Wonder Women: A Q&A with 'Half the Sky' Executive Producer Maro Chermayeff

September 26th, 2012

Maro Chermayeff, executive producer and director of "Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

“The role and rights of women, their freedom and equality and dignity, is the unfinished business of the 21st century,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a four-hour television event and trans-media project premiering this month on THIRTEEN. Inspired by the bestselling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the series – a special presentation of Independent Lens — examines the oppression of women and girls around the world.

Actresses Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Diane Lane, America Ferrera, and Olivia Wilde join Kristof as he travels to Asia and Africa to meet courageous individuals in six countries who are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable – and fighting bravely to change them.

THIRTEEN spoke with with executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff
about the groundbreaking series from Show of Force, her company with partner and fellow executive producer Jeff Dupre.

Q: Why did you decide to do a series about women’s oppression around the world?

A: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn came to me with fellow executive producers Mikaela Beardsley and Jamie Gordon very early on when the project first landed in the hands of public broadcasting. Pat Harrison, President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), has a genuine, longstanding interest in the development of women and girls on a global level, is deeply committed to the project, and knows my work from past projects. Nick and Sheryl wanted their book to be the beginning of a ripple effect engaging people in the movement to end the oppression of women and girls. They knew the project would have to exist on multiple platforms to reach new audiences, so it isn’t just a four-hour series. It also includes a social impact Facebook game and mobile games, two linked websites, massive amounts of educational content we’re distributing in partnership with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Women and Girls Lead, and much more. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.

Q: What was it like working with Nicholas Kristof on location in Asia and Africa?

A: It was really quite amazing. He’s phenomenally smart, incredibly focused, and he cares very, very deeply. He cares about reporting, he cares about journalism, he cares about what’s happening in the world, he cares about the people whose stories we’re telling, and he doesn’t hesitate to put himself at the center of dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations for the sake of the story and the people involved in it. In the first episode, Sierra Leone, we follow a story where a pastor has just been arrested for rape and the police had not searched his room. Nick absolutely can’t believe the level of th investigating techniques and the next thing I know he’s saying, “Alright, so you haven’t gone to the Pastor’s house. We’re going to join the investigator from the FSU (Family Services Unit ) who is going to the Pastor’s house and we’re going to search his room.” This kind of thing happened throughout the filming of the series. We would follow Nick anywhere.  Amazingly, I never felt like my life was in danger. You feel safe because his confidence begins to rub off on you.  And what is so remarkable about Nick in these situations — one of the many remarkable things and what sets him apart from other reporters you see on television — is his authenticity. He’s not acting – there is no script — he’s doing what he’s doing and you’re along for the ride and he’s not paying attention to you or the cameras because what he’s doing is more important than the fact that you’re following him – and that is always what makes the best subject. So ultimately, working with Nick was like having the opportunity to get a PhD with a brilliant professor for four years whose sole focus and attention you’re allowed to absorb by either directly trying to help him or riding his coattails.

Q: What inspired Eva Mendes and the other actresses to participate in the series?

A: We approached these actresses because they’re substantive, significant women who are passionate about women’s rights and doing meaningful work around these issues. I cannot say enough wonderful things about these women! There wasn’t one diva in the group and they really rolled up their sleeves and immersed themselves in every aspect of this incredible and incredibly intense journey. They were familiar with Nick’s work and the issues, so they were really excited to be a part of the project. And they were especially proud to be connected with a series that was going to air on public television.

Nicholas Kristof in Somaliland. Photo courtesy of David Smoler.

Q: As a filmmaker, how do you find the balance between “getting the story” and building a level of trust with the people whose stories you’re filming?

A: First I have to say that as documentarians, we’re not always objective. We get involved in the action, we have a point of view, there’s a specific story we’re telling. At the same time, Nick and I both knew it was our job to try to tell the full story and we were always mindful of that. For example, in the Sierra Leone episode, we knew we had to interview the pastor who was accused of rape. We knew we wouldn’t be telling the whole story if we didn’t give him a chance to say he didn’t do it.  Whether you believe him or not is up to you, but we had to give him a chance to speak. Otherwise you’re kind of railroading somebody on a television in front of millions of people. So we were very conscious of those kinds of decisions and giving people their fair chance to speak.

Regarding the issue of trust, I actually think it was harder to earn our subjects’ trust in Circus — Jeff and my last series for PBS, which followed the daily lives of members of The Big Apple Circus — because as performers they were very sensitive about the way they looked and were perceived. In Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the trust was harder to build but it was won faster because the women knew we were supporting them and trying to protect them. They knew we were there to tell their story and that was very valuable to them. It was empowering for them to talk and actually have people listen, especially westerners with cameras.

Q: What is the series’ connection to the Women and Girls Lead initiative?

A: Women and Girls Lead is a public media outreach and audience engagement campaign launched by ITVS and strongly supported by CPB and Pat Harrison. The goal is to focus, educate, and connect people around the world in support of the issues facing women and girls. It includes a collection of approximately 50 independent films made available via public television broadcasts and free community screenings, and Half the Sky is one of the centerpiece films. Women, War & Peace, the wonderful series Abigail Disney, Ginny Reticker and Pam Hogan produced for THIRTEEN, started the train last year, we’re in the middle of that train, and David Sutherland’s Kind Hearted Woman, about an extraordinary Native American woman in North Dakota, will be at the other end.

Q: How would your career and body of work be different if you didn’t have a relationship with public television?

A: Well, I certainly wouldn’t be able to get the things that I care about to an audience, because what public television believes is important and what they will back and what they think is substantial and what they will try to bring to their audience is really on another level from what you see elsewhere. I’ve worked quite extensively at HBO, who also does wonderful documentaries. But they don’t do series or events in the same way. PBS allows documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns or David Grubin to take four, six, eight hours to tell a story. When you have that kind of broadcast real estate, the story is able to evolve in a way it can’t in a one or two-hour film.

And on a more personal note, I feel like I’ve grown up at PBS. I’ve worked there for many, many years. I’ve produced and directed Frontier House, Carrier, Circus, and the American Masters’ film Juilliard. So for me, PBS is family. PBS is home.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My longtime production partner Jeff Dupre and I are hoping to do more with Half the Sky, and we have an extensive outreach planned as well as two short films under the Half the Sky banner. On a personal level, of course I hope and plan to work more Nick and Sheryl and we are putting that together now. At Show of Force we are talking about a whole bunch of new shows and one-off documentaries and we are presently in development on a music series for PBS. It’s another huge multiple eight-part series, so Jeff and I will be deeply ensconced at our home away from home for many more years.