“Girl Rising”: A chain of women, stretching from Madison to Sierra Leone


“Girl Rising” screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. PG-13, 1:44.

Girl Rising” is, from production to distribution, the ultimate do-it-yourself film. The film, from Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Richard E. Robbins, tells of the problem of getting girls in developing countries a proper education, one that will raise them out of poverty and empowered against societies that don’t value them properly. In a country like India, Afghanistan or Peru, where most of the populations is impoverished and vulnerable, there is no one more vulnerable than a girl.

But “Girl Rising” doesn’t take the usual tack of a documentary, presenting experts and eyewitnesses to present facts and arguments. Instead, Robbins paired nine girls from nine countries and paired them with nine writers. “Girl Rising” is, instead, nine short films that allows each of the girls the chance to tell their own stories.

That direct approach extends to the way “Girl Rising” is reaching viewers as well. Instead of being marketed city by city through a distributor, the film is being released through an innovative screening-by-demand website called Gathr. Someone sets up a screening and invites everybody they know to come. If enough people buy tickets, the screening happens.

In Madison, that person was Ann Sensenbrenner, owner of Farm to Vase (and, I’ll disclose here, a friend).

“I figured there was no risk, other than embarrassment if nobody signed up,” she told the crowd at Sundance Cinemas on Sunday afternoon. Instead, thanks to a “chain of women” spreading the word by email and Facebook, the screening quickly sold out. Now there’s another screening taking place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Barrymore Theatre. Those interested in seeing the film Tuesday can just buy a $10 ticket at the door.

And you should, because it’s a beautiful and energizing film. Because the girls have such different stories to tell, no two short films looks exactly the same. The story of Senna, a 14-year-old poet in a bleak Peruvian mining village, is filmed in stark black-and-white, while the story of Jasmin, a rape victim in Cairo, mixes is a live-action reenactment of her testimony to police with rich animation of her superhero fantasy.

There is much hardship and tragedy in these stories, but there is also inspiration, as each girl finds a way to rise above her circumstances. An eight-year-old Haitian girl, the infatigable Wadley, simply refuses to stop coming to school after her mother can no longer afford the tuition, and her teacher eventually relents. In Nepal, Suma is sold into bonded labor (a polite word for slavery) at the age of 6, emancipates herself as a teenager, and joins a group to free others.

In all but two cases, the girls play themselves in the films, with voiceover narration provided by a host of actresses, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Kerry Washington. In between stories, the film provides a barrage of sobering statistics (voiced by Liam Neeson), and suggests that, for developing countries, properly educating girls would make financial as well as moral sense.

But as revealing as those stats are, the eyes goes back to those short films, and those girls, telling their stories. While some of the films are more successful than others, they all show the power of engagement and education, of looking at the world and its problems, as one story put it, in a way “that makes the achievable seem doable.”

Sensenbrenner said that in getting the word out about her screening, she sparked a friend to host a screening in Milwaukee. Even more impressive, a filmmaker friend in Africa got it accepted by the Sierra Leone International Film Festival, which means one of the girls in the film, Mariama, will get to see it and show it to her community. The “chain of women” — and men — forged by and behind the film only looks to get stronger and stronger.

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