Film festival documentary empowers women

Schoolgirls in Haiti are two of the subjects of “Girl Rising,” a film that argues that educating girls is the single most important factor in a nation’s economic development and security.

Courtesy of The Documentary Group

Schoolgirls in Haiti are two of the subjects of “Girl Rising,” a film that argues that educating girls is the single most important factor in a nation’s economic development and security.

Film critic John Beifuss is always talking movies on his blog, "The Bloodshot Eye."

If ambition, purpose and potential impact netted Oscars, “Girl Rising” might be the most honored film in Academy history.

The documentary’s mission is “to try and really move the needle on a global scale in empowering girls and women,” said former Memphian Tom Yellin, an executive producer of the movie through his New York-based company, The Documentary Group.

With statistics backed by international research studies, “Girl Rising” argues that educating girls and young women is the single most important factor in a country’s economic development and security.

“The set of data around the economics of empowering girls is absolutely stunning and irrefutable,” said Yellin, a 1971 graduate of White Station High School. “The multiplier effect is astonishing. It helps not just her, but her children, her family, her community, her nation, for generations. ... In terms of stopping terrorism, reducing AIDS, improving health — the correlation is so powerful it kind of knocks you out.”

“Girl Rising” screens at 7:15 p.m. Friday at Studio on the Square during the 14th annual On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest.

The festival begins Thursday night with a pair of Memphis music documentaries and continues through Sunday with a slate of some 30 film programs (features, shorts, music videos, and more), as well as panel discussions and live music shows. Tickets and a full schedule can be found at onlocationmemphis.org.

Yellin will host the “Girl Rising” event and answer questions after the screening. The movie was directed by Richard Robbins, who helmed 2007’s “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience,” a nominee for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award that Yellin produced.

“Girl Rising” is divided into nine portraits of girls around the world who have been subjected to child slavery, sexual assault, natural disaster, forced marriage and other traumas. Discovered and selected during some three years of prep work by the filmmakers, each of the featured real-life girls told her story to a woman writer from the same part of the world, who scripted the story for the film.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for example, a young girl who loves learning is unable to continue her education when her school is reduced to rubble in the 2010 earthquake, and her parents can’t afford to send her to the remaining private school.

In Nepal, a 6-year-old girl is “bonded” to a master. In Cairo, a girl is raped, and we are told that 50 percent of the world’s sexual assaults are committed against girls under 15.

Hidden beneath a burqa, a young Afghan woman offers perhaps the most desperate testimony. “If my husband heard these words, he might kill me,” she says. “So might my father or my brother or any one of thousands of my countrymen. Killed because I want to learn — killed because I want to read.”

The film was shot all over the world, and the photography is stunning. Memorable locations include a mining town in Peru that is “the highest human habitation in the world,” perched at 17,000 feet on the side of a dead volcano in the Andes, and a vast garbage dump in Cambodia, where a young “discarded” orphan girl — “one more thing the world has thrown away,” according to the narration — survives by finding marketable scrap metal in the trash; she is “hunting the rot for glints of light,” we are told.

A host of celebrated performers, including Meryl Streep, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keys and Anne Hathaway, to name just a few, provide voice-over for the segments and offer statistics supporting the film’s thesis. Despite the sad stories and dire futures facing many of the 600 million girls in the developing world, the film’s overall vibe is upbeat and hopeful, buoyed by the spirits of the featured girls, who crave education and the opportunities that come with it.

“When you go out in the world and meet these kids, they are not feeling sorry for themselves,” Yellin said. “They are striving to make the best of their lives. Their heroism is very compelling.” Or, as narrator Liam Neeson states in the film: “Girls are not the problem — they’re problem solvers.

Like “Born into Brothels” (about the children of prostitutes in India), “Gasland” (about the oil industry practice of “fracking), “Bully” (bullying in schools) and the locally produced “Two Million Minutes” (school reform), “Girl Rising” is an example of a trend in advocacy documentaries — films with an activist agenda and a mission that goes beyond a couple of hours of education for moviegoers.

Screening on campuses, in theaters and for special audiences at the World Bank and other places of influence, the “Girl Rising” movie itself is essentially the face of a much broader effort, the 10x10 international “action campaign” for girls’ education. The name is a reference to the “multiplier effect of investing in girls,” said Yellin, creator of the organization.

A massive undertaking within The Documentary Group that took some six years to develop, the 10x10 campaign represents “a new paradigm in social-issue filmmaking by bringing together production and advocacy right from the get-go,” according to the organization’s website, 10x10act.org.

The website continues: “10x10 partners with forward-thinking nonprofits, celebrities, policy leaders, corporations and concerned citizens like you to build a global movement to demand equal opportunity for girls.”

This is not the type of campaign that can be funded by Kickstarter, Yellin said. Supporters have included Google, the Ford Foundation and various philanthropic organizations and family foundations. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, gave “a huge amount,” Yellin said. Crucially, the Intel Corp., a Silicon Valley technology company, is a “strategic partner” on the 10x10 effort.

A longtime television news veteran who worked for years with newsman Peter Jennings and on PBS’s “Frontline” and ABC’s “20/20,” Yellin said his journalistic instincts initially rebelled against the idea that he should be an advocate as well as an observer and reporter.

He said he was compelled to move beyond the traditional journalist’s role in particular by the reports of The Population Group, an international, nonprofit, nongovernmental social research organization that has conducted numerous studios demonstrating the importance of girls’ education.

“My definition of news is a really powerful truth that nobody knows about, and the power of educating girls is the essence of news,” he said. “People who work in developing nations are aware of this truth, but not many other people are.”

Another influence was closer to home: Yellin’s late mother, editor Carol Lynn Yellin, who — with her husband, the late David Yellin — was an activist for civil and women’s rights. (Tom Yellin’s sister, Memphian Emily Yellin, author of “Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II,” also is a powerful advocate for women’s issues.)

“My mom was into female empowerment before anybody else I ever know, so I give her a lot of the credit,” Yellin said. “But also, as a journalist, this is the best story I’ve ever seen.”

‘Girl Rising’

On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest

7:15 p.m. Friday, Malco Studio on the Square, 2105 Court. Tickets: $10. Visit malco.com. For more information, visit 10x10act.org

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