The recent documentary, “Girls Rising,” tackles the job of trying to answer that question. And with a lineup of nine inspiring girls, nine gifted writers telling their stories, nine acclaimed actress narrating, an all-star cast of production workers and an Academy Award nominee director, the film might actually be enough to ignite some change.
Director Richard Robbins, formerly of ABC News and PBS’ “Frontline,” cleared some time in his schedule in order to talk with Meets Obsession about the eight years he spent working on this documentary, his role as a male director in a story about women, and what we can all do to make a difference.
It was an early Tuesday morning when Robbins picked up his cell phone and apologized.
On the way to his Los Angeles office, he was still sitting in traffic.
Richard Robbins: Well, originally our little documentary company [The Documentary Group] was asked to look into global poverty issues for a client who wanted to make a film on ending global poverty.
While I focused a lot on politics during my time at ABC, the topic was new to me. So I dove in; started [educating] myself about the issues. And I kept coming across these remarkable studies about girls’ education. The numbers continued to show what a difference it made. At first I thought it was just new to me because it was all new to me, but I quickly realized the numbers actually hadn’t penetrated the public.
At the time my daughter was a year old, and I kept asking myself, ‘What will the world look like for our children?’ I knew I wanted to do something. The global poverty research ended but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Until finally I was like, ok, I guess I’m doing this.
RR: Actually, she turned nine just last week [early in October]. I’ve been working on this project for a long time. The issue was much less visible six-seven years ago. But some remarkable events brought it into the general consciousness and we’re lucky enough to be riding a wave. Girls’ education is where global warming was 15 years ago. People are paying attention now.
RR: There are two things that were really crucial to me when we were making this movie.I knew it wasn’t enough to just make this film. For all the money we were trying to raise there had to be a campaign beside it. It’s common practice in the documentary world to stay small and humble. You’re cautioned against being too ambitious, or biting off more than you can chew.
We took the opposite approach. If I had just made the film it would not have been enough, and if this issue doesn’t deserve it – what does? 10×10 – our global campaign to educate and empower girls – was the part that has really truly paid off.
My other goal was to make a film where the girls did not appear as victims. I wanted the audience to feel inspired and amazed by them. I mean, as human beings they have enormous potential. So often, documentaries focus on differences.
For example, when we show kids going to school in Cambodia, the audience tends to notice what’s different, but what’s really important is to notice how much they’re just like us. We tried really hard to make a film that wasn’t’t just a bunch of white people going into to a poor country and feeling sorry for the people there. We had to be constantly vigilant to keep from falling into that trap. Having the writers, who came from the same countries as our girls, were essential to the story.
RR: Well, it’s actually pretty unscientific. We had a long wish-list of actresses based on their talent with voice-over work as well as their interest in the issue. From there we started putting out inquiries, which is basically a combination of wild ambition and relentlessness.
For a lot of actresses it’s about getting on their radar and also getting their management behind it. And of course, signing the first star is the hardest.
RR: Meryl Streep. And once she was in we started getting a lot more interest. Starting with an A-lister really helped the cause. [Streep narrates the part of Ethiopia’s Azmera].
Also, some of our character always had clear voices in my head. Specifically, Wadley from Haiti she always had a certain voice– I don’t know why. [That voice belongs to Cate Blanchett who is Wadley’s narrator.]
RR: Between the entire team, we met all the girls. But I don’t think any one person on our team met with all the girls. I met all but two of them.
I knew it was going to be difficult – as a middle-aged American to get the girls to connect with me. Actually, I was like the only man on the crew everyone else in the field were women. The writers [all of which whom were female] were the essential bridges. We wanted them to work very closely with the girls.
RR: It was definitely a liability, having me as the director, especially when we were first fundraising. But, in a way, as a male director, I do think I brought something to this project.
It’s important that there are strong male role models in the film, and in life. The greater issue of girls’ education can’t be tackled without men and it means a lot that there are great fathers and brothers in the film. It’s almost bigger than that.
RR: Clearly, there’s a sort of moral, rights based altruistic reason for why every girl-woman has the right to education. If you don’t already believe that, then this film isn’t going to change your mind. The movie’s more compelling argument is that time and time again educating girls really seems to work in ending poverty. It’s an argument for advocacy.
We’re saying we know this works and there’s a history that proves it. This isn’t a problem like the AIDS epidemic or global warming where we’re searching for a solution. We already have an answer. Not to say it isn’t tremendously hard to do, but we know what good schools and good teachers look like. And that’s the message behind “Girls Rising.” We’ve made progress and we’ve seen it work over and over again. It’s just not enough. And that’s our argument: ‘More! We need more of that.’
On a human level, people are so desperate to be told that something works. We’ve been culturally brainwashed that these problems are unsolvable. So we let ourselves get in the mindset that it’s too big for any of us to do something about it. I think that message – that there is something we can do – is really powerful.
RR: Luckily, I think it’s a good movie just on its own merit. Engaging and entertaining- it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. And we tried really hard not to make it a downer. And it’s a hugely important issue. The movie really crystallizes the issue.
As an audience member I think you can go from people who care and do nothing to people who do something. I’ve seen it over and over again. A few weeks after our Atlanta screening we – 10×10 – received a check in the mail for $460. These two kids who’d seen the movie were so inspired to do something they had a bake sale and sent us the profits. There are a ton of good reasons, but the movie leaves you with a great feeling.
RR: Wow, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. I came away with this feeling… this belief in the community of man. I know – it sounds trite, but it’s so easy for us to fall into nationalism. People kept asking us why we weren’t focusing on girls in America and why we didn’t think American girls were more important.
There are so many things we could all be doing, but aren’t because of barriers that don’t really exist. There’s nothing separating us from each other – other than miles and language – but we’re all people. Before this film I thought it would be hard to make connections with people different from me, but it wasn’t.
I don’t know how you talk about the family of man without sounding like a new age hippy. But I know that if you tell yourself that those people are different and far away it enforces these barriers that separate us.
But as my producer, Martha Adams, always called me I was always the “reluctant enthusiast”. She, however, was the opposite and enthusiastic from the jump.
I hope this film continues to have a life in this world – there’s a lot more to do and I want to keep it moving.