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Maro Chermayeff

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Holding Up Half the Sky: Understanding the Struggles and Triumphs of Women Worldwide

Posted: 10/01/2012 9:28 am

Working in documentary film has always been an adventure, a pleasure, and a rollercoaster ride -- but rarely does a project come along that changes one's entire worldview. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide has truly been a life-changing endeavor and an honor. The concept for the project was originally brought to me by my fellow executive producers: Jamie Gordon and Mikaela Beardsley. Mikaela had recently produced the film Reporter about the intrepid New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. She was very excited when, in conversations in the field, he talked about his upcoming book to be co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn addressing the struggles and triumphs of women and girls in the developing world that they had personally encountered over years of reporting.

That book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, became an international bestseller. The game-changing element of the book is the focus on personal stories that allow readers to deeply connect with individual, true stories of women and girls facing horrendous difficulty and inequity. It tackles head-on issues such as maternal mortality, sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and forced prostitution-and illustrates the hope offered by the life-changing opportunities of education and financial empowerment. The storytelling nature of the subject-driven narrative lent itself beautifully to documentary film.

As a New Yorker, I knew of Nick's work as a journalist for The New York Times, and of the highly regarded Pulitzer Prize-winning articles that Nick and Sheryl had written together during their tumultuous years as reporters based in China, but I had never met either of them. Nick and Sheryl believe in the power of social media and the potential of this subject matter to reach new and diverse audiences through multi-platform content. This is where the larger concept of the transmedia project inspired by their book came from.

Now, the project is launching on multiple platforms, with a four-hour television series for PBS and international distribution through FremantleMedia; a one-hour film for Community Cinema; over 20 short films and educational modules made in partnership with some of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide's more than 54 NGO partners worldwide; mobile games for India and Africa (executive produced with Games for Change with the support of USAID); a social-action Facebook game; and two websites -- one at PBS.org/halfthesky and another advocacy-based site at halftheskymovement.org.

As a filmmaker, the centerpiece of the project for me was the documentary series. Filmed in ten countries, the series is inspired by Nick and Sheryl's work -- but also goes beyond the page to film new and immediate stories that lend themselves to the drama that television demands. Our approach was to orchestrate two-week trips to six different countries, following Nick as he reported on an agent of change working to better her own life or the lives of women in her community. Joining Nick on each leg of the journey was a different actress who had experience advocating for social issues, but who was not an expert in the specific issue we were following in that location. Rather, she was there to act as the eyes and ears of the audience, allowing an intimate and honest way into some of these tough and demanding stories. We had the good fortune to be joined by Eva Mendes in Sierra Leone, Meg Ryan in Cambodia, Gabrielle Union in Vietnam, Diane Lane in Somaliland, America Ferrera in India, and Olivia Wilde in Kenya.

The experience of the shooting was some of the most difficult I have ever had in over twenty years of producing and directing large and complicated series. Having directed a ten-hour series aboard the USS Nimitz on a six-month deployment to Iraq, run away with a traveling circus, and made a film about toxic waste being dumped on a Native American community, I was prepared for and yet still stunned by the conditions in which most people in the world live. I was stunned especially by the experiences of women living under these conditions. From rough terrain to blistering poverty, the situations were incredibly challenging and the issues were often heartbreaking (for example, children being raped as early as two and three years old in post-conflict Sierra Leone or the staggering reality of trafficking and sexual slavery of young girls in Cambodia). But the women we worked with were some of the most amazing, courageous, and admirable women I have ever known. The tears often flowed. Two of the more emotional experiences occurred while trying to help the fourteen- year-old Fulamatu seek justice against the uncle who raped her and two of her friends, only to watch the case crumble, and during the harrowing brothel raid in Cambodia with the fiery Somaly Mam that freed several underage girls being held in slave-like conditions where they were forced to work as prostitutes with 10-30 clients per day.

Working with Nick and Sheryl was an invaluable and amazing opportunity as a director. I was so impressed by Nick in the field as he tenaciously sought out the story and by Sheryl's incredible ability to see the big picture and address the large global issues. I knew I wanted to honor their work. We all felt from the start that it should be an epic production, visually stunning and visceral, showing the amazing places we visited and people we met in all their beauty. We wanted the reality of their world to be accessible and yet, at times, shocking -- an edge-of-your-seat adventure with global significance. We wanted to tell true stories, yet also deepen people's experience and understanding of the issues women and girls face in the developing world. We also believed, and Nick and Sheryl were deeply committed to showing, that the stories could and should be uplifting and empowering. Even in the darkest of circumstances, we found the most startling humanity and confirmation of the human spirit's resilience. People who engage with all of our content -- on the multiple platforms available -- will be angry, motivated, inspired, and most important, feel connected to the subjects and themes. We wanted to create a unique experience that goes beyond "issue" filmmaking to simply tell incredible stories about the capacity of human beings to persevere against all odds and the restorative power of opportunity in parts of the world that are not "over-there," but a small leap from our own backyard.

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