This year, Hollywood has put a welcome spotlight on the stories of vulnerable populations of young women. During Oscar season, we saw “Roma,” the Mexican film centered on a young domestic worker, and “Period. End of Sentence.” a documentary about women battling the stigma against menstruation in rural India.
“Brave Girl Rising,” a new short film by Girl Rising, which was released earlier this month, is the latest addition to the roster. The film tells the story of Nasro, a 17-year-old Somali girl pursuing an education in one of the most challenging environments: a refugee camp — specifically Dadaab Refugee Complex in Kenya.
I spoke to one of the film directors, Martha Adams, about the film and how telling advocacy stories in nontraditional ways widens their reach and impact.
“A girl who is 8, 9, or 10 years old — placing her in front of a camera and expecting her to articulate her life’s dreams or aspiration was just unrealistic.”— Martha Adams, film director
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“Girl Rising” has a unique storytelling format, blending both documentary and scripted scenes. What inspired that format?
That started with a film that Richard Robbins had directed that was nominated for an Oscar: “Operation Homecoming.” It’s a tribute to the veterans of the Iraq War. Richard felt very confined with the traditions of documentary filmmaking — men were coming from the war and they were experiencing such post-traumatic stress but he wasn’t able to really capture what that felt like, or capture their experiences in the war with documentary filmmaking.
Catch up on the On Message series:
When we started to make “Girl Rising,” we felt that to capture the hopes and dreams of a girl — who is 8, 9, or 10 years old — placing her in front of a camera and expecting her to articulate her life’s dreams or aspiration was just unrealistic. To overcome that challenge, we did two things. The first thing was to pair them with female writers from the same part of the world, someone who could identify with them — a woman who was in a place where she could speak on their behalf. In mixing narrative and documentary, we are really just trying to do justice to the girl’s potential, to her dreams. If we purely rely on documentary, we are not necessarily going to be able to depict that in the most powerful way.
The film is a departure from traditional advocacy storytelling — it’s an important distinction to weave in “her inner self, her hopes, and dreams” into the story.
There have been countless powerful documentaries about girls overcoming challenges in low-income nations. There are so many. Frequently, those films only reach the audiences that already know those issues. They go to festivals and they end up being seen and loved by audiences who already know the issue.
Before we started, the definition of success was if we reached a whole new population that would never necessarily read about the power of girls’ education in the New York Times. One of the best ways to do that was to leverage Hollywood talent: the best DPs, the best editors, the best producers of trailers. So often, if a viewer starts to watch a documentary and often if the first few frames tell them — because it’s not such high production value — like, “oh, this is going to be ‘one of those films’, right?” ... They basically disregard it. We were hoping to approach this, using high production value, to appeal to a wider audience.
“Once you’ve lost as much as she’s lost, education becomes everything.”—
You worked with Warsan Shire, the prolific Somali poet, to script the story-poem woven through the film. Which parts of Warsan’s story were interwoven into Nasro’s? How did you walk Nasro through the process of acting out elements of her lived experiences?
Nasro and Warsan are from the same part of the world. They’re both refugees. They’re both close in age. Warsan is like a big sister to Nasro. They are the closest in age than any of our writers and girls from past chapters. Yet, Warsan’s life went in one direction and Nasro’s went in another. Warsan’s family was able to get visas to relocate to London, where she grew up.
Nasro’s story is her story. The facts of that story are hers. It’s a truthful depiction of her life. The foundation to [Nasro’s] story, and much of the emotion and the sentiment, [does] come from and [is] fueled by, Warsan’s own life. It would be impossible to separate the two.
Before [filming] each scene, we talked about where we were in the story and where she would be psychologically. We just stood back and let her do the rest ... When I first met her and was interviewing her and I asked her some questions that I sometimes ask people we will film. I asked “if you were to write your autobiography, what would your title be?” And without even pausing she said, “the bravest girl in the world,” and then she went to explain to me that the only thing she fears now is God and snakes, and that once you’ve lost as much as she’s lost, education becomes everything.
How much does a film like this cost?
The cost of film and the curriculum are interwoven — massive amounts of outreach, and advocacy tools, and web builds that surround [the project] — it’s quite an undertaking. Depending on how ambitious and how wide the reach is, it usually costs anywhere from $1-1.5 million, and part of that is because we want to subtitle it in multiple languages and we are wanting to make sure that it slots into our programmatic work around the world.
Is there anything that’s missing from the ways that refugee stories are told? What would you like to see from other filmmakers telling these types of stories?
Only that we need a million more. We so frequently tell the story of the moment of the crisis. We [storytellers] so frequently focus on the moment of fleeing someone’s home, on foot, in a boat. What I would love to see are the stories that take the story long after that moment, when the person has settled down into a new community in Denver or Amsterdam. And they’ve been paired with a family that has opened up their home and an agency that has provided them job training. That’s the story I want to see. What happens at that moment? Because that is a deeply optimistic story for us all.
Update, March 29, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that one of the best ways to reach a whole new population was to leverage Hollywood talent including the best DPs; and that the foundation to Nasro’s story comes from Warsan’s own life.