Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2012)

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Running Time: 232 min

America Ferrera speaking with Urmi Batsu in ‘Half the Sky’ (via

Half the Sky is a documentary about women’s rights that focuses on women in “developing countries” (countries of the Global South). The film is inspired by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s nonfiction eponymous book. The film itself examines complex moral and cultural issues that are addressed by women from within the community who have experience with those issues. Half the Sky aired as two two-hour segments on PBS in the United States. While it mainly focuses on and features the women who are making change for other women within their own countries, the documentary also features Nicholas Kristof and several actresses (Diane Lane, America Ferrera, Olivia Wilde, Gabrielle Union, Eva Mendes, and Meg Ryan), as well as an appearance by George Clooney and many women’s rights advocates and activists. Some issues of violence against women examined in this documentary include rape in Sierra Leone, sex trafficking in Cambodia, maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, and intergenerational prostitution in India.

While this documentary does quite a few things right, there are many issues with its presentation and execution. I will discuss these problems – with Kristof’s reporting, the representation of “global” or “worldwide” women, the inclusion of American celebrities, and the lack of male representation – before I talk about the positive aspects of Half the Sky.

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof portrays himself as something of an Activist-Reporter. He creates a clear “us and them” dichotomy between (generally) white American women and the “worldwide” women of the Global South. Kristof’s continual discussion of “their culture” (my emphasis) demonstrates this dichotomy, especially when he claims that “[female genital cutting] may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.” Furthermore, Kristof unabashedly asks these women (and young girls) of the countries he is touring about the state of their genitals and their experiences as victims of rape; it is doubtful that he would ask these questions so publicly of white American women.

The inclusion of celebrities in this film is problematic. Kristof seems to think that these celebrities create a “bridge” for the presumed-typical white American viewer. While there may be something to be said for generating interest or support for an issue that obviously needs attention, taking female celebrities on what is essentially a poverty tour does not benefit the story Kristof should be telling. Perhaps these celebrities could have lent their star status in a different way (support through advertising, perhaps). Rather than contribute to the telling of individual cultural stories, the American celebrities highlight the dichotomy Kristof has created: sure, it may be aesthetically pleasing to watch Olivia Wilde dance with traditionally dressed Kenyan village women singing “the vagina song,” but there is no reason for that image to be an important moment in Half the Sky.

The portrayal of women of the Global South as “worldwide” women is another problematic topic within Half the Sky. These women are consistently portrayed as unloved, disrespected, and ignored by men. This portrayal only serves to further the “us/them” dichotomy. Additionally, men are not represented at all in Half the Sky. They are simply mentioned as careless, useless, brutal members of society who treat women with cruelty.

Finally, I want to point out some of the positive aspects of Half the Sky. Depicting women native to the countries being explored, women who have experienced the problems/horrors/issues that they are now fighting against, women who are part of the culture they are trying to bring change to? That is an extremely positive representation of women and of a solution for violence against them because that violence is being addressed by women who get it. They understand the culture, the atmosphere, the reasoning behind the actions. Seeing local women activists brings attention to the organizations that are truly fighting the problems in their native countries. While the “us/them” dichotomy in Half the Sky discourages the kind of global female empowerment and relationships that the film seems to attempting to encourage, the overall message is still a true one. Educating and empowering women improves the health of families, the strength of communities, and the growth (particularly economic) of nations.

Relevant, Interesting, and Informative Articles:
[1] “How Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky Use Women Against Each Other” by Sayantani DasGupta on Racialicious
[2] “On the Ground: Westerners On White Horses…” by Nicholas D. Kristof on The New York Times Opinion Pages: Kristof’s Blog
[3] Half the Sky Documentary Reviewed by Azra on Patheos
[4] Information on the North-South Divide (Wikipedia)
[5] Half the Sky Information (PBS)
[6] Half the Sky Movement: Half the Sky Information

Julia Aversa

Future of Food, The

Country of Origin:
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Running Time: 91 min


Modern agriculture© Lily Films 2009

Modern agriculture involves the monoculture of a small number of crops, rather than a diversity of crop types.
© Lily Films 2009

Deborah Koons Garcia’s The Future of Food examines the recent Green Revolution, a dramatic change in production of food.  Using interviews from people who have worked in corporations that deal with food, government officials, and farmers, as well as footage of working farms, the film illustrates the evolution, or degradation, of food production.

The Future of Food opens with a description of the Green Revolution, during which food production became more mechanized and the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and fungicides increased the yield of common crops.  Agriculture and biotechnology melded soon after, and genetic modification produced crops that were resistant to herbicides, pests, and had higher yields.  At this point, however, the story reveals a darker reality of food production in North America.  Large corporations began to apply for patents on their genetically modified organisms, claiming ownership over their strains of crop.  Unfortunately, as seed spreads from one field to another by wind, insects, or other natural processes, patented plants  grew, unbeknownst to the farmers, on neighboring fields.  Corporations filed lawsuits against farmers, claiming that the farmers had stolen their plants.  Koons uses interviews with farmers who have been taken to court by large agriculture corporations, such as Monsanto, to illustrate the changing field of modern food production.  Many of her interviewees are female farmers who describe how their families and livelihoods have been affected by these lawsuits.

