By Brad Pomerance
Special to TelevisionWeek
Each year, Women in Cable & Telecommunications awards Tribute Accolades to original cable productions that best portray women as strong role models. This year’s winner in the documentary category, “What’s Going On? Girls’ Education In India,” follows three girls-an 11-year-old living in Bombay, a 15-year-old homeless teenager in the same metropolis and another 11-year-old living in rural India-all of whom yearn to better themselves through education.
The film portrays an Indian culture in which traditional values stand in the way of progress and educating girls is not considered necessary. Young women who merely want to attend school are often forbidden to do so because of their gender.
The award-winning 28-minute program aired as part of Showtime’s “What’s Going On?,” a 10-part documentary series produced by RCN Entertainment that examines issues around the world through the perspective of children.
In this installment, the country dweller is forced to drop out of school to work at home. Despite her family’s poverty, the 11-year-old city dweller manages to attend school and to flourish in her educational environment. The homeless girl, meanwhile, finds it impossible to seek work and attend school at the same time, but she ultimately lands in an innovative program that brings a mobile classroom to street children.
Given the compelling portrayal of these young women aching to better themselves, “Girls’ Education In India” proved a perfect fit for this award. “It really paralleled the mission of WICT-creating female role models and strong women leaders,” said Parthavi Das, director of research and advocacy for WICT.
“The award reminds me why we are doing what we are doing,” said Nicole Silver, executive producer of the documentary series. “We wanted to create a show from the kids’ perspective and try to change lives. It allows me to leave my kids every morning.”
By Hollywood standards, Ms. Silver did not have to leave many mornings wondering whether “What’s Going On?” would be ordered. From conception to the commencement of production, the project took six months to get going. “In fact, I was at Showtime pitching something else, and Showtime said that they wanted this project,” she said.
Ann Foley, executive VP of programming at the network, said the decision to commission the production was an easy one. “Showtime has platformed issues regarding children,” she said, “but we are interested in telling stories we can tell better than the general networks. This program fit right into that category. Showtime, as a premium cable network, could tell these stories that may not be appropriate for Nickelodeon or Disney.”
RCN partnered with the United Nations on the series as a result of a random connection made by a friend of executive producer Orly Wiseman. For both the U.N. and the producers, bringing about change remained the paramount goal. “We sat in a room with 15 people from the U.N., and when I asked, `How can you change the world,’ they all responded that to change the world, you have to educate women,” Ms. Wiseman said.
“Women who control the larger issues in the world-population, mothering, keeping the children and the home-are not educated. The U.N. expressed to us that if you give women education, there is a real opportunity for significant change, especially in Third World nations,” Ms. Silver said.
While many countries have been negligent about providing educational opportunities for women, Ms. Wiseman said the producers chose to focus on India because “it is notorious for its deep division between rich and poor and its cultural bias against educating women. Yet India has been working hard to change its status on education, and we found stories of change. There were arcs for the characters. We could see what could be.”
Among the educational work force in India, there seemed to be an understanding about the value of educating women. In the documentary, Rebecca D’Souza, a teacher at St. Joseph Convent High School, says, “When you educate a man, you educate him. When you educate a woman, you educate a family. When you educate a family, you educate a nation. So if you educate a woman, she knows what she has to do. She has to spread this education far and wide to each and every person.”
Not everyone was as willing to offer her story as Ms. D’Souza. “Everybody in India was suspicious that we were trying to make their country look bad, so we needed to form relationships and break those barriers. Until these people trusted us, we could not get their stories,” Ms. Silver said.
As a result, scouting and shooting took time-five weeks. “It was not the easiest of circumstances,” Ms. Wiseman said. “It was difficult. There was lots of driving and exploring. It was hot. The equipment was heavy. And some of the Indians felt that because they were so poor they were not worthy enough to tell their story.
“But ultimately the subjects were amazing and genuinely excited. We met incredible people, and all they wanted to do was to learn and go to school.”