Girl Rising
Girl Rising is a campaign to both improve and bring awareness to global education for girls. One of the primary ways they attract attention to this issue is through storytelling in the form of film.

In 2013, the film “Girl Rising” was released. It follows the stories of nine girls from impoverished countries around the world: Haiti, Sierra Leone, Peru, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Egypt and Cambodia.

Each girl’s story has a well-known narrator. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the cast includes Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett. Many of the actors involved do separate philanthropic work related to educating and empowering women.

The film was directed by the Academy Award-winning director Richard Robbins, who also came up with the idea for the film. He made sure that the focus of the movie remained on the stories of the protagonists.

To help the girls communicate, Robbins told Huffington Post, he implored the film’s writers to spend time with the girls in order to effectively tell their stories. While the film “Girl Rising” came before the current campaign to spread awareness for girls’ education, Robbins says, over the course of making the film, it became “clear that we needed to build an organization that was capable of working in all the ways the film alone could not.”

Girl Rising now partners with NGOs including CARE and Room to Read in their mission to bring education to girls globally.

In collaboration with the Pearson Foundation, Girl Rising also offers a curriculum that educators can use to bring awareness to the issue of education for girls who have difficulty accessing it on their own. Factors that contribute to this lack of access are poverty, a reaffirmation of a cult of domesticity for women and foregoing education in order to get married and have children.

Girl Rising is also currently carrying out a campaign called ENGAGE, or Empowering Next Generations to Advance Girls’ Education. ENGAGE is a “USAID-supported public-private partnership” which is “working in India, Nigeria and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, pairing storytelling with local social action campaigns.”

The website for Girl Rising offers multiple options for those interested in getting involved in the cause, be it anything from donating money, to using Girl Rising’s curriculum in their schools, to raising awareness by organizing a viewing of the Girl Rising film.

Katherine Hamblen

Sources: Girl Rising, LA Times, Huffington Post
Photo: Vimeo

poverty in film
Director Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece “The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” a Palme d’Or winner from 1978, remains today a poignant depiction of poverty in film, despite its temporal setting of 1898. Interestingly, viewers of the film sometimes disagree in their interpretations of the main characters’ poverty: some see it as a positive, some as a negative and some as a little of both.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” portrays peasant life on a farmstead in Lombardy, a northern region of Italy. The peasants’ life can be summarized, as one critic has said, as: “Plant. Cultivate. Harvest. Eat. Drink. Sleep.” This simple lifestyle tends to charm viewers who discover a kind of nobility in the rural rhythms of peasant life.

However, one cannot ignore the harsh realities of that life, which are not a focus of the film but are essential parts nonetheless.

In his review of Olmi’s film, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “We grow devout in the presence of poverty, particularly when it is not our own.” His point is that people who don’t live in poverty often idealize it when they see it, especially the agrarian poverty depicted so vividly in the film. Olmi does encourage viewers to admire peasant life at times, but ever present in his movie are the oppressive realities of nature that make an idealization of poverty impossible.

Those realities create “natural drama” in a film that occasionally borders on documentary. In one scene, a family finds their cow has become sick and call a veterinarian. The veterinarian advises them to butcher the cow for the few coins it will afford them before the animal dies of natural causes. The family’s matriarch responds, “Not this too, you can see what condition we’re in. We don’t have enough to live.”

The film swings between the stark desperation of these moments and the positivity of other scenes that depict life’s fundamental joys.

Olmi, a son of peasants, perhaps reveals his own mild bias toward the simple pleasures of peasant life from time to time. This seems especially evident during a scene in which three families do nothing but sing and shuck corn together. The images, photographed at eye-level and bathed in a soft yellow light, exude only warmth and positivity—a testament to humankind’s ability to find joy even in harsh circumstances.

But Olmi’s film goes on to show that the hardships of the peasant’s poverty cannot be suppressed for long. Specifically, he blames the social system in northern Italy for exacerbating those hardships. The message is universal, though, for social systems the world over are actively keeping populations in poverty.