Koons then examines the potential health and environmental effects of genetically modified organisms.  Allergic reactions as a result from taking genes from an allergenic food and inserting them into another food have been reported.  Additionally, the effects of genetically modified plants reproducing and combining their genes with non-genetically modified plants have not been fully studied, and the potential consequences of hybrid plants have the potential to wreak havoc on small- scale subsistence farmers.

This film has a clear message, one that is distrustful of industry and big agriculture, and it questions the place of biotechnology in our food.  However, the film ends on a positive note, describing the rise of the organic movement, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture programs.  Koons encourages viewers to use their consumer power to support local farms.

While there are not a lot of interviews coming from female experts, many personal anecdotes from women pertaining to how GMOs have resulted in an allergic reaction or how the Monsanto lawsuits have affected their lives are used in the documentary.  Using these interviews alongside the interviews coming from men make the effects of GMO more personal because we see that this technology affects everyone associated with it.

This documentary received mixed reviews, with some calling it one-sided, without addressing oppositional views [1].  Others praised the documentary and used it as a rallying point to protest industrialized agriculture [2] [3].

For more information, visit




Queen of Versailles, The (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)

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Running Time: 100 min
David Siegel and Jaqueline SiegelPhoto by Lauren Greenfield – © 2012 - Magnolia Pictures

David Siegel and Jaqueline Siegel
Photo by Lauren Greenfield – © 2012 – Magnolia Pictures

Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles challenges viewers to contemplate the emptiness and excess created by consumerism. Through following one ultra-wealthy family’s accumulation and subsequent loss of material wealth, Greenfield explores America’s pre-Recession moral decay and its consequent (and painful) hangover.  Part cinema verite, part candid interview, she investigates the ugly byproduct of America’s free market ideology – unashamed greed – and how we are all suspect to its charm.

“Everyone wants to be rich,” says David Seigel, one of the subject of Greenfield’s film, as he expounds on his business philosophy, “if they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich. And if they don’t want to feel rich, they’re probably dead.” Seigel, the owner and founder of the largest privately-owned timeshare company, uses this theory to amass his empire. While he profits from alluring working-class Americans to indulge their appetite for luxury, he seeks his own aspirations of building the largest house in America, modeled after the Versailles Palace.  In essence, Seigel’s business successes and personal aspirations epitomize America’s pre-Recession greed-driven culture.

But when the housing market crashes, his billions disappear. While Greenfield could have focused on David for her film, as his meteoric rise and fall have Shakespearean proportions, she instead makes Jackie, his wife, the primary subject of the film. Greenfield follows the tall, blonde fortyish shopaholic as she attempts to maintain cohesion within her family of eight children even as they become bankrupt. As the family falls deeper into economic trouble, we see Jackie becoming more responsible. Although she remains quixotically optimistic that their wealth will return and that they will complete their Versailles home, she forces herself to live a more constrained lifestyle.

The Queen of Versailles received high critical praise, including the US directing award at the 2012 Sundance. The film received further attention when David Seigel sued Greenfield for not obtaining proper release. The US District Court Judge Anne Conway sided with the filmmaker, writing “it rips the fibers of the imagination to stretch it so far as to believe that a sophisticated business executive within the tightly run organization of a self-proclaimed dictator would sign an agreement without reading it and without ever discussing it with his iron-fisted boss and father until after litigation commenced.”[i]

But as much as this film is a moral indictment against American consumerism, it is also a celebration of ambition, strength, charity, and redemption. No doubt Greenfield remains sympathetic to her subjects, particularly Jackie, whose unpretentiousness and undying optimism makes for a compelling watch. While the film indulges the audience’s sense of schadenfraude, it also forces the audience to cringe when we see their comeuppance.  But the film hits its audience the hardest when it reveals the emptiness in our material lives. This becomes most apparent when the Seigel family opens up their hundreds of Christmas presents. After the brief and fleeting moment of excitement of opening the presents, the family sits with empty expressions on their faces, surrounded by a sea of cheap plastic toys and glittering wrapping paper.  As A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes, “if this film is a portrait, it is also a mirror.”[ii]

[i] United States District Court Middle District of Florida Orlando Division. Westgate Resorts, Ltd. v. Lauren Greenfield, Frank Evers and Greenfield/Evers LLC. 2013-01-24. Retrieved 2013-04-09.

[ii] Scott, A. O. “Let Them Eat Crow.” New York Times 20 July 2012. Web. 10 April 2013.

