By Liz Warren

I was disturbed by PBS’s new film, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women. The two-part series is inspired by the 2010 book of the same name written by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. Accompanied by high profile celebrities, Kristof takes viewers on a tour of the dangers that women face in the developing world. It’s impossible to be unmoved by these women’s experiences with rape, sex slavery, maternal mortality, and genital cutting. But I find the most rattling aspect of the series is what appears to be a top-down approach to human rights. I am startled by how little regional context is offered. And I am concerned that a film like this may be re-victimizing many of the women it seeks to help.

To its credit, the movie highlights deserving human rights activists around the world, and its website provides audiences with links to support these individuals and other ways to take action. Those who watch the full four hours of the Half the Sky may have a new appreciation for how difficult life can be. Some will raise money for worthy causes and share these stories of oppression.

But the movie does not inspire some important questions. Why were no men in these communities consulted? Are documentaries like Half the Sky perpetuating divides between the “cultured” global north and the “savage” global south? Why is it easier to examine this oppression from afar than to question its manifestations in our own backyard?

While I agree with Kristof and WuDunn’s conviction that women face tremendous obstacles, I could not shake a deep unease with the film’s approach. We are given a black and white description: there are ‘free’ and ‘oppressed’ countries. The film seems to hint that those who live in the liberated countries need to travel to backwards regions to see this poverty and emancipate their subdued counterparts. Kristof serves as this rescuer, bringing along celebrities and cameramen to illustrate how bad the world really is and what he can do to save it.

For example, the series begins with Kristof and his travel partner, Eva Mendes, touring Sierra Leone to “fight” gender-based violence. Their first stop is the Rainbo Center, a women’s advocacy organization. Kristof briefly introduces the Rainbo Center’s director, Amie Kandeh, before speaking with Fulamutu, a 14-year-old rape victim.

It bothers me that there is no discussion of how to engage the community and sustainably ameliorate these issues. No context about Sierra Leone’s conflict-ridden history is offered. No questions are asked about the prevalence of rape and domestic violence within the region. Neither the Rainbo Center’s nor any other human rights organization’s approach is featured.

Nick Kristof and Eva Mendes on a visit in Sierra Leone
New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and actress Eva Mendes listen to a woman speaking.

Instead, the segment is about Kristof and Mendes’s fight to help one victim. Kristof finds the accused rapist, who is also the girl’s uncle and the town pastor. In an attempt to shame him, Kristof films the interrogation, asking, “do you rape girls? People say you’ve raped many women here.” When the uncle replies that he has not raped anyone, the effort to save the girl stalls. The attacker’s denial, combined with Fulamutu’s parents’ unwillingness to press charges, end Kristof’s case and this segment of Half the Sky.

After a few remorseful remarks, Kristof and Mendes pack their things and go. As they say their goodbyes, Mendes gifts a necklace to Fulamutu, hugs her, and offers, “You are so beautiful, brave and strong.”  But 14-year-old Fulamutu, now exposed to millions of viewers worldwide, will continue living in her community, battling her abuse in what could become a perpetual cycle of re-victimization.

Kathryn Mathers deconstructs this simplistic approach in Harvard’s Transition Magazine:

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over.

Documentaries can invite viewers to see themselves as compassionate, involved in the issues, and innocent of complicity, explains filmmaker and professor Jill Godmilow. But the “real contract, the more hidden one, enables the viewer to feel: thank god that’s not me.”

Ultimately, my critique of Half the Sky is about the purpose of a documentary. Multifaceted questions surrounding poverty and oppression cannot be answered in four hours. But shouldn’t we be asking them? Is a documentary’s job to edify the public and make us feel well rounded or is it to challenge our assumptions and ignite self-doubt?

Join the Conversation:

Did you see the documentary Half the Sky or read the book? What do you think of the movement and Nicholas Kristof’s approach to human rights? What are your opinions on the film?

Liz is a consultant with Six Foot Chipmunk, a firm specializing in community engagement campaigns for social issue documentary films. She is also pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at the New School for Public Engagement. 

10 thoughts on ““Half the Sky,” or Half the Story?

  1. I just happened to find your blog article while doing some light research (I realize it’s a year old), and I find what you and some of your followers a little demanding. While the documentary doesn’t address several problems, and doesn’t delve deeply into the causes of the problems, it did accomplish its goal. I’m guessing most people watched all 4 hours and thought about the problems critically as you did-which was the intent-and honestly that’s all you can hope for when trying to sell something to television audiences and the people that say whether or not you can run a program on their channel. The added bonus is if audience members decide to investigate further, even if it’s just to read the book.