One must recognize the ways in which the film is universal, or else the characters’ poverty will get cast aside as a historical phenomenon only. Today, 1.2 billion people live with $1.25 or less a day in income and are deprived of healthcare and education, as the peasants in Olmi’s film were.

For this reason, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is still an effective way to learn about the struggles of the modern poor through the vicarious experience of fiction.

– Ryan Yanke

Sources: UNDP, Roger Ebert, The New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Mubi

sin nombre
Sin Nombre may seem like old news compared to Cary Fukunaga’s most recent project “True Detective.” This is especially the case since the newly popular HBO crime drama, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, has cemented the fledgling director’s reputation as a serious filmmaker.

However, before 2014’s “True Detective,” and even before his critically acclaimed 2011 adaptation of Jayne Eyre, Fukunaga debuted as a director with the much less watched Sin Nombre (Spanish for “nameless”). The 2009 U.S.-Mexican production tells the story of two emigrants travelling north through Mexico to the United States. One of them, a young girl from Honduras accompanied by her family. The other, a former gang member from Chiapas, Mexico, escaping from the Mara Salvatrucha, known colloquially as the infamous MS-13.

While the film lacked the mainstream success of some similar area films (like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “death trilogy”) it fared well on the festival circuit and received overwhelmingly positive feedback from critics. The film currently holds an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score of 77 on Metacritic and a 7.6 on IMDB. The film was popular both domestically and internationally, receiving awards at the Sundance and Stockholm film festivals, among others.

Sin Nombre is noted for its gritty and at times harrowing portrayal of Central American gang culture, particularly focusing on the entrapment faced by young men growing up in poverty. The film’s protagonist, known as El Casper, decides to escape after his gang leader questions his loyalty. Atop a northbound train, full of other U.S.-bound emigrants, Casper is befriended by a young girl named Sayra, despite her family’s reproach.

According to Roger Ebert’s review, Fukunaga was inspired by a story of 80 illegal immigrants found trapped in a truck in Texas, 19 of whom had died. Unlike many films on social issues, however, Sin Nombre is an apolitical and one could even say an amoral film, depicting the dangers of emigration without the politicking of immigration reform.

Though the film lacks the gloss, subtext and moral of what you would call “socially conscious films,” the movie is socially conscious in its own way, depicting desperation that transcends political ideals and the legality of immigration. Its message is not in its words, but in the adrenaline of watching its characters go through struggle.

The protagonist, after all, is hardly a hero. The film does not ask its viewers to respect or adore him. It shows the other side of the border which we rarely see, and tries to explain that for some, the risks of emigration are small compared to the consequences of home.

What is also important to note is how films like Sin Nombre have reached wide-ranging audiences through outlets such as Netflix—especially its “Watch Instantly” feature. Viewers looking to watch a film immediately (as opposed to planning to see it in theaters) are more likely to go beyond their genre comfort zone. The fact that films like Sin Nombre, Maria Full of Grace and Whore’s Glory have become well-known in the U.S.—all of which are foreign or transnational productions—shows how filmmakers can use neutral outlets such as Netflix to reach new audiences, sparking discussion and interest.

– Dmitriy Synkov

Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Meta Critic, Nth Position, Roger Rebert, IMDB, New York Times, The Borgen Project
Photo: Brad Nehring

The story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman forced to give up her son for adoption over 50 years, was the inspiration for an Oscar-nominated film this year. The film, “Philomena,” stars Dame Judi Dench and depicts Lee’s search for her son that leads her to the United States.

On January 24, Lee launched the Philomena Project in Dublin, Ireland to campaign for the release of over 60,000 adoption files currently in the possession of the state, churches and private agencies. In Ireland, adoption was sometimes forced on unmarried mothers and neither child nor mother was given information on the identity or whereabouts of the other.

Lee was single and pregnant at the age of 18 and was sent to a home for unmarried mothers in Roscrea, Ireland run by the Catholic Church when Lee was forced into the adoption of her 3-year-old son, Anthony. When he was taken, she had no idea that he in fact had been sold by the abbey to an American couple.

Lee tried to get information about Anthony, but was not given any indication of where he was sent after his adoption. Anthony, in turn, went looking for his mother in Ireland many years later but was told by the abbey that his mother had left him.