Southern Comfort (Dir: Kate Davis, 2001)

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Running Time: 90 min

Robert Eads and Lola Cola


Subject Headings: documentary, transsexual identity, health care, human rights

Southern Comfort is divided into the last four seasons of the life of Robert Eads, a cowboy from the Toccoa, Georgia backcountry.  Director Kate Davis spent one year living with Eads and filming his daily struggle with ovarian cancer.  More than a dozen doctors denied Eads treatment because he was a female-to-male transsexual.  Unable to receive treatment, the cancer ultimately claimed Eads’ life shortly after he spoke at the 1999 Southern Comfort conference in Atlanta, GA.  Southern Comfort, an annual conference for people affected by trans issues,

During the last year of his life, Eads pursued a close relationship with Lola Cola, a male-to-female transsexual. Davis documented their life together, as well as the tensions that resulted within Eads’ “family of choice.”  After bearing two sons, a period that he described as both the best and the worst in his life, Eads divorced his husband and lived as a lesbian before undergoing gender reassignment surgery to live as a woman.  At the time Davis was filming, Eads lived near several other transsexuals who came out publicly for the first time in the film.  Fiercely protective of one another, each member of the family sought to help Eads, who was a father figure and mentor to each.  Eads’ biological family, including his parents, son, and grandson, makes a brief appearance, but they still see him as a daughter and father and are unable to relate to the person he has become.  The loss of his biological family clearly pains Eads deeply, and he often mentions his grandson, to whom he has always been a man.

Davis highlights the frustration and anger felt by Eads and his friends over the medical establishment’s unwillingness to offer transsexuals parity. Those who underwent gender reassignment surgery shared stories about the expense and the doctors who did a poor job.  Footage of Southern Comfort reveals men and women discriminated against and threatened by a system ill equipped to address difference.  But as much as the film is about the difficulties faced by transsexuals in America, it also emphasizes the beauty and normalcy of transsexual relationships.  By showing both the unity and the divisions within Eads’ chosen family, Davis demonstrates that they are as human as her audience.  The film received numerous awards and critical acclaim, including a grand jury prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

Will Hopkins 2011

Further Reading:

Official web site:

Southern Comfort web site:

World Professional Association for Transgender Health:

Meyer, Carla. The transsexual life, Southern style / HBO documentary explores fascinating ‘chosen family’. 2002. <>

Mitchell, Elvis. Genders That Shift, but Friends Firm as Bedrock. The New York Times. 2001. <>

Mirror Dance (Dir: Frances McElroy and María Teresa Rodríguez, 2005)

Country of Origin: ,
Format: , ,
Running Time: 53 min

Subject Headings: Exilic/Diasporic cinema, Identity, Documentary

Mirror Dance follows the lives of identical twin sisters Ramona and Margarita de Saá, both former prima ballerinas for the National Ballet of Cuba. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the twins became separated, as Ramona dedicated herself to the cause by remaining in Cuba, while Margarita immigrated to the United States following a marriage to an American. Set against the backdrop of unstable and tense relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the film examines issues of divided and reterritorialized identity on both a personal and national level.

The de Saá’s story unfolds amidst (mainly) verité sequences, formal interviews, family photographs and old archival footage of not only the twins as ballerinas, but also the volatile 1950s and 60s Havana in which they grew up. Following Fidel Castro’s pledged commitment to the arts, the twins flourished. Margarita, however, began to grow disillusioned with the Revolution, finally making the painful decision to leave her life, and sister, for the United States. She now runs the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth, PA. Ramona, a self-described “revolutionary woman,” saw Margarita’s departure as a betrayal, and refused to have contact with her for over 40 years. The film therefore investigates the intersections between the personal and the political, questioning at what cost comes the formation of a national identity.

While the film seeks to universalize the de Saá’s tale of personal pain and loss as a result of international hostilities, it is also a distinctly personal story. On February 28, 2004, Ramona and Margarita were reunited in Cuba, both expressing the desire to remain in contact. Yet, Margarita does assert that she “would not have gone back to Cuba” without the impetus of the documentary.

In June 2004, politics once again intervened when the U.S. government tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba. The twins’ identity in relation to each other, their home country Cuba, and (in the case of Margarita) their exilic home remains complicated.

Further Information:

Preview Clip on YouTube:

Film’s Site on PBS Independent Lens:

Filmmaker Bios:

Cuban Revolution Information:

Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet:

National Ballet of Cuba:

Bibliographic Sources:

Benamou, Catherine: “Cuban Cinema: On the Threshold of Gender.” In (pp. 67-98) Robin, Diana (ed. and introd.); Jaffe, Ira (ed. and introd.), Redirecting the Gaze: Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1999. xi, 377 pp.. (Albany, NY: SUNY Series, Cultural Studies in Cinema/Video ). (1999)

D’Lugo, Marvin: “‘Transparent Women’: Gender and Nation in Cuban Cinema.” In (pp. II: 155-66) Martin, Michael T. (ed. and introd.), New Latin American Cinema, I: Theory, Practices and Transcontinental Articulations; II: Studies of National Cinemas. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1997. 322; 540 pp.. (Detroit, MI: Contemporary Film and Television). (1997)

Quirós, Oscar Enrique: “The Aesthetics of Cuban Cinema: The Emancipatory Role of the Arts in the Cuban Social Whole.” Dissertation Abstracts International, (54:9) 1994 Mar, 3244A. U of Kansas, 1993. DA9405783 . (1994)

López, Ana M.: “Cuban Cinema in Exile: The ‘Other’ Island.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, (38), 1993 June, 51-59. (1993)

Rachel Killackey 2012