    The book on the other hand, does delve deeper and does discuss cultural and practical causes for gender based violence and deprivation and does engage men when they are willing to participate. And while the sweeping critique of “not [questioning] the causes of poverty, either general or specific” is applicable to the documentary, the book directly addresses this-and it’s worth any concerned global citizen’s time to read. They highlight small, often very small, organizations employing public health model approaches to problems that produce sustainable results-that prove more successful over the years in impacting the larger problems such as poverty and girls education in those areas.

    As far as the concern of exploiting the subjects, I can see the argument and honestly I’m not sure on what side I fall on. But the general tone of your post dismisses that the participants agree to talk and discuss their personal struggles. The fact is that in those communities when a woman is sexually assaulted by a family friend, or beaten by her husband it’s usually no secret because it’s not culturally abnormal (not to say normal), and while everyone knows what happened, no one is talking about it. Participants that are willing to partner with Kristof or another reporter/documentarian are given an opportunity to say what they want about their experience, and saying that they’re left to deal with the consequences of the documentary implies that participants didn’t think there would be consequences, and that seems a little patronizing. It’s not ideal to use personal stories, but that is what lay persons respond to-anything more academic and you’ve lost your audience to “Twilight.”

    So while the documentary, and quite frankly the book, isn’t perfect-it’s met its purpose if only to incite this discussion.

  2. I haven’t seen the doc however I believe that these aspects are real of plentymany online videos and documentaries. In truth your argument type of rests right during the centre of my constant frustration/love of movie since a moderate for personal action and change. I think you re right, should you decide aren’t going to present type of “the big queries or explore why things are just how are and also precisely what can be done to improve them then what s point (most especially as he had 4 hours and is pretty in length for a doc). A documentary must be thought-provoking and also demand the viewer to question their own assumptions.

  3. Wow, thank you for all of your comments. I wrote this post because I felt that Half the Sky offered a packaged (and flawed) solution to gender based violence. The film does not address human right’s many complexities and therefore, I believed that it would not inspire the kind of conversations imperative for affecting positive change. But your thoughtful remarks quash my assumptions.

    That being said I do have a couple responses.

    Yes, raising awareness is important. I don’t doubt that there are many well intentioned planners behind the Half the Sky “movement.” I also agree that the film was meant to “scratch the surface” and expose the general public to these issues. Neither the movie, the book, nor the entire Half the Sky movement could offer a holistic solution on its own.

    However, if this was simply meant to be a human rights introduction, I think it was dangerous to depict such a top down voyeuristic approach. The “tour of oppression” Kristof takes viewers and celebrities on conjures images of visitors at a zoo. As I mentioned, it has the capacity to heighten polarization between “developed” and “developing” countries.

    Additionally, the film’s choice to only consult women in each of these regions may deepen divides within the “oppressed” communities. From my perspective, the men in these regions were not adequately depicted and in many cases they were demonized. Not only do men need to be included in conversations about gender based violence, I also believe that excluding them will worsen situations.

    If Half the Sky was someone’s first experience with human rights, I’m concerned the film may have additional effects beyond exposing hardship in the world or garnering more donations. It may also inspire more apathy, misunderstanding, and possibly more cowboy approaches to human rights.

    We learn a lot from the media we consume, and I’m very excited about the future of “video for change.” However, no story ever offers a full picture. Both filmmakers and audiences are responsible for considering ambiguity and critiques, which is why I’m thrilled we’re having this discussion. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  4. Thanks for speaking up about this. So many of us are reluctant to stick out our necks and accuse the emperor of having no clothes. Nick Kristof has dedicated much of his life to exposing the atrocities faced by women around the world and I applaud him for his efforts. However, parachuting into communities for a brief moment with cameras and good intentions might in fact create new conflicts compounding the old while making promises that won’t be kept. Highlighting the plight of one victim tells a story that tugs at our hearts but ignores the underlying issues that created the environment where these injustices occur. Like the 24 hour news cycle, this story-based reporting gives us a little bit, just enough to make us feel informed, but is short on the depth required for true understanding.

