Half The Sky

Half The Sky debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.

It’s probably smart for Half The Sky to frontload the misery, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take. The documentary miniseries about the worldwide oppression of women has sold an impossible challenge even before we meet the girl sold into sex slavery in Cambodia, who was forced to keep taking clients as she bled from the eye her brothel owner had just stabbed. The viewer discretion warning hints at such coming sights, but Half The Sky is more suggestive than graphic. The real punch comes from the early, overwhelming despair. Even the forces for change in the first hour are so dim, they blend in with the surroundings.

Half The Sky is admirably upfront about its goals. A montage of talking heads opens each part, starting with George Clooney. “There are stories that need to get out,” he says. And that’s all this is: exposure. Celebrities are just here to shine the spotlight. New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn came up with Half The Sky while covering the Tiananmen Square massacre and discovering that it pales in comparison to the 30,000 women a year who go missing in China. So they wrote a book about global violence against women, and now here’s the documentary. Kristof and a celebrity visit regions of the world to hear the stories of women’s subjugation and meet the survivors who have tried to make a difference. As Hillary Clinton explains, “The way that Nick and Sheryl use stories to break through the indifference that still exists when you talk about women and girls is exactly the right way to go about it.”

So the documentary visits six sites in 40-minute installments, three in each episode of Half The Sky. Eva Mendes learns about the rape culture that attends civil war in Sierra Leone as one girl tries to fight back. Meg Ryan learns about sex trafficking in Cambodia and meets Somaly Mam, an escaped sex slave who started a foundation to rescue and rehabilitate child prostitutes. I suspect positioning the most hopeless cases early is insurance against viewers or critics who just sample the beginning, but Half The Sky tells a complete story over its four hours. It doesn’t help that Mendes and Ryan are the most standoffish of the celebrities. As audience surrogates, their relative unease lends their scenes an extra layer of difficulty. One of the surprising themes of Half The Sky is the damage done through cultural relativism. WuDunn talks about how grateful she is that people rose up against Chinese foot binding, and that, tradition or not, female genital mutilation is a human-rights violation. Take that idea to a granular level, and it’s the Western celebrity who’s most unafraid to ask embarrassing questions and maybe put some money down that provides the sense of hope and community that Half The Sky is selling.

The Cambodia episode winds up feeling incredibly uplifting thinks to Somaly Mam, and whatever the horrors, the final four follow suit. Gabrielle Union learns about gender disparities in Vietnamese education and the organization that’s trying to provide safe learning opportunities for girls. Diane Lane visits a Somaliland hospital that’s already reduced the annual maternal mortality rate by 75 percent, and at one point she almost offers to buy out a woman whose only income comes from circumcising girls. America Ferrera sees firsthand the powerful pull of intergenerational prostitution in India and the foundation for child prostitutes and children of prostitutes trying to end the cycle. Finally, Olivia Wilde finds a number of microfinance success stories in Kenya, culminating in her visit to a Samburu village founded by and open to Samburu women fleeing a life of tribal violence.

It’s like the whole miniseries is leading to this empowering parade of images. A single mother makes dresses to send her top-of-the-class children to college. A small loan helps a woman start a booming palm-oil business. And an entire village of women, Umoja Village, turned their back on masochistic customs, banded together to survive, and are passing on their peaceful ways to the next generation in the form of a 14-year-old boy who grew up there and aspires to become a professor so he can teach the world about their society. If violent discrimination in Sierra Leone seems an impossible obstacle at first, the situation looks a little bit brighter by the end.

The extraordinary power of Half The Sky lies in that symphonic build. Kristof talks about how all these issues are related, and eyes on the ground keep backing him up. Urmi Basu, an Indian woman who chose her work with prostitutes over her husband, says, “A lot of things go on in the name of tradition here.” That’s an even stronger theme in the East Africa segments. In both Cambodia and India, we hear about the ages of prostitutes dropping to new lows. Later, the founder of Umoja states two tenets that recall the stories in Somaliland and Vietnam: “We won’t cut our girls here,” and “We believe education is the key to everything.” All these stories are connected, and education is the one point that comes up in every country.

And that’s what Half The Sky is. It’s a gateway to activism, sure, but as a documentary, it raises awareness simply by putting social issues into concrete human terms via procedural detail and vivid photography. In Cambodia, we hear several stories of how exactly girls are sold into sex slavery; and we see up close what a brothel looks like, what a raid looks like, and what escapees look like after years of rehabilitation. We see what female sex slaves look like on the streets of India. We see the home life of a bright girl in Vietnam whose father is her biggest obstacle. We see a diagram of genital cutting, and a makeshift model. Most importantly, we see what change looks like. And then we know it’s not impossible.