I just finished watching Half the Sky, the two-part PBS documentary “inspired” by the nonfiction book written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It aired on Monday and Tuesday nights, though you can view it online through October 9. It’s well worth your time, though for reasons that may vary individually. Watch it for what’s going on if you don’t know a lot about global issues such as gender-based violence or sex trafficking or maternal mortality, but watch it for how it’s filmed and put together if you know a fair amount about the what.
First, a few thoughts about the what. Feminists have levied plenty of critiques against the book, and many of these apply to the documentary. On these issues, I’m in agreement with Courtney Martin, who reviewed the book a few years ago on feministing.com. She aptly sums up its shortcomings in this way:
What Half the Sky is not: a feminist analysis of the systemic injustices that intersect in these women’s and girls’ lives. It is neither psychologically complex, nor steeped in moral investigation. It seems that Kristof, who is the author most often mentioned, still hasn’t explored or isn’t interested in exploring his own privilege and the way it interacts with his “subjects.” It’s a book that prizes pragmatism over an analysis of power, simple stories over complex narratives, and motivating an “everywoman” reader over pointing out hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and challenges of Western-based activism for global uplift.
But Martin also observes what the book does right:
It is a fantastic primer […] for folks who are new to learning about global health and economic challenges disproportionately affecting women and girls. Kristof and WuDunn are masters are using a very unique story to illustrate a vast issue, incorporating statistics, and making non-partisan, no-nonsense arguments. They also did a notable job of finding plenty of grassroots activism, born and continued by those being directly affected, as model examples.
Ditto for the documentary, with its sleek design and high production value. I found the film powerful and, at times, emotionally difficult to watch. I suppose the inclusion of six female “celebrity activists” (America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde) is partly intended to help first-world viewers process the heartbreaking realities of poverty, violence, and oppression facing women and girls in the countries where the documentary was filmed (Cambodia, Sierra Leone, India, Vietnam, Kenya, and Somaliland). In other words, celebrities play the part of the “everywoman.” And of course, they also help provide “visibility” to the issues explored in Half the Sky—all of which is explained to us at the beginning of the film by George Clooney, who’s sitting back in a comfortable armchair and looking awfully, well, comfortable.
Masterpiece Theatre, anyone?
It’s easy to feel a little cynical about this part of the film, but to their credit, the “celebrity activists” aren’t sitting in armchairs. They travel to remote locations with Nick Kristof and listen to the stories of girls and women who have suffered human rights violations and, with their different styles and personalities, do their best to connect with the people they meet. And let’s face it—they do bring visibility to issues that many different feminists have been working on for decades.
Documentary as a form can bring us into individual lives and allow others to tell their stories. It’s an edited version of these stories, of course, but still compelling if, like me, you like documentaries. (Though it is a little odd to see Eva Mendes consoling a young girl who has been raped while Nicholas Kristof asks questions and jots down responses on his reporter’s notepad. However, in one of the most interesting moments in the film, Kristof abandons his journalistic persona and actively pushes the Freetown police force to arrest the alleged perpetrator.) Following Kristof’s and WuDunn’s lead, the filmmakers have wisely chosen to focus on people, notably nine activists who are fighting different battles for women’s rights. Many of these activists are local women whose lives exemplify the leadership and vision that it will take to end global scourges such as gender-based violence. Women like Edna Adan, Somaly Mam, Amie Kandeh, and Rebecca Lolosoli provide the heart and soul of the film—as do several younger girls who are struggling to overcome barriers and achieve their full potential as human beings.
The next time I teach my class on transnational feminism, I’ll consider using part of this documentary. I currently use an excerpt from the book Half the Sky when we discuss global sex trafficking. Kristof and WuDunn take a firm abolitionist stand against prostitution, which they view as connected to sex trafficking. Their position contrasts starkly with the other readings in the class (usually by feminist sociologists), and the ensuing classroom debate is always animated. Here’s what else: the students always love Half the Sky, even when they don’t agree with all of its positions. They always tell me that they wish more of our class readings were as accessible and interesting as this book.
There’s a lesson here for those of us who want to build bridges between research and reality.