  5. As an American who has spent her career working in U.S.-based foundations that support LOCAL activists and organizations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to apply their own analysis and strategies to local problems – and there are thousands of them out there, all over the world, though you wouldn’t know it by reading Kristof’s columns – I deeply love and appreciate this post. I think it’s important for folks to recognize all of the points made above (1) that Kristof’s techniques are rife with revictimization (2) that he would do well to apply the same lens to problems at home & see how that works out – look no further than Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and the rest of the current GOP leadership if you need evidence of increasingly explicit support for rape culture here at home and (3) the story is ALWAYS about Nick Kristof and his famous friends or the white, northern ‘expert’ sources he quotes, and never about the very real activists and academics in the Global South who could provide perspective and context on the objectifying stories of non-English-speaking women sitting on the floors of huts. In fact many of those women would probably have their own analysis to offer if they were ever asked to describe anything other than the horrors they have experienced by Kristof and his ilk. It’s time to deploy a persuasive counter-narrative against Kristof and his neo-colonial, white man’s burden, media-dominating bullshit – I can see why he defended Kony 2012 so fervently. And I’m sick of Kristof arguing that anyone who objects to his methods just doesn’t understand how media works, or how the attention of American readers must be captured. In Kristof’s black-and-white world, if you object to his methods, you care more about politics than change, or you’re a ‘do-nothing armchair cynic’. Another bullshit false choice. Kristof is the real cynic for using his media platform to raise crappy awareness among people with good intentions and no critical or global framework for absorbing this stuff- like the people who have sat on countless foundation boards who swallow his version of the story whole, and who have to be re-educated to understand what the landscape actually looks like in all its complexity. Shame on him, and GOOD FOR YOU.

  6. I haven’t seen the doc but I think that these points are true of lots of videos and documentaries. In fact your argument sort of sits right at the center of my constant frustration/love of video as a medium for social action and change. I think you’re right, if you aren’t going to pose sort of “the big questions” or explore why things are the way are and what can be done to change them then what’s point (especially since he had 4 hours which is pretty long for a doc). A documentary should be thought-provoking and force the viewer to question his or her own assumptions.

    On the other hand, the commenter Yvette makes the important point (sort of what I argued about the Kony video) that when you are aiming a video at the general public for the purposes of fundraising or awareness raising, obviously, you have simplify to some degree. If at the end of the day, you have more people knowing about a terrible situation that they had no idea existed the day before then that isn’t such bad thing.

    Certainly several questions remain. For one thing, what is Kristof’s responsibility to these communities after making this video? Also, you raise the question as to the purpose of the video and this is something that all to often filmmakers (especially documentarians) forget to ask themselves. What was Kristofs purpose? Book sales, awareness/fundrasing about the issues, or a thought-provoking discussion of the issues and possible solutions. If the purpose was an overly-simplified presentation of the situation a la Kony 2012 then a 4 min video would have the way to go not a 4 hour doc. Also, I’m not sure how broad this doc was but it seems like it should been more focused one or two areas because although there may be gender based violence all over the world, you really have to look at the specifics of a particular region, to have a meaningful discussion about its causes and solutions. The title of the book seems to imply solutions. Are any presented?

  7. Liz is raising some really important questions that point to the complexity of these issues as well as the solutions. From a WITNESS’ perspective, and with 20 years of experience supporting grassroots activists in the use of video in their advocacy on many different human rights issues, including Gender-Based Violence, I am convinced that supporting and helping to build strong civil society is key to sustainable solutions. So is listening to and respecting the needs and expertise locally and partnering with people on their advocacy goals. But in the full spectrum of the many people involved in and necessary to effect human rights change (from, e.g. grassroots human rights defenders, to international bodies, to storytellers, to donors, to policy makers to name a few) participants play different roles. One interpretation of Kristof and WuDunn’s roles and the role of this particular documentary could be that they are storytellers, translators of complex issues to the (American?) general public. As such they still have an ethical responsibility to the people whose stories are being told or who are being featured in their stories, but I don’t think we can hold them responsible for the full spectrum of human rights change. This documentary was clearly intended for a U.S. audience and seems to have an awareness raising and fundraising goal. While that never justifies over-simplication or abuse of agency, it does necessitate that the message is geared toward people who might not be human rights experts or have knowledge of the issues involved. I do not think that Kristof is “helping one victim” – I think he is (rightfully or wrongfully) using a storytelling technique whereby he illustrates an issue by highlighting one specific personal story. You can argue wether the documentary has done the issue or the people involved justice by the way it is doing this, but my interpretation is that this documentary’s (which is part of a larger campaign) goal is simply to try to scratch the surface on the issue by telling stories that might otherwise not have reached the eyes and ears of the many who watched it. Behind the documentary (and the book), there is an effort and a network, as I understand it, that is aimed at raising up the issues that women and girls are dealing with around the world – and finding solutions that are sustainable. This seems to be one small part of that. Yvette

  8. I read the blog and am so proud that someone is looking beyond the obvious.
    Thank you, Liz. We need to expand our horizins!

  9. Wow, I was moved by the PBS film, or maybe I should say I was sucked in. I applaud your bog and your view point. I hate it when poverty or disease or disaster is celebratized . Or when it becomes chic, and I must say when you discuss Sierra Leone and that section I realized I fell for the celebratization of the situation and forgot there is ALWAYS another side and a bigger picture. Thank you for this. I applaud what Kristof is doing, but a bigger picture is needed and a balanced point of view is mandatory. Thank you.

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