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From ‘Half the Sky’ to ‘A Path Appears’ Q&A with documentary producer Marco Chermayeff

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14 minute read

Two years ago, PBS stations across the country broadcast “Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a documentary dedicated to examining gender equality. Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the film examines issues including sex trafficking, maternal mortality, education and economic equality for women and girls in the developing world.

The book and film became part of a larger movement to take action against gender equality both abroad and at home.

As a follow-up to “Half the Sky,” a new book and documentary, “A Path Appears,” sheds light on what communities in the United States are doing to address sex trafficking, domestic violence as well as poverty and early childhood care. KCPT will broadcast the series later this month and host a Community Cinema screening of the first part of the series on Saturday, Jan. 10.

Recently the producer Marco Chermayeff shared his thoughts on the project in this Q&A with the Community Cinema initiative.

What spurred you to make “A Path Appears?” How is “A Path Appears” different from “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide?”

“A Path Appears” is inspired by and based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s newest book “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.” This four-hour series and book is a natural follow-up to our groundbreaking transmedia project “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Kristof and WuDunn started formulating their concept for their new book as we were nearing our PBS broadcast premiere of “Half the Sky” in fall 2012. They recognized the enormous response from the readers and audience, people asking, “What can we do to truly make a difference?” They both wanted to address the subject matter and answer questions, using stories and storytelling to provide examples of organizations and methodology that had truly made a difference in philanthropic impact and outcomes.

Additionally, they were both interested in expanding the geographic footprint of their work — most particularly to include stories from our own backyard, the United States, as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean, parts of the world they’d worked far less in. The subject of what works and what doesn’t in global giving, and the ripple effect of poverty and the vulnerability of women, in challenging and oppressive circumstances, remained very interesting to all of us as filmmakers — so we decided to continue our work together. An interesting new approach was that the book and the television series were developed in tandem — meaning many of the stories were found by the production team and folded into the book, as well as Nick and Sheryl telling more stories in the book than we were able to include in only three nights of prime time television.

What went into selecting the issue areas and locations for this new series? In particular, why did you decide to feature the stories taking place in the United States?

At the end of Kristof and WuDunn’s [first] book, they had a final chapter called “What You Can Do: Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes.” That call to action launched a huge response, and people began to think of Sheryl and Nick, and also of the Project Production Team (who run the Half the Sky Movement project and website), as a hub, a resource to help find ways to get involved.

Our readers and viewers spoke, and we listened! Thousands of people talked about the many issues facing women and girls that were important to them. In selecting our issues we relied on the following criteria:

1. That the issue was impacting a large number of people around the globe and was falling doubly hard on women and girls
2. That we could connect the issue to an NGO [nongovernmental organization] and individuals we felt were effectively addressing and implementing opportunities for change
3. That the issue was relevant and emotionally accessible to our audience
4. That it was an issue and an organization or individual we could present in a fresh way, and was potentially under reported

Our team got together, and over the course of many months talked about the issues we wanted to address, as well as the locations of interest and how to narrow our focus to places where the issue could be best amplified, and most importantly where we could meet and tell the stories of inspiring individuals and organizations tackling these issues in their own communities and countries. We particularly wanted to expand our geographic regions because Nick and Sheryl’s initial reporting in “Half the Sky” was focused on the developing world and the Global South, and we all knew that these issues were also prevalent right here at home. We wanted to add to the dialogue and to break down the illusion that some Americans seem to have: that extreme poverty, sex trafficking, or gender-based violence are not happening here to the same extent, when in fact these are very much happening here at home. We also wanted “A Path Appears” to shine a light on solutions — what was happening around the world and here in the United States. with early childhood intervention, education, effective local police and government work — so that people understood and could explore and learn more about some of these effective interventions. The reality is that these kinds of effective solutions are vastly underfunded and under supported — when in fact if you invest in the front end, in the safety, security, and education of young people, they have far more opportunity to thrive and avoid the ripple effects of poverty and neglect, and you save enormous amounts of money on the back end in the form of prisons, drug treatment facilities, emotional and psychiatric treatment. Not to mention that they live better and more enriched lives, without oppression, fear, and abuse.

How did you go about choosing your subjects, and selecting which stories to tell in the final episodes of the series?

