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.
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.