Lee’s story brought attention to this reprehensible practice and after the film’s success, Lee joined forces with the Adoption Rights Alliance. Lee said that she and her daughter decided to found The Philomena Project after receiving such a large amount of responses to her story.

The Philomena Project seeks to get these previously withheld adoption files released, ones that prevent any mother and child who wish to be reunited from doing so.

Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, has said Lee’s story has effectively “woken up many people to the crimes committed against thousands of unmarried mothers and their children under the guide of so-called legal adoption.”

Lohan has additionally vowed to end toleration of Ireland’s “deny ‘til we die” strategy and has named the state, private agencies and representatives of the Catholic Church as being in possession of information that people could use to find their natural families.

The Philomena Project hopes to have the Irish Government bring in legislation that would make the thousands of withheld files available to anyone who wants to find either their natural mother or child.

The backers of the Philomena Project have additionally asked the Catholic Church to cooperate with them and also plan on lobbying politicians in both Britain and the United States.

The project has also found support in Maeve O’Rourke, a lawyer from London, well-known for her campaigning for victims of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

O’Rourke has said that “the right of a child to preserve her identity and family relations without unlawful interference is today recognized internationally, and without hesitation, as a basic human right.”

Lee has also expressed her “hope that this effort will help us find solutions that ensure every mother and child who wants to be reunited are able to come together once again.”

– Julie Guacci

Sources: BBC, The Irish Post
Photo: The Independent

Empowering Girls: Film in Liberia
A group of 20 girls from low-income areas of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, gather to listen to Divine Anderson. “We are going to help you make a short film about an accountability issue in your community,” she tells them.

“We don’t need to be politicians to push for the kind of country we want; our films can create change,” Anderson assures her audience.

She works for the Accountability Film School set up last year by the Accountability Lab and the girls she’s speaking to are 2014’s first class of pupils. The under-served girls will receive four weeks of instruction on low-budget film making and accountability issues. The girls will also complete self-directed film projects addressing problems of their own choosing.

Accountability Lab terms itself “an independent, non-profit organization that acts as a catalyst to make power-holders responsible in the developing world.” The organization achieves this through a three-prong approach, acting as: a sounding board on issues related to accountability and corruption, an “independent interface” engaging citizens all around the world, and an “operational hub” by supporting innovative accountability tools and communities.

And in the formerly war-torn Liberia, the lab saw much work to be done. Despite having the first female president in Africa, Liberia remains a male-dominated society in which power and resources are often skewed toward men. Its population is largely desperately poor, especially its female population, with soaring rates of illiteracy.

Sexual exploitation is also a huge issue, an issue tackled by Dorcas Pewee in her film “Say It.”

Pewee was one of the first graduates of the Accountability Film School back in the fall. Having lost her family in Liberia’s civil war, she had turned to hustling on the streets of Monrovia to survive. That is, until Anderson found her and brought her to the film school.

In September 2013, Anderson’s film, addressing the pressing issue of sexual exploitation in schools, won viewer’s choice at the first Liberian Film Festival. Pewee followed up her first film with another one on the unfulfilled promises made by Liberian politicians. And she’s found a job- helping Divine lead the current film school class.

On her experiences with the film school, Pewee is empowered. “I saw the light,” she reports.

Other students have addressed issues ranging from the lack of clean drinking water and electricity in cities to the absence of job opportunities for Liberian youth to injustices committed during the civil war.

The films are screened to activists, government employees, university representatives, and civil society members at festivals and are also distributed to local “video clubs” throughout Liberia. They function to create a dialogue about various issues within communities and to work as advocacy tools.

More than 50 students have now graduated from the film school and Anderson aims to train an additional 150 in 2014.

The sustainability of the program and its good work is evidenced by the existence of the Liberia Film Institute recently formed by graduates of the film school. Through the institute, they hope to further hone their skills and earn money through film making grants and contracts with Liberian companies and NGOs.

