Half the Sky Documentary Review: Nicholas Kristof and Eva Mendes Force Female Inequality into the Light


If there ever was an ambitious topic, New York Times’ writer Nicholas Kristof has found it. In a remarkable televised documentary (which aired Monday night on PBS) inspired by his and his wife’s, Sheryl WuDunn, bestselling book Half the Sky, Kristof attempts to vocalize the different forms of oppression that women face across the world. But where the topic of this project is vast, the goal is relatively specific: increase the awareness of these common struggles. Only in this way will political and cultural reform be realized.

The idea of the book stemmed from Kristof and WuDunn’s experience working as journalists based in China. While they had originally focused on politics and business, the couple became increasingly aware of the number of missing female babies each year due to abduction, sale or, desertion — 39,000 per year the documentary estimates during the 1990s — as male children were (and are) favored in Chinese society. The more research the couple did, the more widespread this gross inequity seemed. Within this context, Kristof and some tag-along female celebrities (Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, and Gabrielle Union to name a few) created the documentary, traveling from Sierra Leone to Cambodia to Vietnam and meeting some of the strongest people that this world has produced.


The documentary does well in many respects, with two main components that deserve to be highlighted. 

The first is the focus that is put on the women leaders in various organizations operating within each country. In Sierra Leone, Kristof meets with Amie Kandeh, the director of the Gender-Based Violence Program with the International Rescue Committee. Kandeh provides counseling for and activism on behalf of young women who have been raped or physically abused. A survivor of domestic abuse, Kandeh rattles off statistics of the dire situation that women face — over 50% of the victimized girls who come to their rehabilitation clinic are between the ages 12-17 and 26% are 11 or younger. Though the civil war ended in 2002, rape and assault against women are still rampant in the absence of an adequate enforcement or legal system to control the problem. Serving as translator, guide, and serene leader, Kandeh's presence on screen exudes confidence and elegance in her unwavering support of women in need.

Next, in Cambodia, Somaly Mam, a striking woman who, at the age of 13 was kidnapped and forced into a brothel, introduces Kristof to her network of sanctuaries that she provides for girls saved from sex trafficking. Through her eponymous foundation, Mam has literally saved dozens of young girls who now work for her organization to provide sex education and personal accounts of the realities of sex slavery.  In possibly the most powerful scene on Monday night, a teenage girl, who had her right eye gouged out by an angry brothel owner, quizzes a room full of wide-eyed Cambodian men on proper condom use.

The second compelling aspect that will serve Kristof’s campaign well are the sound bytes that the documentary captures, which will hopefully be recycled over lunch at the office and at the dinner table. In finding these incredibly intelligent women, the cameras simply have to record their effortless grace. In Sierra Leone, Kandeh gives substance to WuDunn’s quote of the horrors of women being “discriminated to death,” as those in Kandeh’s care often contract AIDS. In Cambodia, Mam says of herself and her girls, “We are from the brothels. We are from the darkness.” Her haunting description delivered in her buoyant accent rips the air out of the room and is compounded by a military raid on a local brothel, resulting in the liberation of the girl slaves.

The documentary does well to stand back and provide a world stage for these women and those that they watch over. However, as the women admit, it will be difficult to measure the success of this campaign as stigmas of rape and female education are deeply embedded in many Asian and African societies. 

For now, to learn more about this epidemic and to witness another group of impossibly brave women, tune in Tuesday Oct. 2 for part two of Half the Sky on PBS at 9pm EST.