Obvious Child

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So Obvious Child, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a comedy about a woman who gets an abortion. It’s smart and funny and it got a lot of publicity around its realistic treatment of abortion, and it has been heralded by many as a feminist masterpiece for this reason. The film’s portrayal of abortion as a complicated real life experience rather than a hysterical political football is commendable and nuanced, and there have been some excellent pieces written here and here and in many other places about how important it is to have a movie like this in the public sphere. In fact I don’t know if I have seen any other movies where a character actually goes ahead with an abortion and isn’t punished for it in some way, and it certainly isn’t a common subject in comedy.

Let’s be real here, abortion is a hot button issue. And it’s hot for all sorts of reasons depending on where you sit on the political spectrum. But it is also a daily reality for many. And the reasons that people get abortions are varied and complex and uniquely personal and I love that Obvious Child takes care to tells this story in a gentle and sympathetic style that neither belittles or over-dramatises the situation.

I would also like to add that I kind of liked this movie for lots of other reasons as well. The primary one being that it’s funny, and smart, and actually kind of romantic. In fact, I might posit that this movie is a small flicker of hope in the otherwise arid landscape that has been romantic comedies of late. The women are layered, and intelligent! They get to tell jokes about the female experience (like yeasty panties and farts) rather than female performance (like fat-shaming jokes or waiting for a guy to call you). Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre originally made this as a short film and has now expanded it into a feature, she has said that she wanted to give the rom-com ‘best friend’ character a chance at the front (that’s the smart one who gets all the best lines but never any real story).

Rom-coms for the most part totally suck when it comes to women’s representation. Which is hilarious because they are movies that are deliberately marketed to women as ‘chick-flicks’, yet they are uninterested in actual lived female (or male really!) experiences, preferring to fall back on lazy one-dimensional gender roles and the ever-present fear of dying single and alone with 1000 cats for company. Thankfully, the character of Donna in Obvious Child tells not one single fat joke, never worries if the dude is going to call her and not once bemoans the fact that she might ‘die alone’. She is simply a real person, she gets her heart broken, loses her job, and drinks her way through her broken heart during which she has an ill-timed drunken one night stand resulting in a pregnancy that she is neither ready or able to provide for.

The male characters in this movie also get to break out of the usual rom-com rules for behaviour. With Max being just a genuinely nice guy, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes insensitive, but never behaving as if it is his right to have sex with or date Donna, and always respecting her choices. He also works in business rather than in advertising or on TV (which recently seem to be the only two choices for male leads in rom-coms).

I really was starting to think that the rom-com as a genre had become so conservative and restricted that they were just basically long marketing schemes for furniture and clothing labels disguised as movies. In fact, I watched ‘Friends with Kids’ as part of this project a few months ago and I was so disillusioned I couldn’t even muster up the energy to write about it on this blog. I think it was supposed to be sort of snarky new york humour, but mostly it felt like they were trying to sell me on a lifestyle i just don’t want and don’t understand. Having a child is hard – having a child with someone who doesn’t want to be with you is also hard! Why is this funny! Why would deliberately choose to do this! And all the long-term couples in that movie hated each other! What exactly is romantic or comedic about that? Gah. Anyway, Obvious Child is none of those things. It gets that life is complicated and sometimes romantic things are mundane little moments rather than giant running-through-airport, public-declarations-in-courtrooms type things.

However, a few caveats.

This is still a very middle class, privileged movie. Even though Donna loses her job in the film, has no insurance and an abortion costs $500.00, she spends about 12 seconds worrying about money, and never looks for another job, which is a little unrealistic. She also has incredibly supportive and functional parents, and caring and wise friends. These are resources which many women faced with the need to get an abortion, simply do not have. I know that is partly the point, it is supposed to be a movie where no one judges you for your choices, but maybe there could have been even just a little more discussion around the financial reality of getting an abortion, or having a job where you can get time off work to go to a clinic, or even just living in a place where you have access to a clinic.

