers from each of the countries featured to tell the girls’ stories.
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Acclaimed Ethiopian novelist Maaza Mengiste chose to tell the story of 14-year-old Azmera — a girl who resisted forced early marriage. She spoke to World Vision about the experience.
What appealed to you about writing for this film?
I liked the fact that the producers wanted to highlight an issue in Ethiopia that was affecting girls’ education, and then personalize the issue by relating it to the life of a particular girl. It was really important to me.
Why did you choose to tell Azmera’s story?
Because she seemed, at first glance, to be completely vulnerable and shy. But she still managed to say “no” — to stand up to her family when they wanted to marry her off. I felt that was an important thing to show and maybe explore a little bit. What gave her the strength to do that?
Did anything surprise you about her story?
My perception in these types of situations is that the girl is with a family that doesn’t really love her and wants to take advantage by marrying her off young. Azmera’s case was completely different. She is in a family that absolutely adores her. The story that emerged from speaking to her mother and her grandmother, who were also married off as children, was the fact that they thought this was the only way to save Azmera. The documentary talks about that fear and where it came from.
What gave Azmera the strength to resist early marriage?
They are [starting to] learn in school that you don’t have to get married at a young age. You are not supposed to get married that young — it stops you from getting your education. I also think it’s because of organizations like World Vision and what they are doing to get this information out. So Azmera sensed: I don’t have to do this just because my family says I have to. There is another way.
Were you familiar with World Vision before?
Absolutely. I remember during the dictatorship, World Vision’s trucks would go from Addis Ababa to different areas to distribute food and so on. When I was old enough, I started sponsoring a child in Ethiopia through World Vision. I’ve been doing that for a number years, and I still sponsor a little girl.
Azmera’s shyness must have been a challenge?
I chose her as a writer and not as a producer or director. I was looking at where I might have a story; not thinking about how she would be in front of the camera.
Did the producers struggle with your choice of subject?
When I picked her they emailed me and said, “Of course, it’s your decision but we would have picked somebody else” [laughs]. I think it scared us all for a while, but it was an amazing experience and an incredible shoot.
In telling Azmera’s story, did it help that you are Ethiopian?
I think it was helpful to be Ethiopian. My own grandmother was married at a very young age; my great grandmother had my grandfather when she was 12. I’m aware of how things have happened in Ethiopia, so I believe I approach it — not necessarily with horror — but with understanding. My task as a writer is to try to understand. I think you get the best writing when you are not seeking to just condemn, but to understand. I think an aggressive stance only meets with aggression.
Request a screening of Girl Rising: directed by Academy Award nominee Richard Robbins, Girl Rising tells the stories of extraordinary girls, written by acclaimed writers and narrated by world-class actresses including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, and Selena Gomez.
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