As a production team, we vet hundreds of stories, to find the ones we feel meet the criteria we have to merit inclusion in our content. The criteria include: compelling work; location; safety of our crew in telling that story in that location; inclusion of diverse, compelling, and relatable subjects who wish to be filmed and wish to be part of the project. We are always mindful that the stories we are telling are tough, but our intention is always as storytellers to be immediate and in the moment, and to add positively to the dialogue. Our goal is to introduce our audience to individuals and issues they may not know about, and to take them to new places they may never go, in the interest of raising awareness and fostering positive solutions and change.

You probably had to make some tough decisions around how to portray the stories of several minors in the film, both here in the United States as well as in Kenya, Haiti, and Colombia. Please discuss what went into your choices in telling each of their stories.

As filmmakers (Show of Force) and journalists (Kristof and WuDunn) we are all highly conscious of the serious and important ongoing dialogue of how to best tell stories about individuals facing enormous challenges and brutal circumstances. Show of Force has been part of those conversations around how best to portray these stories while recognizing the effect this has on each person who agrees to share their own truth. Nick has been a leader and influencer in keeping their stories alive in the minds of the people. We have spoken with some of the leading experts including Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and numerous other leading NGOs and educators in this subject matter all around the world. There is no single “right way” to portray an adult or a minor; every story is a case-by-case decision, with the top priorities being safety, security, long-term well-being, and the fair and equitable treatment of all.

This series is about tough issues and harsh realities facing women and girls around the world and here in the United States. It is important that people understand that these harsh realities — sex trafficking, gender-based violence, slave labor, and lack of access to education, to resources, and to opportunity — even to hope — are affecting children. For all of the stories we tell, we work hand-in-hand with highly experienced NGOs and government officials — and all of our subjects, who are participating voluntarily and with full knowledge of their role in the project — to make our decisions. We also understand that this is a complex issue with differing viewpoints: Should minors be shown or not be shown in the context of these difficult stories and situations?

Many people feel the bravery and courage it takes to come forward, both as the minor and also as the guardian or parent of the minor, is courage that deserves to be honored. Sometimes, when people on camera are blurred — it is not seen as a protection of that person, but rather a continued silencing or shaming of that person. It may continue to suggest that they are a perpetrator rather than a victim with a right to speak, a right to be seen, and a right to fight for justice.

As extremely experienced and professional filmmakers, we properly and legally release all of our subjects, of course, but more important than the paperwork is our word and [our] wish for all of our subjects to be treated as they wish to be treated — and [our desire] to help them tell their stories honestly, fairly, and openly if that is what they so desire. In some cases we do blur individuals, because of specific circumstances in which we feel it may be in their best interest or [safer] not to be seen. It is always a thoughtful and intricate decision making process, with the respect and dignity of our subjects in mind. But on the whole, we know the subjects we spoke to and we filmed and show on camera want to tell their stories, and want to be seen and heard. We are honored to give them that opportunity.

Portraying the stories of survivors of trauma and abuse can be challenging terrain to navigate as well. How did you and your team approach working with survivors to tell their stories?

Between “Half the Sky” and “A Path Appears,” the production team at Show of Force, in our collaboration with Kristof and WuDunn, has spent more than five years completely immersed in the complex issues facing women and girls around the globe. We take our role as storytellers very seriously and form long-lasting bonds with all of the subjects and the agents of change we feature in our films. This is also true of the actor-advocates we have brought with us on the project. Our relationship begins long before and remains long after the camera stops rolling. Through our conversations with our subjects prior to filming, and with the record that our previous body of work demonstrates, we are able to develop trust and demonstrate the quality and integrity [with] which they will be profiled. Trust is developed with subjects the same way friendships are developed between any people — through conversation, through shared experiences, through serious dialogue, and through moments of joy and laughter — and tears — where our shared goals and hopes all lie.

All the survivors — both adults and minors — we work with in our films are individuals who find the process of participating in the project empowering and rewarding, and [this] helps them to move forward and shed the shame and guilt that have weighed on them as victims. They all take their participation very seriously and all shared with us their desire to let their own story and experience help others to avoid similar fates or pitfalls. They wish to use their traumatic experiences and their survival as a beacon.

Was it difficult to convince the subjects to share their stories on camera? Was there a common factor that drew all of the subjects to agree to share their stories publicly through “A Path Appears?”