There is also, not one person of colour featured in the entire cast. Which for me was a major letdown and the biggest flaw in the movie. Not one person of colour in Donna’s life? In New York? Come on now. Donna’s character is Jewish, so it can be argued that she herself represents a minority and therefore that box has been ‘ticked’, however, it would still have been nice to see a little more diversity in the cast. There were enough supporting characters that you could have had at least one other person from a non-western culture as a player and it feels a little bit lazy that the film did not manage to achieve this (I am not counting background actors here, I am looking for characters that are named and participate in the story in some way).

And, of course, all the characters are thin, able-bodied and good looking. They don’t wear fancy clothes or layers of make up so they do at least look fairly normal and not rom-com glamorous but again, this feels like basically just lazy casting. If you’re making a movie where one of the central themes is the representation of women, and you are unable to represent some kind of diversity in shapes, sizes and appearances in your cast then that is a real pity.

There is a character who is openly gay and he gets some great lines, although he also gets a little sidelined into the ‘gay-BFF’ box which is a wee bit stereotypical.

Despite these criticisms, for the most part Obvious Child is still a lovely movie. It’s got some excellent acerbic stand up comedy, along with many other funny moments and some sad moments too.  It handles its controversial subject matter by removing the controversy in a deft and intelligent manner, and it delivers a pretty sweet romance too. For a debut feature it’s very masterful and I would say Gillian Robespierre is definitely one to watch.

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Bran Nue Dae

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Bran Nue Dae is an exuberant film adaptation of the iconic Australian stage musical of the same name. Directed by the versatile and intelligent Rachel Perkins it manages to be both a charming and weird celebration of Australian culture, while simultaneously challenging and critiquing the status of Australian aboriginal people.

The story goes like this: It’s the 1960s and teenage Willie is in love with a girl from his home-town in Broome but can’t quite get up the courage to tell her, he gets sent to boarding school with a strict german headmaster (played with ridiculous zeal by the lovely Geoffrey Rush) who tells Willie if he works hard he can leave his aboriginal heritage behind. But, as always, things get complicated and Willie decides to run away, resulting in an adventurous road trip with an ever increasing cast of characters including Ernie Dingo as an alcoholic drifter, Missy Higgens as one of a pair of hippies in a clapped out Kombi Van, and Deborah Mailman as a drunken pub hook up under a tree decorated in condoms.

The colour palette of the film is bright, supernaturally bright in some places, adding to the surreality of the film, and acting as a visual metaphore for the characters displacement in society. The artificial lighting and colours are exacerbated by sets like the school, the city, the bar and the ridiculous hippie kombi van, but seem almost to fade into the background when confronted with natural settings like the beach at Broome and the delicious reds of the outback itself.

I feel like it is a common trope to set stories like these in the 1960s because they distance the audience from the very contemporary topics that are discussing. Bran Nue Dae uses this deflection to great effect, utilising humour, song and dance, and over-the-top characters to tackle issues that are still prevalent in modern discussions around indigenous status, such as racism, homelessness, alcohol abuse, and the casual and condescending dismissal of aboriginal identity by mainstream Australian culture.

Look, as an outsider to Australian culture, I don’t know if I can really participate much in discussions around indigenous status in this country. I can only compare it to NZ, which has its own set of problems and assumptions about indigenous rights and identity, and like any colonial nation, has a significant amount of marginalisation, racism and a history of abuse and institutionalised subjugation towards indigenous cultures. And as someone of European descent, I also know that my experiences of Maori culture in NZ, and indigenous culture around the world are going to be seen through the unique lens of my own privilege and assumptions. I can’t speak for Indigenous people in NZ or Australia. But I can still educate myself and engage with indigenous stories, and challenge the media-makers in these countries to bring these stories into the mainstream.

That is precisely the reason why the work of someone like Rachel Perkins is so extraordinary and important. Her films, like Bran Nue Dae, Radiance and One Night The Moon (which is sorrowful, sparse and almost entirely without dialogue – pretty much the polar opposite to Bran Nue Dae!) and TV like First Australians and Redfern Now are box office and ratings successes that garner awards and capture the public imagination. I recently was lucky enough to hear Rachel Perkins speak at an event on aboriginal storytelling (It was actually at the book launch for this book by Jenny Green, about central australian traditional storytelling techniques which I would totally recommend if you’re into linguistics and narrative semiotics) and she talked about how important it was to document and share aboriginal stories and storytelling methods so that they don’t get lost or worse, become extinct entirely. Perkins uses modern methods such as film and TV to tell stories about one of the most ancient cultures in the world.  In doing so, she tells stories about indigenous people using her own indigenous voice, and forces western hegemonic Australia to examine itself and the way it treats those who are ‘othered’ and on the margins simply because of their race or cultural heritage. Her gentle insistence on equality, and her beautiful visualisations of outback and urban Australia are a significant contribution to Australian media and identity.