Kelley Calkins

Sources: ONEAccountability Lab BlogStanford Social Innovation Review
Photo: The World Bank

Film Tells Story of Exiled Musicians in Mali
In every culture, music is a special way to tell a story.  It says something unique and important about a culture, and is an essential way to connect people.  Music’s importance is seen most visibly in Malian culture, where music is not a profession or a pastime, but a people.  Griots are musicians who tell stories about Malian history, and hold the keys to the past.  In Mali, therefore, music is culture.

In 2012, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa banned all music in Northern Mali.  This movement took over Northern Mali after a violent take over instigated by Islamic extremism.  This music ban forced Malian musicians to either flee the nation or move underground.  As a result, an incredible counter-cultural movement is sweeping over Malian music.

“They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Musicians in Exile” is a documentary currently being commissioned by British director Johanna Schwartz and producer Kat Amara Korba.  The documentary will explore how Malian musicians are seeking to restore music and peace to the ailing nation.  Musicians featured in the documentary will include Khaira Arby (the “Nightingale of the North”,) Manny Ansar (a music festival director), and Toumani Diabate (a 72nd generation Griot.)

The project began shooting in February 2013, near the beginnings of the conflict, and will continue to shoot through April.  The documentary is being independently funded through a Kickstarter Campaign.  The fundraiser officially achieved its goal of 30,000 British pounds on December 7, 2013, but is still accepting pledges to meet production costs.

As stated by Malian musician Fadimata Disco Walet Oumar, “They want to ban music?  They will have to kill us first.”  Mali’s musical rebellion is a testament to the power of expression.

Taylor Diamond

Sources: Kickstarter, They Will Have to Kill Us First

Haifaa al-Mansour First Female Saudi Director
Haifaa al-Mansour has a lot of which to be proud. Not only is she the first female Saudi director, she is also the first person to shoot a film entirely in Saudi Arabia. The film, called “Wadjda,” was also submitted for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, the first time Saudi Arabia has entered the category.

Al-Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia in 1974. Although there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, her father fostered her interest in movies by keeping a collection at home. She went to film school abroad which is where she made her first shorts and later her documentary “Women without Shadows,” chronicling the lives of hidden women in the Gulf. “Wadjda,” her latest film, focuses on a young girl who wants to buy a bike so she can race with a boy in her neighborhood. Girls are not generally allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, so she tries to save her money to buy the bike herself by entering a Qur’an recital competition.

Filming a movie in Saudi Arabia is no easy task, and is even more difficult if you are a woman. The film actually took nearly five years to make due to issues with procuring funding and getting permission from the government to film on location. Al-Mansour was insistent on filming in Saudi Arabia to preserve the authenticity of the story. Once funding and the permission to film were secured, more roadblocks followed. For example, since women are not allowed to travel outside unattended, she worked from inside a car with a walkie-talkie, driving from location to location. Al-Mansour referred to this particular problem as “tough but rewarding.”

The movie also focuses on what Saudi society expects of girls and interpersonal relationships between friends and family. Al-Mansour said of the main character, “I think she’s a kid and she’s just discovering the society around her. She’s discovering what she can do and what she cannot do. And I think she wants to race a boy, she wants to—you know how kids are, competitive — she wants to win. She wants to assert herself and be heard. But she’s not trying to be aggressive as much as assertive. She’s trying to find herself, to enjoy life, and for me that was a very important theme in the film.”

– Colleen Eckvahl

Sources: NPR, New York Times

In April 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped from his cargo boat by Somali pirates who demanded $2 million for his release. The pirates held Captain Phillips for five days in a small lifeboat, before Navy SEALs stepped in to save the captain, killing three pirates in the process. Tom Hanks immortalized the hardship of the event in a movie entitled Captain Phillips, released October 11.

The film’s director, Paul Greengrass, attempted to depict the pirate captain, Muse, as a dynamic character and to show the viewers the reasons for his actions. Greengrass expands Muse as a character by including the events that lead him to kidnap Captain Phillips in the first place. Not surprisingly, they involve real threats to both Muse and his family. The kidnapping could also lead to something Muse’s poverty-stricken family desperately needed: money.

