Do-Gooding; Girl Rising

Words: Renee Boss & Photos courtesy of Girl Rising


Amid the sounds of beeping horns, rickshaw bells, and people bustling about in the overcrowded, dirty, blistering hot streets of Kolkata, India, runs a dreamer named Ruksana. This young girl and her family live on the streets as “pavement dwellers” within makeshift tents of cloth and bamboo. Ruksana’s family is not the only one living on the street amid trash, animals, and sewage. 

In their attempt to beautify the city, officials periodically tear down the makeshift shelters and tell people to leave—such is often the situation for Ruksana and her family. And yet, she is a fortunate one because she has a family who cares for her and works hard to ensure she receives an education—potentially her only way to break the cycle of poverty in her family history.

Ruksana’s story is one of nine in the new social documentary Girl Rising, the film at the center of a campaign and movement to change the plight of girls in developing countries by providing them with an education.

Nine girls. Nine countries. Nine stories written by celebrated authors—all told by actresses donating their time. Forgoing the production of a straight documentary, film directors opted to capture the powerful stories in the genre of creative nonfiction. Actresses such as Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep convey a more hopeful message demonstrating the power of narrative as opposed to the depressing side of poverty one might see in a traditional documentary.

In a recent telephone interview with Holly Gordon, an Executive Producer and Director for the Girl Rising campaign, Gordon shared the hope through the film—“These stories represent the stories of more than nine girls. The stories represent thousands of girls who teach us the power of human spirit.”


Telling the stories

Prior to filming, producers sought out dynamic writers, well-established in the countries where the girls originated, to capture the voice of each. They were asked to spend extensive time with the girls, writing text—essays, poems, or short stories—that served as the foundation for each story. Having seen the film more times than she can count, what struck Gordon most in a recent viewing was the lyricism and artistry conveyed, where the power of human spirit endures and the girl’s own talent and artistic pursuits are honed from sheer determination.

A touching scene shows Ruksana getting in trouble during math class for drawing. Her father takes her to the market where he uses scarce funds to purchase a sketchbook and colored pencils for his daughter who promises not to draw anymore while she’s at school. Shortly following that scene, officials enter the slum area where she and her family live in tents. As the monsoon rains begin, the officials ruthlessly clear the streets by yelling, beating people with sticks, and tearing down the tents—the only homes for hundreds of people. Ruksana calmly utters, “Everyone was crying—even my paintings.” She copes with daily life in the streets by retreating into her drawings and her daydreams.

Her daydreams are brought to life with a hint of Magical Realism. Her story, written by Indian author Sooni Taraporevala, juxtaposes evil, ugliness and meanness with butterflies, monkeys and smiling girls dreaming of better lives. Even Ruksana inquires, “How could so much beauty and so much meanness be together in one world?” 

This creative storytelling is precisely what allows it to serve as the focal point for the powerful campaign, whose main thrust is to bring awareness of the impact that educating girls can have on a country’s economic system and development. 

The campaign is seeing support of major corporate partners like Intel and CNN as well as groups of young students, one such that raised enough money through a concert and bake sale to send 24 girls to school for an entire year. When a campaign staffer asked them about the experience, they remarked how grateful they are for their free and required public education in America. Even if they don’t always like school, they think it’s great that they can receive an education, because the girls in the Girl Rising film “want to go to school so badly.”


Changing Policies

Of course, the only way to make a major impact for change is to get the film in front of those who have the power to make change. That opportunity arrived on April 11, 2013, at a World Bank event. When Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, spoke, he talked about economic development and the need to ensure that every child, regardless of gender, has an opportunity to go to school and to learn. He referenced recent progress toward the goal of equality but made it clear that Girl Rising “serves as a powerful reminder that far too many children, especially girls, are still unable to go to school. Too many girls are prevented from making their own choices. Too many girls are denied the chance to determine their own futures. This must change.”

According to Gordon, “We can only make global change if we connect people,” and that’s exactly what the Girl Rising campaign is doing—connecting the dots. Girl Rising is putting out a challenge to break down the barriers girls across the world face to getting an education.