I totally enjoyed Bran Nue Dae, I thought it was funny, and strange and vibrant. It entertained me and got me thinking. I would highly recommend it. I would highly recommend anything by Rachel Perkins actually, and I’m going to finish with a clip from One Night The Moon just to give you a taste of Rachel Perkins’ talent and versatility.

Once My Mother

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Once My Mother is an extraordinary documentary by Australian film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz. Turkiewicz explains at the start of the film that she has always had a difficult relationship with her mother, Helen, who is now suffering from dementia. The film presents her mother’s story in parallel with her own story, in an attempt to create peace and closure as her mother nears the end of her life.

For one thing, Helen’s story is incredibly powerful in and of itself, she has slept on the streets of Poland, was a prisoner of war in Siberia, a refugee in Rhodesia and then finally a lonely single mum in 1940s Australia, Helen’s experiences have universal elements that mirror the stories of women from poverty stricken and war torn countries the world over. It is a story of poverty, the atrocities of war, and the stifling social conservatism of mid-20th century Australia. It is also the story of Poland during World War Two and the forgotten citizens turned prisoners, and then soldiers, who became cogs in a machine of a war they did not start and did not understand.

This is also a story about dementia, and Turkiewicz skilfully weaves archival footage, re-enactments and present day interviews to create a sense of change in both rhythm and personality, where once her mother cared for her and worried about her, now she is the one caring for her mother.

Turkiewicz’s documentary is also a testament to the force of narrative in our lives. We can see through the films that Turkiewicz made throughout her career that this theme of the tension between her and her mother, and her mother’s story, is a theme that she returned to again and again, in an attempt to find understanding and common ground. Her mother connected with her as a child by telling her stories, and her mother’s identity and the key to their relationship lies in the unravelling of these stories.

The re-enactments in particular were very well shot and did not feel jarring or melodramatic as many re-enactments often do. Even the extensive use of voice-over (which can often feel a little intrusive) worked very well here, this is in part due to the framing of the film as two parallel stories with Sophia as the narrator/seeker but also as one of the characters so she could blend voiceover and reality quite easily.

In short, I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. It’s a beautiful story, that confronts lots of complex questions around relationships, illness and war, and is particularly relevant today as Australia (and the world actually) grapples with issues around the acceptance of refugees and their place in our society.

If I gave stars i would give it a 5.

Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face

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Hey so it’s the Melbourne International Film Festival for the next couple of weeks and hooray they have lots of lady-directed films on, so much so that I can’t actually afford to see them all but I am going to at least make it along to a few.

And this is the first one.

So, Nan Goldin is kind of a legend. Her phenomenal pictures capture a beautiful dark side of human nature, and for me it feels like when you look at her photos, you see something that we all know is there but rarely express to one another: that deeply buried tragedy, pragmatism, joy, pride and general neediness of the human condition.

hair Her photo-slideshows, especially her constantly updated and re-imagined seminal work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, simultaneously give the sense of capturing an important time and a place in history (Berlin squats, New York in the epicentre of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a burgeoning LGTBQ and arts culture) while also projecting a sense of transience and immediacy, they are snapshots and polaroids snuck in drunken moments at parties, lonely journeys on trains and in the backs of taxis.

800px-Misty_and_Jimmy Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face is a meandering, slice of life documentary, directed by Sabine Lidl. With charming simplicity it carefully captures Nan’s curious nature, her close friendships which have inspired her photo subjects and that constant tension between living life as an artist and the realities of the mundane like how the bills get paid and how it feels to always fall in love with gay men.

