There’s a reason why it’s called Half the Sky. Come find out why…
Before I begin, I have to give a warning for the content. For those who find the discussion of and revelation of the effects of torture disturbing, I would urge caution when choosing to watch Half the Sky. Nothing shown is more graphic than the average cheesy horror film, but the horror here comes in knowing everything you see is real. I thought I was desensitized after years of watching crime procedurals, but looking at the wounds left behind on these innocent women made me flinch.
Half the Sky is a two-part documentary which was years in the making. New York Times journalists and real-life married couple Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have been reporting together for decades. They’ve also managed to crank out a number of books, one of which is the bestseller Half the Sky, upon which the documentary Half the Sky is based.
The idea was simple: go to six different countries, accompanied in each by a different American actress. The countries in question would all have the same thing in common: the mistreatment of women in some way.
To give you an idea of just how quickly this idea caught on, take a look at a few of the names who agreed to be interviewed as part of the documentary: Desmond Tutu, Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Susan Sarandon (Cloud Atlas). Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Rises) provided the score and George Clooney (The Descendants) gives the introduction to each of the two parts.
Half the Sky is one of the most sobering, affecting, gut-wrenching, and gut-turning films I’ve ever seen. To watch it and emerge unaffected is to be a robot. I had a notion of the topics discussed (female genital mutilation, prostitution, sex trafficking, lack of education, and healthcare), but only on a peripheral level. I’ll just give the overview of the segments, each of which deals with a sensitive topic:
* Sierra Leone and Gender-Based Violence — Eva Mendes (The Place Beyond the Pines) meets a woman who runs a center for women which provides medical treatment and counseling for those who have suffered sexual abuse.
* Cambodia and Sex Trafficking — Meg Ryan (Sleepless in Seattle) encounters a former sex slave who works tirelessly to empower young girls who she rescues from brothels.
* Vietnam and Education — Gabrielle Union (FlashForward) meets a young girl who travels over seventeen miles each day by bike in order to go to school. Gabrielle goes to the girl’s home to get a better understanding of where she comes from as well as her hopes for her future.
* Somaliland and Maternal Mortality — Diane Lane (Secretariat) encounters a strong-willed woman who built a medical center from the ground up and trains young women to become midwives.
* India and Intergenerational Prostitution — America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) meets a woman who works with not only prostitutes but their children as well, hoping to break the cycle of prostitution within families.
* Kenya and Economic Empowerment — Olivia Wilde (House, M.D.) encounters a woman who is part of a women-only tribe who are struggling to find equality. They defend each other, they work the land together, and they are trying to become entrepreneurs.
Kristof and WuDunn were very smart when compiling the documentary. They include an American actress who has never been to the region in question. The actress serves as the audience surrogate. Kristof and the actress meet a woman from the region who is working tirelessly to combat the problem at hand. This woman tells her story, and it’s usually the same as the girls and women she’s trying to empower — but it’s an uplifting story with an uplifting message.
That’s what we need when we realize that these issues are not going to be solved in our lifetime. What’s more is the appreciation that these issues are culturally rooted and thus any real change is going to have to come from within the culture itself. We like to think we can go in and fix any problem, that it’ll just take some time and money. Sadly Half the Sky dismisses that as a myth, reinforcing the idea that change must come from within. However, as George Clooney reminds us, we can certainly “give them a hand.”
That is what Half the Sky is all about. The mission is to convince everyone watching that they can be part of the solution, even if it looks like the solution will never happen. The stories of hope and change are amazing, and to watch the way these experiences resonate with our sextet of actresses is to share in the experience yourself.
I mentioned earlier how smart the filmmakers are, and I’ll reiterate it. By giving just an overview of a topic and a region which could easily have hours upon hours of programming dedicated to it means the viewer has enough time to become interested and engaged instead of overwhelmed. I found myself leaving each segment wanting to watch more, to learn more about the lives I’d glimpsed, and that is exactly what a great documentary is supposed to do.
The video and audio both are top-notch. Though I expected to deal with grain and tinny audio, I needn’t have worried. While it’s not a deeply saturated palette designed to highlight the natural beauty of the regions, it was by no means a washed-out video. It was clear, suffering almost no grain or noise of any kind. That Hans Zimmer score I mentioned earlier sounds great, and they took the time to put microphone packs on the interviewees so the dialogue is much crisper than anticipated.
The special features are abundant. Well over an hour-and-a-half of extended and deleted scenes as well as additional interviews are included. It’s clear they were cut due to the television broadcast regulations because they don’t feel disposable. Also included are ways to get involved with the cause, a Facebook offer (which doesn’t apply until spring), and some trailers.
This is an easy movie to recommend, even though it’s not an easy movie to watch. I think it’s necessary viewing if you want to learn about one of the most pervasive problems in the world today. It will leave you feeling grateful for your life. Half the Sky will bring home how lucky we are to be where we are. If you can’t bring yourself to watch it, consider picking up the book and going to the official site. Every little thing you can do to help does in fact help. Half the Sky is something few movies can aspire to.