What does it mean to set one girl free? “Girl Rising” says one girl with courage is a revolution. Directed by Richard E. Robbins, this 2013 documentary tells the stories of individual girls in developing countries, each of which illustrates the power of setting one girl free through education.
We follow Wadley, an artistic girl who is determined to continue her education in a crumbling home in Haiti; Senna, who grew up in the crisis-stricken Andes mountains, and finds solace in the poetic, written word; and Suma, who survived the underground servitude system in Nepal through song, and now strives to free other girls.
Each girl is paired with a writer to bring their story to life. We watch their collective journey, while listening to narrations by Cate Blanchett, Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keys, and Meryl Streep, among others.
“Girl Rising” looks like a documentary (a beautiful one) but is told like a story, with many plots coming together under an umbrella of rich, lush film-making that ventures into under-represented worlds. It reminds us that we often inhabit only one corner of the world for most of our lives, never peeking out. While it may seem challenging for Western teens to identify with the movie, the featured girls’ thoughts and dreams read like a universal diary.
The documentary addresses gently but firmly what needs to be on the global conscience: educating girls must be a priority. This message is supplemented by statistics that measure how education affects the life and health of both the girls and their nations. The film states clearly that girls are meant to rise, and they need help from those who will listen.
Admittedly, it’s not easy to crusade for a cause, and it feels like somebody’s always trying to make us feel guilty about something. Words can disintegrate into white noise on the Web, and advocating for a cause can sometimes become cliché. I even shied from my own mom and sister after we watched the film, having already being teased about my “girly” documentary and fearing further comments. But if we cannot hear what these girls have to say, we cannot accomplish change in their lives. I felt a swarm of guilt when I read Entertainment Weekly’s review, calling “Girl Rising” “the documentary every mother, sister, daughter should see, as well as the men who love and support them.”
It is worth pausing our own stories, momentarily, to invite in another’s; it is worth educating ourselves about the quiet reality millions of women face, and to feel empathy for the stories that move us. Girls are rising; they must.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.