Genet Lakew

In a span of 100 minutes, Girl Rising, the new film by Academy Award nominee Richard Robbins, conveys the stories of nine diverse, ambitious and fearless girls from nine countries. The film achieves effective storytelling through a distinct narrative technique and uses innovative approaches to present what might otherwise be unglamorous statistics. It is rich in cinematography, creativity and imagination. 

Fairly early on, we learn that the stories blend fact with fiction. Some aspects have been reimagined, modified and amplified for greater impact. Celebrated authors including Edwidge Danticat, Maaza Mengiste and Marie Arana, among six others (1), use their literary flair to pen each story, and they do so with a vested interest, as each writer shares the same nationality as the girl she writes about. 

Mengiste discussed the choice to incorporate fiction on a HuffPost Live segment for International Women’s Day. “It was this sense that fiction can sometimes tell a bigger truth than maybe straight data, straight facts, hard numbers,” she said. “We wanted to focus on one girl, an individual life and see if fiction can help develop the facts that were already there to create a bigger story about not just her but about other girls in her country.”

Girl Rising, however, does an excellent job of placing the girls and their stories, experiences and aspirations at the center. It reveals not only their daily social realities and struggles, but also how they persevere through them. We meet creative, smart, and motivated girls who insist on alternative futures for themselves. Several show off their unique talents and skills, like Ruksana, who is able to translate her vivid imagination through paper and paint. She’s all too familiar with the busy streets of Kolkata, India, since her family is homeless, but her artistic imagination buzzes with color and imagination. And Suma uses her singing voice to express herself and cope with the painful memories of bonded servitude as a former kamlari in Nepal. Mariama hosts her own radio show to provide a space for youth to discuss relevant topics. And Senna writes and performs poetry as an outlet from the daily humdrum of life in the mining town atop the icy mountains of La Rinconada, Peru. 

We’re lucky enough to hear the girls speak at various intervals, like when Wadley speaks up to convince her teacher to let her stay in school despite not having enough money to pay the fees. She lives in a crowded camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where many families, like her own, have lived since the devastating earthquake. We pick up on Wadley’s confidence through her voice and demeanor. We also get a chance to listen to poetry through Senna’s voice as she narrates aspects of her own story in Spanish (with English subtitles). The opportunity to hear a few of the girls’ own voices makes one wonder how much stronger the storytelling element would be if each girl’s voice could be heard in a similar way.  

While the film makes a strong case for the transformative potential of education, at times it also winds up sounding like a neatly packaged panacea. By solely placing education at the forefront, the film detaches it from the many other factors actively at play in the daily lives of girls in patriarchal societies. Yasmin’s segment reveals that most parents choose to keep their daughters at home to avoid the risk of sexual violence and assault, but this choice is simply a bandage, not a permanent and viable solution that addresses the root causes of violence toward girls and women. The social, cultural and political forces that dictate these girls’ lives are too intertwined to be divorced from one another, and presented separately, each seems to elevate the impact of the others. 

As a social action campaign, the film relies on a concept of difference to conjure up support for fundraising efforts. The lives of the nine girls seem worlds apart from the audience’s. Girl Rising and other internationally based films in its category hope to stir a sense of gratefulness in the viewer, so that the viewer can see how blessed his or her circumstances are in relation to the protagonists whose suffering is depicted on the screen. A big credit to Girl Rising is that it presents the girls not just as victims of their social realities, but as active agents in shaping their futures.  

(1) Other authors include Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone), Zarghuna Kargar (Afghanistan), Mona Eltahawy (Egypt), Manjushree Thapa (Nepal), Sooni Taraporevala (India) and Loung Ung (Cambodia).
Genet Lakew is a graduate student in NYU's Africana Studies program. Her research focuses on African identity formation and representation. Follow her on Twitter @genetparadise