“Girl Rising” film at Berkshire International Film Festival

A centerpiece of this weekend’s Berkshire International Film Festival is the new documentary “Girl Rising,” which takes a global look at the problems facing young women.

A former executive producer for ABC News with a string of socially conscious television projects, Tom Yellin was traveling the world a few years ago, researching the causes of extreme poverty. He met with aid workers focused on everything from clean water to hybrid crops to AIDS, he says, but discovered a reoccurring refrain.  After talking about their own areas of expertise, they’d tell Yellin:

“‘But you want to know the thing that works best? The best thing that works is investing in quality education, that’s sustained, for girls. That is the most effective strategy there is.’ If you hear that enough times you’ve got to listen to it.”

From those experiences came the new documentary film “Girl Rising”, a true story of nine girls from around the world, facing crises like sexual assault and forced marriage. Their desire to get an education is the connecting thread. A different, female writer penned each section, with actresses like  Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek narrating.  Meryl Streep narrates the story of Azmera, a 13-year old Ethiopian girl who refused the marriage her mother had arranged and is now attending school for the first time.Novelist Maaza Mengiste wrote the section on Azmera. An Ethiopian native who now lives in the United States, she found the topic of child marriage a bit distant at first. Then she called her mother.

“And she really surprised me because she said, ‘Well Maaza, don’t you remember that your great-grandmother had your grandfather when she was about 11 or 12?’ And my grandmother was married around 11 or 12. Really, it hit close to home then.” 

The film is just the most-high profile aspect of a campaign its producers have launched to raise the issue of young girls’ access to education, including fundraising events and a partnership with CNN. An article in the New York Times highlighted the producers’ aptitude for advertising the film.

Yellin says his newsman instincts are to remain neutral, but on this topic the film’s creators want to provoke an audience response.

“We sort of leap over the boundary of traditional journalism. The rules of journalism are, you know, that you tell the story but you’e not really advocating. In this case we are advocating. So we’re telling the story and we’re trying to motivate people to act.”

“Girl Rising” screens at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe theatre on Saturday night, followed by a panel discussion including Yellin, Mengiste and others. The Berkshire International Film Festival launches Thursday night, with movies and events through in Great Barrington, Lenox and Pittsfield through Sunday.