First lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to ensure that education of girls is accessible around the world gets in-depth treatment in a new CNN Films documentary whose airings are timed globally to coincide with the International Day of the Girl.
It may not have made huge headlines at the time, but the first lady’s travels in June 2016 to Liberia and Morocco were well-documented in preparation for the special, which also features FLOTUS’ stellar entourage — actors Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto and CNN correspondent Isha Sesay.
More star power comes with the inclusion of Andra Day’s motivational anthem “Rise Up” as the theme for “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World.”
It’s all in service of the U.S. government initiative launched by the Obamas called “Let Girls Learn,” and bringing attention to the fact that 62 million girls across the globe are not in school, for a number of reasons including societal pressure, the financial cost of attending and the fact that schools may not be safe for young women.
“We cannot accept the barriers that keep them from reaching their goals,” says Obama in the documentary, in essence a follow-up to 2013’s first commissioned production for CNN Films, “Girl Rising,” which looked at how girls are educated in nine countries. In that film, Streep and Pinto were among those voicing the stories of young women who overcame obstacles to attaining an education.
“When it became possible for CNN and the same team that produced ‘Girl Rising’ to travel with the first lady for this trip, with her similar mission, we knew Meryl and Freida would be perfect for this project,” said executive producer Amy Entelis, who is also CNN Worldwide’s executive vice president for talent and content development.
“These extraordinary women have long been engaged in working to empower women and girls through their work and activism — Isha has even established her own nonprofit in this arena — so they were knowledgeable about the benefits of girls’ educational enrichment,” said Entelis. “Engaging the girls directly came naturally to them all as well, so it was mostly learning the statistics and the local customs that we encountered during the shoot that were the primary points of our preparation for them.”
For Sesay, who met many of the girls and their families in Liberia and heard their stories before the first lady arrived, working on the documentary hit especially close to home. As a native of Sierra Leone who has passionately covered Africa and issues related to women and girls on the continent throughout her career, she acts as a guide for viewers throughout the moving and motivational journey.
“I most identified with the girls’ drive and refusal to be defeated by their difficult circumstances. These girls are striving and determined to thrive. They refuse to let anything hold them back and that is something that resonated very strongly with me,” Sesay said. “In some cases it is cultural barriers that continue to pose the biggest challenges. There is still this notion that girls aren’t worth investing in because they are inferior to boys. But then in other cases it is as much about girls coming from poor backgrounds and the pressure that places on them to drop out of school.”
The countries and the cultures may be different, but the challenges involved reflect deep similarities as well as common solutions. There are lessons not just for the girls, but for their families, teachers and school administrators.
During her visits, Mrs. Obama, who was accompanied by her daughters Malia and Sasha, advised them that the health of a society can be measured by the health of its women. “Ask yourself, ‘What can I do? What’s next?’ There are many facets of the challenge and we can’t afford to waste that talent,” she said in Morocco. To the girls she advised, “Have confidence and pride and push yourself with the goal to bring passion, confidence and strength to the vision of what you want to be. You’ve been overcoming challenges and that makes you smarter.”
She took questions from the girls, who were visibly excited to be in her presence, and Streep, Pinto and Sesay also spoke to them — and were clearly moved by their participation and interactions.
“Working with the first lady was a very special experience. Watching her willingness to share her personal story and the heartfelt way she is encouraging girls to reach for the sky was truly inspiring,” Sesay said, and noted that there are lessons to be learned for everyone striving for equal education.
“I think first of all those in less difficult circumstances will hopefully take a moment to realize just how fortunate they are, and for adults I hope they take the lesson that being an inspirational role model to girls is so vitally important and can literally transform the way they see themselves and the path they take in this world,” said Sesay.
In many cultures, girls drop out of school by the age of 12 and are expected to stay home and help with family chores like cooking and cleaning. There are also issues regarding superstition and lack of education about menstruation that keep them away from class, as well as the dangers of sexual assault and harassment.
The documentary shows many of the young women who have overcome these obstacles, some studying late at night after finishing household duties. Others were taken in by relatives after Ebola took a deadly toll on their families.
“Some of the girls have faced incredible loss as they’ve pushed past limits to achieve their educations. It’s not hard to become emotionally invested and want to do more personally than just listen and tell their stories,” Entelis said.
Along with providing a platform to tell the stories of the girls, shooting in Morocco and Liberia posed its own challenges for the production team.
“The locations were not easy to get to — there are no direct flights between the countries, and within the countries we traveled to where the girls are in school, which took some time,” Entelis said. “We were shadowing the first lady for most of the trip, and the security and logistics challenges for any White House trip require careful planning, and we had a lot of equipment to move to capture the beautiful intimacy of this shoot.”
The participants have high hopes for the impact of the program and its long-term consequences.
“CNN reports on crises, conflict and the everyday tragedies faced by people around the world each day,“ said Entelis. “That these girls are winning against those incredible odds is so inspiring. We hope viewers find it encouraging. Perhaps they will become involved in projects for girls’ education — either in their communities or even abroad, and — for many of us watching from here in North America — it is also good to remember not to take our many advantages for granted.”
(“We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World” airs Oct. 12 on CNN at 9 p.m ET/PT and will stream on CNNgo (www.CNN.com/go), iPad, AppleTV, Amazon Fire, and across CNN’s mobile platforms. The film will be available on demand beginning Oct. 13 via cable and satellite systems. Additional material and resources will be linked to www.CNN.com/Impact and www.CNN.com/CNNFilms.)