The Australian filmmaker explains her journey in covering the universal – and unique – stories of six girls on the verge of womanhood.
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30 Aug 2013 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2013 - 4:13 PM

One day in 2007, filmmaker Rebecca Barry (Footy Chicks, 2006) was waiting for an appointment in a doctor's surgery. To kill the time, she began flicking through a fashion magazine until she came across an article that surprised her. Illustrated by a photo essay, it was a piece about the status of women across the globe. Using statistics, the story explained that by virtue of their birth women are destined, no matter where they are, for a life of disadvantage.

We picked each country based on a particular issue that girls have

Moved to tears by this story, Barry knew there was a film in the theme. “But I didn't do anything about it for three years,” she told SBS, with a laugh.

While writing and researching what would become I Am a Girl, Barry, a prolific talent, completed a number of projects including the SBS four-part documentary series Inspiring Teachers.

Eventually, Barry arrived at the idea of a feature documentary that would put “a human face” to the horrific statistics she had read. “There is a group of people in the world today that are persecuted more than any other group on the planet and it's not who think it might be – it's not political, it's actually girls,” she says.

For Barry and her partners, it's become a deeply personal project. I Am a Girl is playing on select screens in limited sessions in Sydney and Melbourne in September from this weekend.

Barry and producer Ester Harding, in collaboration with the film's philanthropic partners, are handling the release of the film themselves. Titan View, who are delivering the VOD and DVD, are “mentors”, Barry's says, in the distribution. “In the past, I've always felt a little alienated from the release part of the filmmaking process,” explains Barry. “I felt that we could do a really good job with it… and in a way we are doing it through a network [of partners and supporters]. We've been building a social media community around the project since 2011. It felt right to do it this way.”

Women Make Movies will release it in North American with TVF handling other territories.

Shot in 2010 and 2012, I Am a Girl crosscuts the story of six girls in six countries on the brink of womanhood. Barry and cinematographer Nicola Daly captured over 90 hours of material and travelled to the USA, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea and India. The India story was eventually cut – it will be seen as a mini-doc, says Barry.

“We picked each country based on a particular issue that girls have,” says Barry. “So, in Afghanistan it's education; in Cameroon we're looking at early marriage; and in Papua New Guina it's maternal health, principally childbirth… and all the characters would be girls who had come through their childhood but were becoming women in a way that their culture dictated.”

Confronting, disturbing and very moving, I Am a Girl is not principally a tale of third-world dysfunction where the challenges of women in, say, Muslim countries are in some way held up as a paradigm for repression. “Look at Aziza in our Afghanistan story,” says Barry. “It says that women in Afghanistan are powerful and are demanding an education [and a better lot all round]. I mean Aziza is making a very strong statement just by virtue of being in our film.”

Barry says she was often faced with a situation that confounded her own values. In Phnom Penh, we meet Kimsey, who lives in abject poverty. A prostitute since she was 14, she is the sole provider for her family and sees no 'out' to her situation. “She has dreams but I saw that the psychology of poverty is so complex, she simply can't think past the moment that says her child is hungry.”

Sometimes Barry's own good intentions came in for a hammering. “In Cameroon, I was determined to tell a story about an early marriage and how bad it is.” What she found there in the story of Habiba, 17, who weds a groom of 35, is the promise of something hopeful. “So it's not all black and white,” Barry concludes. “You find that you have to keep an open mind about your own perceptions and allowing yourself to be surprised by what you find.”

In shooting the film, Barry and Daly adopted a lo-fi, low-key approach. “We were going to some pretty challenging places – in terms of travel – and we were hovering under the radar so we basically had a camera back pack; and one lens bag; one light; one tripod and three lenses and a 7D and a Go Pro.”

Barry's style combines some strongly atmospheric observational stuff, like the harrowing footage that underscores the story of Manu, 19, of Papua New Guinea, who faces her pregnancy with mix of courage and fear. But it's the to-camera interviews that give I Am a Girl its most powerful and intimate moments.

A child of the Sydney suburbs, from a nice middle-class family, Katie, 17, is finishing her HSC. A bright and buoyant personality masks a sad story of depression and self-harm that Katie (and her family) unveils on camera.

Indeed, this frank on-camera relationship with Barry is a grace note in all of the stories. “I have a process and it's conscious,” she says. “I don't do interviews until about three quarters of the way through [the schedule]. I want people to get use to the camera. I hang out with them.”

Barry says the method was about establishing not only a rapport with each of the girls, but also a sense of trust and empowerment. Each subject had the chance to set boundaries that would be negotiated. “It was important that this was their story, their testimony.”

As to the way the film interprets gender politics, Barry feels I Am a Girl is generous. Men as role models and supporters are important in a number of the stories in the film, says Barry, but it's particularly strong in the episode set in the USA, which concerns 16-year-old Breani, who want to be a singer. An African-American and child of New York's 'projects', Breani lives her with mum. Her grandad emerges as a mentor who knows the mean streets first hand.

“For me, men are an essential part of this conversation about gender inequality. They are often our greatest oppressors but also often they are our biggest champions. I hope men will come to see the film and bring their daughters.”