Nine girls. Nine writers. Nine countries. Nine celebrities.
Three goals: “change minds, change lives and change policy around educating girls.”
Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins will present “Girl Rising” at Park City’s Eccles Center in one of the first handfuls of screenings that he will personally introduce after the film’s star-studded March 7 New York City premiere. The film vividly testifies that providing a girl in a developing country with just a few years of education can break the cycle of poverty in a way that reverberates throughout a community.
“One of the most exciting things about the issue of educating girls is also one of the most depressing things about the issue of educating girls,” Robbins told the Deseret News while awaiting a flight at a Chicago airport. “That is, so little has been done. The issue is fairly new and we haven’t invested very much as a global community, but the opportunity is enormous. A fairly small investment and level of engagement could really make massive changes. We’ve seen some of it happen already.
"We wanted to make a film that was engaging and inspiring. So often films that deal with difficult social issues can feel like medicine."
Each of the girl’s stories is written by a renowned writer from her native country with narration by such celebrities as Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek.
The first girl selected to be filmed holds “a special place in my filmmaker’s heart,” he says. Sokha, a 12-year-old Cambodian orphan forced to pick through garbage to survive, is now on her way to college.
“Hers was a life that was discarded — living among the things that we throw away, but she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her. Sokha is smart and talented and dedicated. The fact that she’s made that change is just extraordinary.”
The most fascinating element of the project is the realization Robbins came to that monumental change can occur so quickly with so little effort.
“One of the things that I try to emphasize to people over and over again is that this is not one of these intractable situations where we all hope that someone really smart comes along and knows how to fix it,” he says. “This is not ending the AIDS epidemic or combating global warming or ending religious conflicts. We know what the solution is. We just need to have the determination and the will to make these changes a reality.”
With the Park City screening, “Girl Rising” makes a full circle. The film received its first acclaim after a 10-minute screening at January’s Sundance Film Festival, before Robbins was able to complete post-production work.
“I was weary of showing a portion of the film at Sundance, because this film is made in chapters and each chapter is very, very different,” he says. “And seeing just one chapter doesn’t really give a true sense of what the film is going to be like, but the audiences were very enthusiastic about it.”
Actress Freida Pinto introduced “Girl Rising” at Sundance by sharing a powerful statistic: Right now, 66 million girls around the world can only dream of going to school. They face barriers that boys do not, such as early and forced marriage, domestic slavery, sex trafficking and gender violence.
“No one is more vulnerable than an uneducated girl,” Pinto said. “Making a girl aware of her fundamental human rights through education can change all that.”
To secure the celebrities’ participation in the movie required “a lot of persistence.”
“We had a couple of things going for us, including obviously a great cause,” Robbins says. “There was a fairly minimal investment on their part because we weren’t asking them to travel to these countries but just to spend a few hours on a sound stage. And we were very lucky in that the first person we signed on was Meryl Streep, and once you have Meryl Streep everyone wants to be in a Meryl Streep movie.”
“This film gives visual corroboration to knowledge we already have: Educating women and girls has the most optimistic, positive effects on families, communities and economies worldwide,” Streep has said. “If to see it is to know it, this film delivers hope; reasonable, measurable, tangible hope that the world can be healed and helped to a better future.”
Robbins is using a service called Gathr, which bills itself as “theatrical on demand,” to get his film released and into theaters.
“The old model of distribution doesn’t work that well for independent films,” he says. “To put something in theaters and advertise it broadly to let people know that it’s out there is both expensive and not efficient. We feel like we know who our audience is, and a lot of our audience we are in very good touch with. We knew we could save the money, which frankly we didn’t have anyway, and focus on social media and word of mouth, getting many more bodies into theaters at a much lower cost. This distribution is really the future of independent filmmaking.”
A portion of “Girl Rising” ticket sales goes to a network of nonprofit partners and leaders in girls’ education that includes Girl Up/United Nations Foundation, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, UNICEF, and World Vision.
“Individuals really can make a difference,” he summarizes. “We’re no longer in an era when we send a $20 check into the abyss and hope that it reaches someone deserving. And very often people think there is nothing that can do and feel paralyzed with the number of choices of what they might do but can’t figure out what they should do.
“It’s very easy in this day and age to get involved with an organization that’s doing important work in the field, to get involved in your own community in terms of spreading awareness.”
For more information, visit girlrising.com.
Facts About the Impact of Girls’ Education
Globally, 66 million girls out of school (UNESCO).
Eighty percent of all human-trafficking victims are girls (UNFPA).
There are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school (Education First).
Seventy-five percent of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by the disease, are women and girls (UNAIDS).
In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence (UNIFEM).
Girls with eight years of education are four times less likely to be married as children (National Academies Press).
A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5 (UNESCO).
If India enrolled 1 percent more girls in secondary school, the country’s GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. (CIA World Factbook / Global Campaign for Education)
If you go
What: “Girl Rising” screening including Q&A with filmmaker Richard E. RobbinsComment on this story
Where: Park City’s Eccles Center
When: on Wednesday, March 20, 7 p.m.
How much: $5-$15
Tickets: 435-655-3114 or ecclescenter.org