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

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Format: ,
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

Queen of Versailles, The (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)

Country of Origin:
Format: ,
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.