Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the new documentary companion to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestseller, illuminates the most insidious hardships committed against women globally, from sex trafficking and prostitution to rape and genital mutilation. But it also constructs an uplifting narrative about the women who climb out of dire circumstances and find a path to self-sufficiency by learning to read, participating in microsavings programs, or securing financing for a business for the first time.
The two-part series, which airs Oct. 1 and 2 on PBS, features a cadre of celebrity women—Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde—globe-trotting to engage with underserved women and to showcase the humanitarian work these celebrities already perform. At a dinner kicking off the Clinton Global Initiative’s eighth annual meeting Sunday night, supporters previewed scenes from the film. Half the Sky Movement executive director, Maro Chermayeff, told the Daily Beast that the diversity of star power would draw new eyes to these issues, which is particularly important in an age when “everybody wants to watch the Kardashians.”
The famous women also serve as a proxy for the viewer. In one scene, actress Ferrara is brought to tears after she meets a girl in a shelter who passes up a rare opportunity to pursue an education when her mother demands that she return to prostitution to earn income for the family. She is only 10 years old. Stories like this are all too common, said Chermayeff, who traveled for a year making the film and spent more than a month in Sierra Leone, where she said she did not meet one woman who had not been raped.
The delicate mixture of heartbreak and inspiration is sure to move those who watch Half the Sky. Liberian businesswoman Kabeh Sumbo’s becoming a successful palm-oil entrepreneur falls into the latter category. “I am Kabeh Sumbo, and I am a businesswoman,” she boomed from the podium to a standing ovation. Sumbo graduated from 10,000 Women, a $100 million, five-year initiative funded by Goldman Sachs and aimed at creating 10,000 women entrepreneurs, according to its website. The Liberian government gave Sumbo 100 acres of land so she could produce the oil, which is used for cooking and soap making. She supports her nieces and nephews and foster children with her earnings.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, said Sumbo is a prime example of the hopeful, motivated nation Liberia has become. “We can now see them wanting to be what they want to be,” she said, nodding to the 10 years of peace her country will soon celebrate, after years of blood and hardship under dictator Charles Taylor. The continent’s first female president reminded the audience that while Liberia is quite rich in natural resources, its human capital is the most valuable resource of all.
In a panel hosted by Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown that included Johnson Sirleaf and Sumbo, Kristof said he is heartened that people are far more aware of atrocities committed against women now than they were when he first began to cover them in China. He said he hopes the Half the Sky Movement will reach even more people than his columns and books. The film launch will be coupled with interactive efforts—a Facebook game, teaching guides, and plenty of social media to propel not just a television show but a movement. As Desmond Tutu put it in an interview from the film, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”