Girl Power

06.16.134:45 AM ET

Girls Rising—and Tweeting, and Gathering, and Fundraising

10x10’s semi-documentary film ‘Girl Rising,’ which sheds light on education justice for girls in the developing world, has seen great grass-roots success since its March debut. Narration from actors like Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep helped—but so did the power of social media. In advance of its CNN screening, Sarah Begley speaks with executive producer Holly Gordon.

The Daily Beast: You were at ABC News for 12 years and then Tribeca Film Festival. How did you get involved with 10x10, and how did that previous experience shape your work on Girl Rising?

Holly Gordon: This was just one of about eight or nine projects that landed on my desk at the Documentary Group, but it was one that really spoke to me. The idea at first was to create a film with a traditional campaign that you’ve seen with social interaction films that would start around the release of the film and link to some nonprofits and sort of point toward impact.

At the time, five years ago, Twitter and Facebook were established, but they were young platforms. As a journalist, I knew that in making the film there would be many, many stories that would never make it into the final cut—but that social media would allow us an engine for content and an opportunity to build a following before we even started shooting the film. So for me it was a professional challenge, because journalism was changing so much—and it was also something I felt incredibly passionate about. It was a perfect nexus. There were three impact outcomes that we felt mattered: changing minds, changing lives, and changing policy.


How did you sort through all of those millions of stories that are out there to choose just nine?

That was the job of the film team working very closely with our nonprofit partners. We chose organizations like Room to Read and World Vision, who are doing some of the best work in supporting girls around the world today. One of the things we asked for their help in doing was meeting girls. Lots and lots of girls! The film team interviewed hundreds of them. [They] realized very early on that this would be like an impossible choice half the time, so they collected the notes and presented them to the writers that we had recruited for the project, and we left it to the writers to make the final decision.


Were many of the writers from the region that they wrote about?

Each of the writers is from the same country as the girl [she wrote about]. And that actually turned out to influence, in some cases, what country we chose. For example, we thought we’d do a story on Brazil, but we had an impossible time finding a woman writer who’d been translated into English that had won awards and was globally recognized for her skills as a writer. You can’t convince me there aren’t amazing women writers in Brazil, but they’re just not getting translated and they’re not winning awards. We had started with Loung Ung, from Cambodia; she won an award at the World Economic Forum and she’s been a New York Times bestseller. She’s really earned her stripes as an author, and once you start with somebody who’s as extraordinary as her, you don’t want to back down from that level.


Speaking of this writing process, what do you think is the strength of dramatizing these girls’ lives as opposed to a more old-fashioned, interviewer-and-interviewee-sitting-in-a-studio method?

The original concept of the film was to follow girls around and do something that was much more traditional. So we went to Kenya and Richard [Robbins] shot a trailer, but when he got back and started looking at the footage, it was depressing. So depressing that he didn’t want to be in the edit room. He called and he said, “I don’t wanna make this movie. I wanna make the movie that I saw, and the movie that I saw is girls who are extraordinary, who are full of life and vigor, who are determined beyond your wildest imagination to achieve and to make their lives better.” They’re not feeling sorry for themselves, but somehow, the Western camera captures the lack of things that we expect to be there rather than the beauty. So this reenactment model allowed us to transcend that movie-making pitfall of social good films that you’re supposed to want to see versus films that you’re actually engaged by.


As you said, you’re interested in actually changing minds, lives, and policies. What practical outcome have you seen in those factors and in fundraising?

At the grassroots level we have had an incredibly powerful response to the film—mostly women who think every generation of their family should be seeing it. We’ve been using this Gathr model, which is all based on word of mouth to create screenings. It’s going like gangbusters, and it hasn’t really shown any sign of slowing down. So far we’ve sold almost 130,000 tickets, with over $1.3 million raised.


How many people do you think you might be able to reach for the CNN screening?

I would not even want to guess at the actual numbers, but I do know that they’re going to air it June 16, and then again the following weekend around the world multiple times in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. For a project like this where getting the word out is so vital, you couldn’t imagine a better partner than CNN.


I had read that they’d asked their reporters to find similar stories surrounding the broadcast.

Yes, for six weeks leading up to the project they’ll be doing stories around girls’ education and issues facing women and girls, and then, starting two weeks before, they’ll be doing coverage on every show. CNN International is devoting even more time, maybe even a whole year, to girls’ education and issues for women and girls. It’s like we died and went to heaven! It’s so wonderful, because many hands make light work. And listen, all they’re doing is reporting the facts—this whole campaign is based on evidence that the girls have barriers to education that boys don’t, and when you take those barriers away, it’s progress for everyone.