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Film "Girl Rising" Has Good Intentions—But Ends up as Cinematic Chivalry

Girl Risin logo

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.

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Comments

17 comments have been made. Post a comment.

clarification

there are a lot of valid concerns in this article, but i question criticizing the writers. each girl's story was written by a woman writer from her respective country, presumably after spending ample time talking with each girl. i'm not familiar with all of these writers and if there's any reason to question their involvement, but it's not like a bunch of white people from the u.s. wrote the stories.

That's better, but I still

That's better, but I still wonder what was wrong with the girls' stories in their own words. Maybe they could've used some help from adults, but if they managed to communicate their experiences effectively to the writers, surely they could've done the same for the documentary viewers!

All in all, I'm really sad (and kind of angry) to hear about all the problems with this film because the stories sound incredible. Sometimes I wonder how, with so many talented, self-aware, and intelligent people in the film industry (and the world out large), these things get made, and for so much money! Was there really no one involved who ever said "hold up, maybe we should do this differently?"

Girl Rising

This review is both wrong about the facts, naive about the world, and obtuse about cinema. It's got so much wrong it's hard to even know where to begin. Why is enlisting celebrities (not all Americans) cynical rather than a practical way to attract an audience? This is a film with no known advertising - only the free press earned by celebrity obsessed media. Why is a movie for a cause suddenly a PSA? It's too bad this reviewer wasn't around to explain her rules of art earlier. A painting with a call to action is a poster? This is so a-historical as to be comic. Did the reviewer notice that the stories were written by non-American women? So having a male director makes the whole film a failure... Oh no wait - the stories are good, according to the review - but that probably didn't involve a director. And people like the film because it makes them (the audience) saviors? Really? There are just so many inane and ignorant presumptions here that one has to question the reviewer's agenda. How is it that the reviewer knows which words belong to the girls and which to the writers? And how does she know the director was hired (a recent interview he is quoted as having started the project). Clearly facts are not key to the reviewers argument. Neither, apparently is time in the developing world, work on a film, or analytical thinking.

"Othering" is not good Storytelling

I haven't seen the movie, but I saw there was going to be a showing a while ago in my city, so I checked the website and it shot up a lot of red flags for me.

These types of films (and there are many) really grate on me because they are usually exploitative and paternalistic. And yes, the "white savior" ending is its ultimate goal. The first-person narration here is especially despicable.

I wonder at how the producers chose the countries they did, when in truth, they could have picked any country in the world to talk about educating girls. What I mean is that storylines like this can be very "othering." We are shown how these girls suffer, and told their culture is to blame for their lack of access to education. At the end, viewers are meant to think "thank god we were born in America!" when the reality is, that the U.S. is both responsible for exploiting labor and resources in third-world countries AND there are folks who live here who have lives very similar to those who live in third-world countries. (Girls have a hard time accessing education in a safe way here too. Just check out the This American Life's Harper High School episode.) The result of narratives like this is that we feel our ways are superior. But we don't take into account how our culture is rife with problems too.

Thanks for this review!

A good general rule

Would be to actually see the film, before you comment it.

And while there may be valid issues raised in your comment and the review, Janejane is dead on about the lack of facts and clear analysis in this review.

I do not know how one can

I do not know how one can comment on a movie without seeing it. That's pure judgement. Even if your comment is valid or absolute correct it makes it seem incorrect and invaluable.

Girl Rising

I find it ironic that after all your criticism of the filmmakers calling for donations your article is followed by a donate button, for your very own 501 3c, at the bottom of the page. I guess this makes your "art" just a virtual "psa" then as well too? I personally am very tired of the "white man as savior" dialogue in the development world. Consider for a moment that these films, calls to actions, etc... are intended to be a gateway and a catalyst for new, young activists who are just now emerging? There are good people all over the world just itching to make change but not sure how to do that, some of them simply need to receive the invitation to get involved.

