Written by SWSG Harvard Chapter Co-Director
After having watched the trailer half a dozen times beforehand, and made a significant trek through the frigid, wintery mix, I’d say my expectations for Girl Rising could aptly be referred to as “high.” But walking out of the theater about two hours later, my feelings were more complicated than I had anticipated.
When the lights first began to dim, I had a wave of panic that there might be some KONY-esque lash-back against this film that dealt with a topic I care about deeply—that is, girls around the world getting access to (quality) education. And yet, by the end I felt every bit the critic.
What initially struck me as a strength—the beautiful cinematography—quickly began to feel overproduced and inauthentic. Had Suma, the former child laborer, really affixed magical, multi-colored charms to the spokes of her bike, or had they been strategically placed for the audience’s aesthetic pleasure? Were these really their clothes, or had that burning shade of orange been specifically chosen to pop against the landscape? Again and again, I found myself questioning what was real and what had been inserted.
For me, the central issue was that Girl Rising is in a liminal genre space that undermines its legitimacy. On the one hand, it is a documentary aimed at social change. But on the other, it is a movie, complete with animation, celebrity narrators, and fantasy, intended to please the viewer.
Each of the 9 featured girls is paired with a writer from her native country. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that serious creative license had been taken by said writers. As an SWSG mentor, I can attest that the language, imagery, detail, and narrative arc far exceeded what children their age are capable of. It called to mind tales that are “based on” true stories rather than the pure, raw truth.
But there were moments of intense poignance and beauty when the girls’ voices could be heard clearly. For example, when the fierce Peruvian, Senna (named after Xena: Warrior Princess), declaimed poetry, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. Finally being able to hear one of these girls’ voices, rather than the professional narration of Meryl Streep or Selena Gomez, was a profound experience.
All in all, I believe 10×10 created Girl Rising with noble intentions, and audiences will walk away more informed and impassioned about the state of girls’ education than when they came in. But I hope that in the future, in the process of helping girls “rise,” projects like these will not forget to also let the girls speak.