Several years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn co-authored the book Half the Sky, a blistering yet altogether compelling reportage on the oppression of children and women in developing countries. There were, and continue to be, no snap solutions to such issues as sex trafficking and gender-based violence, but the book was an inspirational call to arms to those who read it, quickly hitting #1 on The New York Times Bestseller list (where Kristof happens to pen his twice-weekly op-ed column.) Now the husband and wife duo have followed up with a PBS documentary series by the same name, out on video this week, still squarely in line with their belief that “if you educate a girl, you educate the world.” To help tell these stories, Kristof enlisted the allure of celebrity advocates (America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde), traveling with these actresses to six of the world’s most impoverished countries to meet the women and girls who were born into the most dire circumstances, yet fight to change their fate – both from the oppressive society without and the demons within.
W spoke to Kristof about making this documentary, his journalism philosophies, and why a film is easier to “raise” than children.
The stories you cover in Half The Sky—how did you decide that these needed to move from print to moving image?
I looked for topics that were very visual, that people might tune out in print, but the video footage would be so compelling they wouldn’t turn away. The problem with a book is that the people who are going to buy and read it are those already agree that the topic is important, and we didn’t just want to preach to the choir, we wanted to build a choir. A documentary can help a great deal with that, especially when you bring in celebrities.
Speaking of the celebrities – you are so used to reporting in developing countries as a journalist, but it must have been a change to go with Hollywood A-listers. What was that experience like?
Frankly, I thought that having celebrities along might cheapen the coverage of issues that I care a lot about. I thought the celebrities would be dragging around hair and makeup people and stopping off to shoplift at stores. [Laughing] In fact, the cheapening concern was an unnecessary worry; they all approached the stories with tremendous seriousness and dedication. Logistically, it was a bit of a hassle. I believe in traveling very light, but that becomes impossible if you’ve got a big camera crew and entourage. But, it was nice to have other people organizing the cars and figuring out where we were going to stay, for a change.
Was there a time during filming when you thought, “This story is actually being told better with the actress here, than if I was to tell it as an individual?”
Yes, a few times. One example is when Diane Lane and I were in Somalia to address female genital mutilation. The challenge is to explain what is done to these women, but you can’t just show a video clip. So instead, we had Diane watch a clip of it being done to a young girl, and the horror on her face brilliantly captured what any viewer would feel. In a sense, her inexperience in that area made her a much better proxy for the viewer than I would, because I’ve been to Somalia and seen this before, but she—similar to the viewer—hasn’t.
What’s the best way for a viewer to make a positive impact on these issues?
Sheryl and I did the documentary with the aim to not just inform and outrage, but also galvanize people to get involved. We hope that they will go to halftheskymovement.org and find some cause that speaks to them. There’s also a Half The Sky Facebook game that will be coming out in January, where game play will unlock real world changes. It’s kind of like FarmVille. For example, if you get a book for your village in the game, then a real book will go to a real kid somewhere in the world.
I think a lot of people embrace a charitable cause because they think they’ll be helping other people. The truth is, at the end of the day, our efforts to help other people have a somewhat mixed record of success, but they have the most perfect record of helping ourselves.
You and Sheryl have reported on several major stories as a team, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, a story that made you the first married couple to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Be honest, what is it like to work so closely with your wife?
People always tell me, “Oh, if I was working with my spouse we would quickly end up being divorced,” or “We would break plates over each others heads!” The truth is, a book or a documentary is so much easier to raise together than kids.
Which you have three of—
Yes. You can put a book to bed at night and it doesn’t talk back. A documentary doesn’t play you off one another. If you can manage to raise kids without killing each other, then a work project is actually pretty easy.
You were an early champion of online and social media. You were the first to blog for The New York Times, @NickKristof is seen by over 1.3 million followers… How did you see it coming?
I really wanted to reach young people and an audience that may not be spending a lot of time on the op-ed pages, so this prompted my foray into blogging and social media. The other thing is that I think a news organization has to experiment, take risks, and search for whatever new business model will evolve to pay for the kind of reporting I believe in. So I sort of turned my world into a little sandbox to experiment with—to see what works and what doesn’t.
Which avenues have been the most successful?
Twitter and Facebook have been very powerful.
For this film alone, you traveled to six countries. In your career, that number is over 150. You must have some traveling essentials by now.
There was a funny video that Conde Nast Traveler had created, where they made fun of my wardrobe – specifically, the red polo shirt! [Laughing] But you can kind of get away with interviewing a prime minister in it – it’s better than a t-shirt – and yet if you’re being chased by rebels through the jungle for a week, you can wear it day after day. I also carry a decoy wallet, so if a child soldier demands my wallet, I can hand over the decoy. And I carry a very small steel lock with me, so I can tie my bag to something immovable so it doesn’t just wander off.
Photos: PBS; David Smoler