Hypocrite

Dear reviewer, don't complain about people asking for donations....WHEN YOUR WEBSITE ASKS FOR DONATIONS AT THE TOP AND BOTTOM OF THE PAGE.

ummmm........... did it

ummmm........... did it happen to occcur to the writer of this review that the girls featured in this film are unable to tell their own stories to our US audiences because THEY DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH ??? Seriously dude..... !! The whole point being brought out in the movie is that girls in underdeveloped countries are woefully lacking in educational opportunities--but yet somehow, you seem to think they've managed to learn a SECOND language?? Not likley.

And personally, I have no problem with the creators of this film utilizing a few of our famed celebrities to speak on their behalf if that's what it takes to allow the stories of these girls and so many more like them to be told and received favorably by our US viewers.

Finally, if men, along with women, had a hand in creating this movie, WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT??? Why should it be made exclusively by women just because it brings to light issues related to women?? Movies like this should be created by whoever has the most talent and skill and whoever BELIEVES that the issues being presented are a serious problem that we ALL should concern ourselves with and strive to find solutions to.

Period.

Yes!

I can hug you for your comment. FINALLY someone with enough sense to understand that those critics should take their heads outa their asses and use it! Keep dissing on a documentary film that will do more than those whiner babies will. Thank you for saying what you did, I can leave this comments section with your comment in my mind instead of idiots criticism.

This film is deeply

This film is deeply problematic. The portrayals of Egypt and Afghanistan are particularly culturally insensitive and racist. There is no political or economic analysis of how Western countries and multinational corporations and the consumer choices we make contribute to the reality of these girls' lives.

This film does more harm than good because it hides our complicity. There is no discussion of how Western countries are responsible for bombing Afghanistan and arming the mujahadeen. No discussion of how developed countries sell garbage to developing countries, creating dumps like the one where Sokha works. And certainly no discussion of multinational gold mining companies in Peru exploiting workers like Senna's father and paying almost no taxes to the Peruvian government - taking all the profits and making the price of your engagement ring very affordable in New York. If multinational corporations paid more of those taxes to developing country governments, there would be a lot more money for girls education.

The important work that local women's groups are doing within these developing countries is not recognized and that is a slap in the face to civil society. The progress that developing country governments have made in prioritizing girls education since the birth of the Education For All movement is not recognized. All we are left with is the classic white saviour narrative --a couple of dollars a day can make middle class people in the developed world feel better about themselves. Feel less guilty about the foreign policy choices their democratically elected government is making. Feel less guilty about the tiny hands that make their brand name clothing. One quick look at the film screening venues shows us that the audience is, most definitely, middle class white people.

This film also trivializes the sexual and gender-based violence that girls and women face in developed countries. It presents violence against girls as something that happens "over there" in "exotic, foreign lands." The Steubenville rape case shows us that patriarchy is alive and well and living among high school students in North America.

less guilty?

I am looking forward to bringing my girls to see this movie tonight just to help them broaden their perspective. For as long as I've raised my three girls I've had frank discussions about most of the things all of you mention here - where exactly American Girl dolls are manufactured, what exactly it means to choose to play virtual games while the real world around you is open to explore, how many young girls here in the U.S. face the threat of sexual abuse and how they can protect themselves. Not fear mongering just educating and empowering. I've traveled throughout the US, Americas and abroad. We live in a small Alaskan community full of the beauty of rebirth of Native culture along with the painful suffering consequences of exploitation and racist inequalities. I always remind my girls of the privileges we have and the price others paid for them so they might take the opportunities to better their world. I'm done with blame and hate and resentment and am always open to any form of education, awareness and opportunity for change. I don't doubt there is another angle to this film, there always is in our capitalistic environment, but lets just give ourselves a little credit for choosing whether we join in that endeavor. I volunteer in the low-income schools here, I coach Girls On The Run, I'm an advocate for our women's shelter here. I feel its my duty as a mom to three girls. I hope they identify more with the outside world, that's all. BTW get a reality check on prevalence of sex abuse in your town at Darkness to Light.org
Yes we all have choices to make to better our community but one movie isn't gonna address everything. That we can have this discussion is a good thing.
I choose to empower rather than bitch about what I don't know how to change. It's much easier to get frustrated by the injustice, it's all over. Even in our communities where our kids are not getting educated well enough for no good reason. I agree with others that we might use this even as an opportunity to show our sheltered kids what a gift they have in their educational opportunities and help give them what they need to make changes. A couple hours better spent than sitting on video games or social media or watching the latest macho superhero movie I say.

