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Richard Robbins explains the genesis of his new film, “Girl Rising”

Richard Robbins films Nepal. | Phocourtesy MarthAdams

Richard Robbins films in Nepal. | Photo courtesy Martha Adams

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Updated: March 11, 2013 7:33PM

There’s a reason you keep hearing about the power of educating girls in the developing world. It’s a reason so simple that you will probably view it with suspicion, as I once did. It’s this: Educating girls works. It builds economies, slows disease and generally makes the world a much better place. And when you’re a documentary filmmaker like me, and you stumble across incontrovertible truths that don’t seem well-understood out in the world … well, that’s the kind of thing you notice. That’s what makes a good film. Or so I thought.

I was so excited when I set out to start making a documentary about girls’ education. It combined everything I love about my job. Hard work. A deserving story. Travel. To start, I went to Kenya, to the shores of Lake Victoria, which is a beautiful, terrible place. Poor, devastated by AIDS and extremely isolated. I met lots of girls — girls going to school, and girls not going to school. My crew shot beautiful images and interviews. We really got down to the nitty-gritty of what it means for girls in Kenya to try and get an education. And the girls were everything we’d hoped for and more. They were truly inspirational.

I came home with some footage and began the process of editing. Not editing the finished film, just a few bits to show to potential investors. And a terrible thing happened. I hated the movie. I mean, I’d come to care deeply about the value of educating girls. It was all I could talk about. But still, I didn’t want to look at my own footage — because, in spite of my best intentions, I was making what people in the business derisively call “poverty porn.” You know, noble films about people who suffer and overcome. Or just suffer.

There are so many documentary films about people in the developing world that rarely get seen by big audiences. Some of them are really good movies. But you’ve probably never seen them. And that’s not an accident. Because people think that they’re going to be depressed by what they see in those movies. Or feel guilty. Probably both. And so they avoid them. To your face, they may tell you how interesting it sounds, but ask them to spend Saturday night with poor girls from Africa, and nobody looks all that eager.

But when I looked back on my experiences with the girls themselves, all I could think about was how inspiring they’d been. How optimistic. Joyful. Energetic. They weren’t depressing. The circumstances brought you down — but not the girls. They were potential personified, and the excitement that their potential offered was contagious.

So this was a pretty big conundrum for a documentary filmmaker. All of a sudden, I realized that the truth I was after was going to be tough to capture in a documentary. Because the truth I was after isn’t what you can see about these girls. What you can physically see about them is only that they’re different from us. They live somewhere different. They dress differently. They don’t have shoes. But none of this is what matters about them. These are all facts. The facts are easy, and in the end, they’re not what’s important. By looking at the facts only, we start to feel overwhelmed. We lose hope. We lose perspective.

I asked myself how I could document the things about these girls that you can’t see. The things you feel. The things that make them special, make them real, make them just like your kids — those were the things I wanted to tell people about.

So I made a different kind of film. It’s not really a documentary. It certainly isn’t a work of fiction. It’s a film about nine girls from nine different countries. Unbelievable girls who are actually totally ordinary. Girls who changed the way I thought about our world. If we succeed in helping these girls — and the millions more that they represent — reach their goal of getting to school, and staying in school, I know that the change they will create in our world will be unprecedented.

Richard Robbins will attend a screening of his film, “Girl Rising,” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, at AMC Loews (600 N. Michigan). Tickets are $10 each at

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