For about 15 years, Somalia has lacked a stable government. The country has been fighting a civil war, and their resources continue to dwindle. The Somalian economy depends heavily on agriculture and livestock, both ways of living which require significant amounts of land. But without a stable government to provide trusted contracts of land ownership, making an honest living in Somalia is difficult. Furthermore, crops are sensitive to changes in weather and livestock to unchecked disease. Due to these and other factors, at least 43 percent of the Somalian population lives below the poverty line.

The kidnapping of Captain Phillips shows that poverty can push people to crime in order to support themselves and their family. While not all criminals are influenced by poverty, if the U.S. works hard to help those countries most in need then the incidences of crime threatening national security will decrease. As Captain Phillips shows, the U.S. can help increase its national security by investing in international poverty alleviating programs.

– Alessandra Wike

Sources: Foreign Policy, Hollywood Reporter, New York Times

“The Space Between,” a documentary co-directed by Travis North and Kimberly Nunez-North, traces the lives of four perilously ill individuals in Kenya, shedding light on broader issues of poverty and healthcare along the way.

In “The Space Between,” the audience is introduced to four Kenyans currently being treated at the Living Room Hospice, an organization founded by nurse and HIV volunteer, Juli McGowan Boit. Working to improve medical conditions across the country, the hospice treats those living in extreme poverty, who do not have the means to afford adequate healthcare.

The first, Maggie, is a young mother with cancer. As she deals with her deteriorating health, she worries about her four children. With Maggie’s husband working 12 hours a day and earning around $7 a week, the children have no caretaker other than Maggie.

The second individual, Jacob, is a teacher who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound inflicted during a robbery. While receiving treatment in a Kenyan hospital, he developed four bedsores. The wounds are so deep that they are unable to heal, a condition that causes pain, fever and potentially fatal infections.

The third interviewee is Barnabas, an older gentleman who is in the final stages of throat cancer. He is living his last days in an impoverished hospital that lacks morphine or any other painkillers. His greatest hope is to return home, where he can die in comfort, surrounded by family and friends.

The last Kenyan is James, a young man who has contracted HIV, but is afraid to seek treatment because of the subsequent social stigmatization. He has been largely incapacitated by the illness, and thus, is under the care of a hospice.

Describing the process of filming, Nunez-North said: “During our 16 day shoot in Kenya, we received unprecedented access to HIV clinics and hospitals.  We engaged in-depth conversations with physicians whose primary focus is on relieving and preventing patients’ suffering, an area of healthcare referred to as Palliative care.” As “The Space Between” unfolds, the intimate nature of the crew’s interactions with patients and doctors reveals itself clearly and magnificently.

“The Space Between” narrates an important struggle between life and death, illness and health, in a healthcare system that lack supplies, funding and trained personnel. However, telling a story can be the first step toward transformation and reform. By documenting the lives of these four individuals, “The Space Between” creates a space for change.

– Anna Purcell

Sources: Indiegogo, Ezra Winton


For Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci, students at Claremont McKenna College studying economics and international development, the daily struggle that over a billion people living on one dollar per day face is more personal than it is for the average westerner. After a visit to Guatemala with a microfinance group, Temple began to lay the foundation for what some might call a radical experiment. Along with two filmmakers, Temple and Ingrasci set out to shine a light on global poverty in a bold way: by living it themselves.

For 56 days in the rural village of Pena Blanca, each of the four young men vowed to live on just one dollar per day. Because many people who live in such poverty must take work as it is given, the quartet paid itself random dollar amounts (often $0) each day to make the experience more realistic. The film even takes a pragmatic turn as the students investigate the powerful impact of microloans on the lives of people in the region. They do all of this while battling chronic hunger and parasitic infections.

Although the documentary, which was available on Hulu for a limited time, began as a small project with only four crew members, it eventually drew the attention of big names such as Jeff Klein, the former general manager for the L.A. Times, David Doss, the former executive producer of Anderson Cooper 360, and Mike Lange, who was the former CEO of Miremax.

Currently, the filmmakers are travelling to promote the film. Those interested in watching the film can find a screening in their area or even host one themselves via the organization’s website.

– Samantha Mauney

Source: Huffington Post
Photo: My Northwest