The logo?

Earlier commenters have covered most points quite well, both pro ("we'll-intentioned", etc) and con ("patronizing", etc) and I don't want to say any more about that.

Rather, I want to ask about the movie's main logo ( i.e. the red and yellow image shown at the top of this review) which I think may be remembered as the worst-thought-out, most "tone-deaf" movie logo of all time.

I won't explicitly spell out my objections here (either you see what I mean or you don't, which is pretty much my point) and while I doubt this was intentional, I have to ask: What were the graphics designers thinking?

I began to wonder, is this just me? But I gave three friends the following quiz and they all had the same reaction.
You might try the same:
1- Find someone who's never heard of the film.
2 - Tell them it has the word "girl" in the title.
3 - It's a "non-mainstream", medium budget film.
Now, have them stand back a bit (and/or squint) look at the poster, and tell you what they see.

Have no idea and none of my

Have no idea and none of my friends had any idea either!!! Sorry!!!

I Am A Girl

If you are keen to see a film that deals with similar issues to Girl Rising but uses the girls own voices check out I Am A Girl.The six girls from Cambodia, Afghanistan, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Cameroon and the USA tell their own stories in their own voices. You are free to make your own conclusions about what it means to be a girl.
No celebrities were used in making this film and it belies its budget and is both confronting and hopeful.
Rebecca Barry is an Australian documentary maker who followed her dream to make a film she was passionate about. She found the funding, researched the girls, directed the filming and is doing the distribution. This is film has a very clear idea behind it and it is not preachy or exploitative. Please check out the trailer:-
http://www.iamagirl.com.au/

Views from the "Developing" World

I'm extremely late to this discussion, mostly because I just watched this movie today - it was screened in Lusaka, Zambia (I'm Zambian)to commemorate International Women's Day today. The organisers filled 2 or more cinema theatres with young girls, women, boys and men here and there. The turnout was fantastic, but probably not the kind of turnout the makers of the film were expecting. Many of the girls in the audience have experienced conditions akin to those shown in the film, or if not as extreme (seeing as this was shown in the capital city), are exposed to similar conditions.

The organisers (a local women's group, the UNDP and the Swedish Embassy) explained that they were screening the film with the aim of inspiring young girls in the audience to be courageous and to rise up against all odds.... I think, for me, the *only* story that did that was the one about the girl in Sierra Leone that started her own radio show to inspire and help other young girls in her community. In that story, the cultural backdrop was not criticised. The other stories felt very exploitative and made me feel very uncomfortable. While I understand that many girls (AND boys) are living in such conditions here in Zambia, and elsewhere, and education is key to their economic and social progress, I am so tired of "development" narratives being told in this way.

While I feel that the stories are important stories that need to be shared (more so with the "West" than with "us"), I agree with the critiques brought up in the comments thread. The article is harsh, but its points need to be heard. Who is this film really for? And if it is screened to the girls that are living in situations like those shown in the film, how does it help them? Is inspiration enough?

Oh well, I guess this narrative works in the international development industry - and ironically, I've also found myself working in "development" ...

Disappointing

I just saw the film and I must agree with this review. The filmmakers seem to be under the impression that the best way to garner empathy for the plight of girls and women around the world is to hire famous writers and celebrities to "dramatize" their stories. Isn't it ironic that a film about the empowerment of girls so often fails to let those girls speak for themselves?

I would have much preferred a straightforward documentary (with subtitles or translators) where we could have learned more about the girls' true perspective.