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Make no mistake; Girl Rising is an issue film, a docudrama strictly for the converted, at least when it comes to the marketing and sale of this particular DVD to American audiences, none of which I hope believes girls should not receive any education.
It comes complete with the obligatory celebrity voice-over, in this case Liam Neeson with a particular set of stoic voice-over skills, informing the audience about the worldwide benefits of educating poor girls in developing countries so they can be more independent, contribute more to the world economy and become smarter about important socio-economic issues like birth control. It even ends with a list of web sites where we can support various charities that can give these disenfranchised and abused girls a chance to make a difference for themselves and the world.
I know that all of this makes Girl Rising sound like one of those depressing and emotionally manipulative charity videos insomniacs come across at three in the morning while watching reruns of That's My Bush on Comedy Central.
However, Richard Robbins' (Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominee for Operation Homecoming) film never feels maudlin and desperate but works wonderfully as a celebration of its subjects' unquenchable thirst for knowledge and intellectual progression against all odds, all without sugarcoating the human rights atrocities they have to suffer through every day. An equally heartbreaking and hopeful experience, it's bound to get you choked up a couple of times or even make you pretend you have something stuck in your eye.
Girl Rising consists of stylistically varied vignettes about real girls struggling to get an education in countries where they're not seen as much more than mere property. The stories from real girls are interpreted by writers from their home countries and narrated by movie stars.
A girl in Haiti insists on attending classes after the 2010 earthquake devastates her hometown, even though her parents can't afford to pay for her education. A girl once sold into a kind of legalized slavery encourages her friends into a sing-along against oppression during a sequence that would have worked as prime Oscar-bait if Harvey Weinstein distributed the film. The final vignette, perhaps the most disturbing yet hope-affirming, is about an Afghani girl who was forced into marriage at age eleven (Not a typo) and literally risked her life to gain an education.
The diverse visual approach to each section turns Girl Rising into a visually encompassing experience as well as an emotional one. A story about an Egyptian girl fighting against a pedophile is dramatized as an animated comic. Colorful animated characters accompany the tale of an Indian girl whose dirt-poor father encourages her artistic aspirations. There's even a black-and-white sequence that's reminiscent of an 80s video art-house project. The narration by A-list stars like Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett have an air of sincerity to them, instead of the usual dry and uninterested celebrity voice-overs on projects like these, which suspiciously sound like court-ordered social services.
Since almost all of the footage consists of faithful recreations of the girls' stories, it's hard to call Girl Rising a documentary, so docudrama is the appropriate designation. Apart from two instances, the girls play themselves in the stories and they all showcase impressively natural performances.
It's too bad Girl Rising is not available on Blu-Ray because some of the gorgeous cinematography present here, inspired by the exotic locales from four corners of the earth, is deserving of an HD transfer. Apart from some aliasing, the standard definition DVD transfer is clear and beautiful.
Two tracks are offered in lossy Dolby Digital, 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. The 5.1 track usually sticks to the front channels and doesn't offer much range. Listening to the film on the 2.0 track via standard TV speakers should suffice if you don't have a surround system. In both tracks the music and the narration are mixed perfectly and can be heard clearly.
Introduction by the Director: A very short intro by the director detailing the inspiration for making Girl Rising.
Making of Documentary: Just like the film itself, this 25-minute featurette consists of separate vignettes covering the production process as well as the post-production details of some of the animated sequences. There are also some extra scenes that allow the audience to get to know the girls better.
There's also a minute-long PSA about the various charities that support Girl Rising's mission.
The DVD package states that a percentage of the proceeds from the home video sales of Girl Rising will go towards securing resources to educate girls similar to the ones we see in the film. That alone would be reason enough for a purchase. The fact that it's expertly made and profoundly moving is the cherry on top.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com