However, on the other side of the scale this film felt very haphazard – intensely personal subjects like childhood trauma, self mutilation and drug addiction get a quick once over but are never delved into, we jump from place to place without reason or explanation and the film feels a wee bit as if it is trailing behind Nan just trying to keep up.

The camerawork is hand-held and extremely low fi, and, while in some ways this does mirror Nan’s snapshot aesthetics, when you take a good look at her slideshows and collections, Nan’s work also feels carefully curated. It would have been nice to see some more constructed shots that reflect the curatorial side of Nan’s artwork as well.

For me, what makes Nan’s art important and interesting is that vulnerable darkness she seems to pull out of her subjects using just light and a camera, something that this documentary never quite seems to pull out of her, although it gets tantalisingly close a few times.

In short, the documentary is lovely, and if you’re a fan of Nan Goldin it’s decidedly worth seeing, but the most enjoyable parts are when the camera stops moving, Nan stops talking and we just dwell on her glorious photographs for a time. Which I am going to do now:

Two Striking Documentaries That Will Blow Your Mind And Make You Think

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Forest of the Dancing Spirits

The Aka people are the oldest culture on earth, and they live in the centre of the oldest forest in the world. In many ways their society is un-touched by the industrialised culture of the west, and film-maker Linda Vastrik tells their story with sensitivity and respect. She lived with one of the Aka tribes for a full year before beginning to film them, and her affiliation and genuine identification with the people in the film is clear from the get go. This is not some kind of western fetishisation of indigenous cultures,  in fact, story telling is central to the Aka culture and at times they were pulling her and her camera into the centre of the story so the world could hear what they had to say.

I actually don’t want to tell you too much about the narrative thrust of this film, because for me, it was just so beautifully doled out, just such great story-telling. Just as I was getting used to one set of facts about their lives, something else surprising and disruptive would happen that would bring even more depth and understanding to this story about this world and these people. There is a really nice rhythm to this film, and it never feels preachy or melodramatic despite the fact that some very intense and dramatic things happen.

It is a universal story, about tragedy, and conflict, and hope, and family. It’s not some perfect forest world, there is darkness and cruelty and sadness, and everything that the human experience encompasses. But it is also a profile of a way of life that is very in touch with the world around it. The characters are often silent, listening to the forest, it is their means of survival so they have to know it intimately.The Aka people live off honey and animals they catch, they have a belief system around their God Kumba, and the Dancing Spirits that live in the forest, and they tell many stories about the origins of the Aka people and their ancestors.

However this film is also a documentation of a way of life that is rapidly fading. In the director’s interview after the film she talked about the fact that since the film has been shot (in 2012), the logging companies have built a road even further into the forest and the young people of the tribe have all got jobs with the logging company cutting down their own trees. The Aka people have no economic rights to the forest at all, despite the fact that they have lived their for 75,000 years.

What will industrialization bring the Aka people? Maybe washing machines and supermarkets and houses made of bricks and mortar. Maybe technologies that will make hunting in the forest easier. Or maybe it will bring disillusionment, loss of language, and poverty to a people already marginalized in their own country.  It remains to be seen.

Where Heaven Meets Hell

If ‘Forest of the Dancing Spirits’ is about a culture that is starting to be encroached by western industry, consider Where Heaven Meets Hell to be the tail end of that industrial journey.

The Javanese sulfur miners of Mount Kawah Ijen are disenfranchised, desperately poor and stuck in a cycle of poverty that starts with leaving school early to support your family by working in the mines, and ends with getting injured and being unable to find work without a high school diploma. The sulfur mines of Kawah Ijen are one of the last sets of sulfur mines where humans do the heavy lifting, and when I say heavy lifting, I mean extremely heavy. These men (and they are all men) carry loads of between 80 and 100 kilograms up steep narrow paths with no hand rails, no pulleys, just themselves, and two baskets of rocks slung over their backs as if they are donkeys. All the while sharing the rocky mountain path with blithe tourists eager to see the views from the mountain and the deceptively serene sulfur lakes where the miners work.

When they get to the top, they get paid around $7-10 a load. They dump the rocks, and go back into the pit to do it all again. A fast miner can do three loads a day. That’s about $30 for 10 hours work. They work 15 day stretches and then make the long journey home to see their families and give them the money.

