“Girl Rising” Sparks Movement

10x10 India Trip 3

Educate a girl, change the world.

It’s a simple but powerful concept, and one that has been well-known in international development for decades: educating and empowering women and girls is the best investment a community can make in its future. When given the chance to earn an income, women reinvest 80-90 percent of their income back into their communities and families, while men reinvest only about 30-40 percent.

Now, thanks to platforms and forums like Half the Sky, One Girl, Girl Effect and Girl Up, that concept is spreading and, more importantly, igniting action to help all women and girls across the world obtain access to the education and economic empowerment that will help them lead healthier lives, foster healthier communities and raise healthier families.

A new vehicle for spreading this concept recently premiered in Chicago. Girl Rising is an inspired film, a sort of documentary-slash-reenactment-slash-social action movement. Directed by Richard Robbins and featuring narration from the likes of Meryl Streep and Kerry Washington, the film follows the lives of nine girls in countries including Egypt, Sierra Leone, India and Peru. Each girl was paired with a writer who spoke their native language, who followed them through their daily lives for a week, gathering details and insights into young lives that have seen extreme poverty, bonded labor, abuse, child marriage and restriction to education.

It’s a different sort of film than you might expect in a number of ways. For one, it’s not a straight documentary. The stories, taken from real-life moments and events in the girls’ lives, were then crafted by their writing partners as well as the filmmakers to create narrative arcs. To illustrate the stories, a combination of the real life players and actors (when it would impact a girl’s safety to appear on film, for example, or when a parent declined to participate or an adversary needed depicting) were then used to re-enact the action.

The filmmakers employ a number of creative storytelling techniques to bring the re-enactments to life, creating a layer of surrealism over the often brutal details. In Egypt, Yasmin re-imagines herself as a brave comic book-esque superhero in the face of a violent attack; in India, Ruksana’s artwork leaps from the pages of her treasured sketchpad to the screen, with vivid green vines and lush purple flowers framing her tale. In some cases, the shots are filmed outside the locations being depicted, for example, in a wide shot of Afghan women climbing a hill while shedding their burqas and turning their faces to the sun.

Far removed from the ‘poverty porn’ genre – a term referring to the exploitation of marginalized or impoverished people to achieve an emotional impact by emphasizing their destitution – Girl Rising focuses on the strength, resolve and determination of its subjects to achieve their dreams of freedom, education and making a change in their communities. There’s a reason it’s called Girl Rising, not Girl Sinking. 

In-between the retelling of the nine girls’ stories, the filmmakers interweave facts that underscore the theme. A girl with an extra year of education, for example, can earn up to 20 percent more as an adult; there are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school.

For my own tastes, I would have preferred if the line between fact and fiction was more explicitly explained within the film – the background information above on the process of writing, change of locations and use of actors came from my own conversation with Mr. Robbins after the screening, not the film itself. But the result is that, rather than leave the film filled with a sense of despair at how desolate these girls’ lives are, you’re left with a sense of inspiration at their resiliency in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

And that’s the intent. Mr. Robbins and the film’s partners are intent on using this film to ignite change. At a screening in Chicago on Tuesday, March 12, Mr. Robbins spoke to an audience of about 300 people about ways to get involved, both through financial donations and hosting a screening. (More on that below.) The film’s primary partner is the 10×10 Fund for Girls Education, and screenings are currently being hosted across the country. As of the March 12 screening, over 300 screenings had been hosted, with 45,000 tickets sold and another 700 screenings scheduled. There’s an immense power in that kind of word-of-mouth traction, and the interest in the film only seems to be spreading.

In Chicago, the March 12 screening of Girl Rising was thanks to Happiness Advocate and Coach Gina Marotta, prAlliance President Daphne Ortiz  and MRL Productions Leadership, Branding and Event Guru Molly Rudberg-Leshnock. The three friends hosted the film through Gathr, and the response was so overwhelming that Mr. Robbins eventually flew in to attend and host a Q&A following the screening at the AMC Loews 600 North Michigan.

“First and foremost, I believe we can end global poverty by educating girls – and at the same time,  begin to bring peace and gender balance to the world,” explains Ms. Rudberg-Leshnock. “It starts with educating the first world with third world narratives of suffering, bravery and determination by these nine inspiring girls.  As a parent of two young boys, I have a responsibility to craft and contribute to the world in which they will eventually work and play.”

Ms. Ortiz adds, “Through my travels, I have become aware of the various types of cultures in the world and how women are treated. I feel it’s important that we raise awareness even for those who may not travel outside the country.  Hosting Girl Rising in Chicago resulted in exactly what I had wanted: for people to understand the power of education and want to do something about it.  The comments I received after the screening were amazing and I was contacted by various women who wanted to host a screening with friends in other locations…even Alaska! Girl Rising is the beginning of something big!”

Indeed, it is. And if you’d like to experience it, you’re in luck. Lynne Bredfeldt, the Park Hyatt’s director of public relations, is hosting another screening of Girl Rising at the AMC River East on April 29 at 7:30pm. Get your tickets over on Gathr. The way Gathr works is a certain number of attendees are required to ‘tip’ the film into an official viewing – so RSVP today!

Pictured, above: Ruksana’s story, behind the scenes, on set, in Kolkatta, India. Photo by Sam Theodore. Ten Times Ten LLC.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."