First lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to elevate global educational opportunities for girls and women is getting a major shot of star power from Meryl Streep.
The Academy Award-winning actress takes on the role of correspondent in We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World, a documentary film that makes its US premiere on Wednesday night on CNN.
The film chronicles Streep’s recent travels to Marrakesh, Morocco, where she talked with young women about overcoming the cultural, economic, safety and health barriers that can keep them from pursuing an education. (According to the US Agency for International Development, 62 million girls around the world are not in school.) We Will Rise, produced by CNN Films and the Documentary Group, also features the network’s correspondent Isha Sesay (a native of Sierra Leone), actress Freida Pinto and Obama, who listened to similar stories on a visit to Liberia.
Streep recently shared recollections of her trip and her commitment to the film’s cause. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
You seem very natural as an interviewer. If this acting thing doesn’t work out, you have a future as a correspondent on 60 Minutes.
[Laughs] I would doubt that. It was a great privilege to go on the trip. It was sort of an interesting thing to do because, generally, when I work, I know what the script is. I know what the story is. This is really a discovery to find out the challenges that girls have in a part of the world that I’m not really familiar with. I’d never been to Morocco; I’ve only really been to Tunisia and Libya in North Africa. The first lady, Isha and Freida were in Liberia with the director. My little crew — we were in Morocco on our own. It was interesting because we didn’t have an agenda or a shape to these stories. It was only when the whole thing was put together that we knew anything about the Liberian section.
You probably get approached a lot to take on projects like this one. What made you decide it was worth the commitment and time?
I’ve been involved and interested in these issues for a long time. I’ve been working through different organisations, mostly Equality Now, Donors Direct Action, Women for Women International and Women in the World.
Women’s equality is the last challenge of the 21st century. The change in the status of women precipitates a lot of reaction and change around the world. In the empowerment of girls and the education of women, we see governments change.
It has to be very emotional doing a project like this. You go into a new place, a different society, and the challenges can be bleak. Wasn’t it tough to look someone in the eye and hear about that?
Yes, but the countervailing fuel and the energy that buries all of the negative barriers against this advancement come from the girls themselves. They have so much hope. Each time they succeed, it’s against improbable odds. They have that thing that young people have, that is undaunted optimism. If they have one person in their lives who says, “I think you can do this,” that’s all they need.
Young people in Morocco watch a lot of American TV shows and movies. You must have been easily recognised over there.
That really surprised me, especially in the more conservative households. Everybody [knew] The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia!. Karima Lakouz, a very brilliant mathematician I met, had a little bookshelf in her bedroom. She had on it the Oxford dictionary, the Quran and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [and other] Stieg Larsson books. There is so much in them that is kind of wild, I said, “Is there anything in these books that you found upsetting?” She said, “Well, I can read and understand what parts are not good for me and what won’t help my life.” She was bolstered by the strength of her own internal morality. For a 17-year-old, I thought that level of self-awareness was kind of amazing.
What do you hope people get out of the film?
There are all sorts of groups that are supporting this effort around the world, and there are lots of ways to get involved. But I’m hoping they’ll be inspired by this awakening in girls, and what Michelle Obama says is so true — we can’t waste this resource. It’s like burning a forest.
Did you have any good tajine in Marrakesh?
Yeah, I did. I had that one night. We were there during Ramadan, and we were trying to be respectful and not eat and drink during the day in front of all of the kids who were holding off. It was hard! It was 102 degrees.
Just to be there during that time did kind of make you see how the ritual permeates the entire nation. It’s powerful. It makes you very aware when you stop eating all day. You pay a lot of attention to kindnesses.