What is difficult is to find the right subjects, not only for this film, but for any documentary film with this nature of sensitive storytelling. As a team, we need to look for more than one kind of story or experience, so that various facets of the story can be told, and we also need to find subjects who are emotionally prepared to share their story in this kind of way. Months of conversations and discussions take place to secure participation and work with our subjects. However, we have found that our participants on the whole are empowered by the possibility of sharing their story. Their first instinct is to want to share what happened to them, in hopes of helping others in the same situation. They appreciate being heard, and one of the most devastating experiences for them as subject is when they are not taken seriously or believed; they know in our filmmaking team that they have experienced and sympathetic “listeners” who know what they are talking about and what they have been through. We most certainly have not been through the same kind of trauma they have, but we know and care and trust our subjects, and hope and believe that they feel that.

What was your process for selecting the local experts on the ground in each story? And the celebrity activists?

We went into finding the stories for “A Path Appears” as we do with most films — very rigorously, with a certain focus in mind both in terms of subject matter and geography. In conjunction with Kristof and WuDunn, our team does extensive research on the people and organizations that are making an impact, and whose models are proven, scalable, and replicable. Once a good potential story was identified, we began extensive conversations with the local NGOs and activists, understanding their work and the types of stories that we would be able to capture if we were to film with them. Every potential story goes through multiple rounds of phone conversations with the subjects, vetting with other experts in the field, followed by in-person meetings, and on-the-ground scouting to determine both the strength of the work and of the stories that we will be able to capture.

The actor-advocates who travel with us are chosen based on both their own interest in and commitment to social justice and human rights issues, and their desire to raise the visibility of the work we are profiling. All of them have issues and causes to which they have already devoted a great deal of their time, although frequently we invite them on trips that are not directly related to their prior work so they can bring fresh eyes to the subject. There are always many logistical and scheduling details that have to be worked out with such busy and high-profile celebrities, but we’ve found that the actor-advocates who inevitably do travel with us are the ones who are immediately enthusiastic and positive about the invitation. In building our roster, we always have an eye toward diversity, not only diversity of race and age, but also diversity in terms of their prior knowledge about the subjects, and the life experiences that they bring. The nine celebrities who traveled with us for “A Path Appears” were an amazing group of dedicated individuals, and we feel each one was a unique and valuable
addition to the series.

What message do you hope viewers will take from A Path Appears?

I hope that people will leave the series having been transported by incredible storytelling and filmmaking, understanding that there are real issues out in the world that deserve and require our attention and that importantly, there are solutions to the issues of sex trafficking, teen pregnancy, child labor, gender-based violence, poverty, and the overall cycle of vulnerability and exploitation that keeps so many people trapped in these situations. We wanted people to become aware, but to embrace and engage, understanding that they can have an impact and be part of sustainable change. We also want to shine a light on amazing people in our world doing incredible work to help others in peril. The film deals with incredibly difficult subject matter, and the stories are heartbreaking, but the overall message is intended to be a positive and hopeful one. We do know that early intervention, local leadership, and holistic programs that instill hope and empower the recipients work and have a lasting, generational effect. Our viewers have the opportunity every day [to] get involved and contribute toward these solutions. We hope they will seize on that message and become a part of this movement for change.

What have you learned from the experience of making A Path Appears?

Both “Half the Sky” and “A Path Appears” have been completely life-changing journeys. Before this work, before having the distinct honor of knowing Nick Kristof and having him as my good friend, I did not know very much about these issues at all. I was educated and capable, and of course [I] understood that, as Nick would say, “I had won the lottery of life,” but I did not understand the web of pathologies that conspire to keep women and girls in the world from fulfilling their potential and living happy and valued lives. It was so important, as a citizen of our planet, to engage in these and other issues and get involved! As we often found, in the worst circumstances and the most daunting places, we met the most amazing people. Out of hardship comes a resilience that is frankly humbling. Everyone at my company Show of Force and specifically the dedicated producers of these two series — Jamie Gordon, Jeff Dupre, Josh Bennett, Mira Chang, Rachel Koteen, and Jessica Chermayeff — as well as the incredible post production team and editors Howard Sharp and Donna Shepherd, we discuss regularly how this has brought us together and brought meaning and value to our work. I have never before had so many young people contact my company asking to work on a project — or [express] how impressed they are by the stories we have been able to share with our audience. This is also true because these are not just television series, far from it. These are among the most successful social media campaigns in the world; we have a following of millions around the globe and have created extensive educational content, resources, and games. We all learned what a “movement” is … what it can be, and how we can be part of it. This is the project that makes me proud to tell my daughter about what we do all day.