This is not an easy life. However director Sasha Frielander has a light touch and draws some refreshingly frank and honest confessions out of her subjects as she follows several miners and their families closely. Some of them are philosophical about how hard their life is, some of them have ambitions to get work outside the mine, some of them just cannot imagine how they would support their families any other way, there is just no work and farming does not bring in enough money. All of them are adamant that one day, their children or maybe their children’s children, will have a better life than they did.

Both of these films were shown as part of the Human Rights Arts And Film Festival which has just finished in Melbourne but is about to go to several other cities in Australia including Canberra, Perth and Sydney so if any of you reside in those cities I would absolutely recommend getting along to see some of the films and events, there are a plethora of films directed by women or just about awesome subjects that are worth checking out in general.

I am also well aware of the irony of going to watch films about Human Rights issues in other countries while Australia is in the middle of several Human Rights crises of its own with regards to Indigenous Rights and the rights of Asylum Seekers, not to mention a budget that has just announced severe cuts to welfare services for the poorest amongst us. Expect some blog musings on those issues at some point soon too.

Peace Out. Go watch good movies that inspire you to change the world 🙂

 

Wadjda

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Hey so I finally got to go and see a female-directed film in an actual cinema – first one this year! (To be fair to the cinema people there have been a few other films showing that had female directors but for various reasons I couldn’t make the screenings – although actually these films all had limited runs – they were part of festivals or were one night only screenings so maybe I don’t have to be fair, I’m still waiting for the day when films with female directors come out in mainstream cinemas and run for weeks at a time)

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. It is perhaps fitting that the first film I get to see in a cinema as part of this project comes from a country that has no cinemas: Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda is the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia, and it was directed and written by Haiffa Al-Mansour, herself a Saudi native who grew up in a small town very similar to the one the film is based on. The film is gentle, honest and genuine. It is a straight up critique of the difficulties of life in a society with strict segregations and social expectations for women.

In interviews about the film Haiffa says life for women in these situations can be very heavy, but she did not want to make a heavy film. She wanted to make a film that showed women not as victims but as pro-active, bringing about the change around them.

She says that the bicycle that Wadjda so desperately covets in the film is a symbol of this movement, of acceleration, of “being on top of one’s destiny”. And reminds us that in the western world too, there is a great connection between the bicycle and women’s rights – bicycles gave women an ability to move through the world in ways they had not before, opening up opportunities for things like employment, education, and even changing the way women dress.

Al-Mansour was keen to explore the fact that Saudi society is really two worlds: the public and the private. In public the light is bright, the camera lens is often wide. There are few crowds, the streets are mostly empty except for boys Wadjda’s age and sleazy old constructions workers who cat call at her. This public world is a world with no touching, a world of harsh sun and square buildings and clean walls in mute colours.

Inside, Wadjda’s world is very different; it is cluttered and colourful, her mother sings and hugs her, her father plays loud video games slumped in front of the TV. But there are also sad secrets in the private world, Wadjda’s parents fight about having a son, Wadjda’s mother wants her to stop getting into so much trouble.

However Wadjda is young and she has not yet learnt to segregate this private world of loudness and music and bric-a-brac with the public world’s requirements of stillness and silence for girls. So she’s constantly running into trouble because she’s the one bringing the private world out into the public, she makes bracelets and sells them, she wears sneakers and jeans under her black robes, her head scarf is constantly flying off, falling off, in one scene even taken off her by her neighbour-hood friend. He peels off on a bicycle with her scarf and she shouts after him ‘If I had a bike I could beat you’. The inspiration for the entire story: a moment of exposure, a moment of transgression.

