New Film Shows Girls Rising from Plight to Power

This post is part of Benevolent Media's ongoing coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. For more information, read "The Benevolent Guide to the Sundance Film Fesitval."

“Educate girls, change the world.” That’s the simple and powerful mission of the new documentary film and social action campaign Girl Rising, which was unveiled with a sneak peek trailer at a special event, “Creating Social Change with Film at the Center,” last Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film follows the uplifting stories of nine girls from around the world, triumphing over obstacles to achieve an education. The voices narrating each vignette include Hollywood heavy hitters like Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek.

But it’s the relatively unknown people behind the scenes that are trying to make the movie a force to be reckoned with. The Girl Rising project was borne out of a collaborative effort, led by 10x10 and its strategic corporate partner, Intel. The film was created and launched by an award-winning team of former ABC News journalists, including director Richard E. Robbins, and executive produced by Tom Yellin and Holly Gordon of The Documentary Group and Paul Allen, the founder and chairman of Vulcan Productions, and CNN Films acquired the film in the spring of 2012.


A panel discussion organized at Sundance revealed perspectives from each step of the filmmaking process, from ideation to distribution. It included the following experts:

Shelly Esque, Vice President of Legal and Corporate Affairs, Intel Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss, Director, Vulcan Productions Richard Robbins, writer, producer and director Sumathi Balasubramanian, Program Officer, Adolescent Girls, United Nations Foundation Holly Gordon, Executive Director, 10X10 Scott Glosserman, Founder and CEO, Gathr Films

If you look at “girls,” as a systemic issue, the statistics are staggeringly depressing. For instance, there are 66 million girls who are not in school; 14 million girls under the age of 18 will be married this year alone; and 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence each year.

The first cut of an early concept of the film, which examined these dire big-picture conditions, was scrapped. “It was equal parts pity and passion and that makes for a film that doesn't really get far in the world,” director Robbins said. The only glimmer of hope was found in the individual stories of the girls themselves, which inspired the filmmakers to revamp their approach. Now, you'll hear less about the global problem and listen, instead, to the narratives of Amina, Yasmin, Senna, Suma, Ruksana, Mariama, Azmera, Sokha and Wadley. They are the ones with something to tell the world.

In the end, supporting the film is a catalyst to change minds, lives and policy, according to 10X10's Gordon. She asked: “How would I make an argument that giving us $10,000 would be better than building one school? How does funding an awareness project lead to building hundreds of thousands of schools?”

Social Buzz

During filmmaking, Twitter and Facebook were just starting to take off into the stratosphere of social media marketing--a key advantage for the 10X10 team.

“We needed to find our girls education super fans,” Gordon said. Her advice was “to be very targeted and have defined verticals that you want to attack, because if you try to do everything, it’s not going to work.”

What resulted was an intricate yet clear web of relationships, spun through social media and in-person events, that involved a corporate partner, Intel, who shared 10X10’s vision of creating a better educated world, NGOs that were already dedicated to the cause, and philanthropists who contributed funding to kickstart the project.

In October, for the International Day of the Girl, 10X10 created social action toolkits for communities to get involved in supporting the Girl Rising campaign, which resulted in more than 550 independently organized events worldwide. The revolution was brewing.

Corporate Leadership

Meanwhile, Intel leveraged its technology expertise, marketing savvy, human resources (it has about 100,000 employees worldwide) and philanthropy partners to support the film.

“We were making a big impact but not creating the noise," Intel's Esque said of her company's girls education philanthropy efforts. "We were excited about the opportunity to help shape the entire campaign."

Intel brought in the C-Level backing; the filmmakers retained editorial control. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Nonprofit Champions

In the NGO world, it’s common knowledge that educating girls has the power to change the world. “The development folks knew that, but we were never successful in being able to message about it,” the U.N. Foundation's Balasubramanian said.

With the film at their disposal, girls-focused nonprofits have a better story to tell. And, more concretely, they will come closer to achieving their fundraising goals. Thanks to the 10X10 Fund for Girls’ Education, donations raised from the film will be distributed evenly among the nonprofit partners, including CARE USA, World Vision, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, United Nations Foundation/Girl Up, Pratham USA, Room to Read, and A New Day Cambodia.

Mass Appeal

Girl Rising will make its theatrical debut on March 7 and broadcast premiere on CNN in June. Screenings will also be made available on demand in hundreds of cities across the country through Gathr, a new Netflix-ish, Kickstarter-esque model for "bottom-up" theatrical distribution, as explained by its founder Glosserman.

On the big screen is where the filmmakers want audiences to watch the film. “You need to have a common experience in a theater; you need to feel the energy,” Robbins said.

More than a film, Girl Rising is a social action movement, and for that very reason, Robbins added, “the ending is still to be written.”