What’s it like to work with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn? What was it like to produce the film alongside the development of the book?

Nick and Sheryl are our colleagues, our teachers, and our friends. They are not always right, they don’t always know everything — because they’re human beings, covering a lot of territory and with a lot of responsibility. But they are always investigators and humanitarians. I admire them daily for being so tenacious, and I truly believe they have brought this kind of content forward and into the public eye (at times like [a] drumbeat) and forced people to look, listen, and “do.” They also had the bright idea of letting the audience know that doing good for others will make you happier at the end of the day. We feel that way now as well.

Working in tandem on “A Path Appears,” as opposed to creating our content based on an existing book, had some tricky elements to it. One interesting element for us as filmmakers is that sometimes we found stories, and sometimes Nick and Sheryl found them — and we shared and discussed how that worked. Many more stories are in the book, and also some are more suited for text and not camera; it was interesting as a team to sort out that difference. It was extremely fun for us (gave us some bragging rights!) that we found many subjects and stories and essentially pitched them to Nick and Sheryl — and many of those are in the series and also in the book. It was fascinating to see how Nick and Sheryl would tell those stories in the context of the book, and then watch how they play[ed] out in the series. Of course for television we want and need the stories to be unfolding; the drama and stakes have to be seen and experienced — not told “after-the-fact,” which in writing can be infused with drama. In the case of film … if you don’t see it … essentially you don’t know
it happened.

Please share a few memories or experiences that stand out to you from your time in production.

Following are moments that will stay with me forever:

1. We as a team were integrally and directly involved in finding a young girl, missing for over three months: [S]uddenly, without preparation, Nick found her on a trafficking site, in the presence of her shocked and frightened mother and father. She was rescued within 12 hours by the Boston Police. We felt very lucky, but also angry. But it gave us an immediate understanding that with focus and attention to detail, young girls can be found, and pulled out of the life — and very fast.

2. Going into a Kenyan prison to talk to the man who had repeatedly been raping his granddaughter Flavian. It was dark, cold, and raining — and Nick and our producer in the field, Jessica Chermayeff, and myself had been following the story all day. In the end, we had to be fair and talk to everyone, and have everyone surrounding the story know and understand the rights release [in order] to film their stories. It was hard, it felt dangerous, but we felt we were on the right side of a horrible situation, and we were dedicated to helping this young girl. Today she is in school, and in recovery with extensive support from the NGO we worked so closely with, Shining Hope for Communities. Every day, they actually change lives for the better.

3. Driving around Nashville with Shana, and seeing the women on the street; understanding how they got there, and seeing an American city in an entirely new light. Shana is a powerful and incredibly honest person — I may never have met someone like her if I had not gone so deeply into a film trying to reveal the realities of sex trafficking in this country. I would have driven by, unaware … I would have seen only one side of Nashville … and there is another side. She opened my eyes, and she made me see the power of possibility.

4. The slums of Kibera in the mud rain. It is one of my favorite places on earth: the mud, the smell, the children, the world within a world — and the reality that millions and millions of people live like this in slums all over the world. Go there. You will never turn on your tap and drink a glass of water again without a reality check, and it may make you stand up and do something. Seriously!

5. The first shock of seeing an 11-year-old girl in Cartagena holding her week-old baby. She looked terrified. And I was scared for her. She didn’t know she had to hold his head. He looked a little nervous too, but like all babies, he really looked right into the eyes of his mother and felt love. It was hard to understand how they could go forward together, but there they were, and there was only [moving] forward.

6. Haiti: It takes an hour and a half to get there on American Airlines … put that in your pipe and smoke it. Insane. And we all play a part in that insanity. So chip in.

7. The girls from [the] Kibera School for Girls: Love love love them all. Kennedy and Jessica Odede — nothing but respect and love and their school is miraculous and hopeful. Little Ida, the most adorable smile on earth; “juicy sentences” being formed in the classroom; Eunice’s poetry on the power of a dream. Take the time to learn more about this incredible school and how you can support their important work.

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