Haiffa Al-Mansour is part of a generation of Saudi Arabians who have been educated in the West and her film is fascinated by the clash of Saudi tradition versus western ideals, easily accessible in a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia where every kid has an ipad or a computer and access to western movies, music and computer games.  In some ways, it did feel like a slightly naïve exploration of western cultural imperialism – Wadjda listens to western music and plays western video games. Perhaps this is because it is through the eyes of a ten year old girl, but the film does tend to portray the west and western things as a kind of ‘golden land’, without examining the complexities of say, western media and music and they way that they, in and of themselves often reinforce stereotypes and depict women and minorities in ways that diminish them. Although, having said that, there are a few scenes in the film where her mother straightens her hair rather than letting it curl naturally – something that subtly comes from the west and that obsession with straight hair that automatically others of women of colour and their naturally curly hair (Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” is a fantastic watch to learn more about that process if anyone is interested)

And then again, maybe in order to get the point of critiquing the subtle or less institutionalized discrimination that continues here in places like Australia (things like, only one woman in Cabinet in Federal Government for example), you need to at first question the overt barriers that are part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia such as the ban on women driving, something depicted in the movie with an interesting addition of class and cultural clash as well. The man hired to drive Wadjda’s mother is clearly either from a lower class or a different tribe where he does not speak their language, and there is constant clash between him and Wadjda in particular who insults him, calls him late, lazy and so on. This only adds to the tension created by the entire situation where her mother is not allowed to drive, but needs to work in order to survive and so has to be driven every day to her job which is a 3 hour commute away.

Haiffa Al-Mansour says that she did not want to make an angry movie. And in fact, this movie is actually very light-hearted and very lovely. It’s a coming of age story with a firecracker main character, she’s a hustler who wants to make money any way she can so she can just get that bike. And it’s also a little bit of a childhood love story; Wadjda’s desire for a bike is literally inspired by the boy next door and the scenes between them are charming and funny, moving between casual teasing, to a blossoming friendship and even a little bit of innocent romance.

It’s a great movie and definitely worth a watch, if it’s still on at your local cinema, or if it pops up in your local DVD store I say go for it!

 

 

 

I Am A Girl

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A sprawling yet intimate documentary following six girls on the brink of womanhood from all corners of the globe, the girls are honest and charming and they draw you in with the power of their stories.

Careful timelapse photography serves as an apt visual metaphore for the contrasting environments these girls live in, from the towering mountains of Afghanistan to the clashing lights of Times Square. This is interspersed with the minutiae of each girls’ daily lives which simultaneously highlights their similarities and differences, from studying to motherhood to weddings and boyfriends. The film provides a succinct and fascinating snapshot of life for girls and women across the world in the 21st century.

Their voices narrate the film, which, in a way, gives them some autonomy in a world where they have little – they are telling their own stories.

Aziza – Afghanistan – 17. Her father was kind to her even though she was a daughter and ‘did not deserve kindness’. She cries when she talks of how he was shot by the Taliban. She tells us the Taliban believe that a woman who seeks education should be put to death.

Breani – USA – 16. Her mum is unemployed and hopes that Breanni can provide the family income through her music. Breanni doesn’t know where her dad is. She dated a boy who tried to control her, wouldn’t let her go out at certain times, he punched the wall on a daily basis.

Katie – Australia – 17. She’s aware of her privilege, she’s a self-described nerd who loves Doctor Who, she suffers from depression. She talks about self worth, lack of self worth. A sucide attempt. The only time she ever saw her dad cry was after her suicide attempt.

Kimsey- Cambodia – 14. The only income her family has is from her prostitution. She tells stories of gang rape, of selling her virginity at age 12. She has a frail mother and a boyfriend who threatens her with violence on a daily basis.

Manu – Papua New Guinea- 19. She was scared to tell her parents she was pregnant. She is married at 19. She is scared the doctors will cut her, or her baby will be stolen when she gives birth to it in the hospital. The birthing room at the hospital is crowded and dim. There are bloody footprints on the floor. She gives birth in almost complete silence. Her family worries about the bride price from her marriage.

Habiba – Cameroon – 17. She is marrying the man who is 39. It is her choice to marry him. He tells her that women should be quiet, calm, should know how to calm a man down. Her job is respect. She hopes that her wedding will be a happy one and not violent like others she hears about.

Film director Rebecca Barrie says on the website that she wants to ‘facilitate stories’ and ‘get people thinking’.
You can send each of the girls postcards of support telling them their stories are important.
I sent one to each of the girls because I couldn’t decide.
Which one would you send a postcard to and why? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.