PBS’ Independent Lens debuts a sobering three-part documentary series on Monday: A Path Appears, based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A Path Appears explores the global impact of gender oppression in segments on sex trafficking, poverty, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, child slavery, and more – and profiles people around the world who are actively working to help change these age-old cycles of violence. A follow-up to the husband-and-wife team’s Half the Sky book and series, it’s not an easy watch, but it’s largely well-executed, compelling, and worth your time.
Kristof, whose New York Times column regularly features stories of abused girls and women around the world, anchors the series, bringing with him in each section a female celebrity “actor/advocate” who functions as a stand-in for a viewership that, likely, won’t be terribly well-versed in these subjects. They vary in expertise from seeming newcomer Blake Lively to activist veterans like Mia Farrow, and also feature a few in their native territory, like Regina Hall in Atlanta, GA, and Jennifer Garner in West Virginia.
Throughout the series, Kristof also interviews those who run the halfway houses, schools, and programs that empower girls and women to change course in life, interspersing his footage with testimony from higher-wattage sources like Bill and Hillary Clinton on the transformative abilities of these people, whose work can produce ripple effects in their communities and in the culture at large.
But A Path Appears is definitely at its strongest when Kristof, who has been slammed in the past for both journalistic grandstanding and getting his facts wrong, gets his famous faces get out of the way and lets the women themselves tell their stories. This is particularly effective in parts one and three, when we meet women living in transition from scary, dangerous lives to trying to get themselves and their children on the right track.
The first episode, airing Monday, focuses on sex trafficking, particularly the ways in which young girls can “fall through the cracks,” as it’s repeatedly said, via neglect and sex abuse, especially within their own families. This section features a highly engaging woman named Shana – formerly “Shelley Money,” as her neck tattoo attests – who describes the upbringing that led her into prostitution, and the reasons it’s so tough to leave. Ashley Judd, to her credit, gets right in there with her, going on a ride-along, on which the former prostitute talks to people from her old life.
Judd also speaks with a group of women about her own past as a rape survivor, and generally comes across as very at ease among them, as well as quite knowledgeable on the subject of sex trafficking. Blake Lively, on the other hand, seems a little out of her depth as she tells Kristof how little she knew about this practice in the U.S. – admitting that her first thought, upon hearing its high statistics, was “I don’t really know how valid that is,” but then that “this is just me being completely ignorant.” Her participation is nothing but well-intentioned, but I’m not sure how much the segment benefits from her being there (unless it draws in massive numbers of Gossip Girl fans).
On a broader scale, if there’s a criticism to be made of A Path Appears, it’s the tendency to depict its narrator and celeb advocates as aliens visiting other planets: Reliably horrified, they talk to the camera about their awakening to this grinding poverty and violence and the need for change and to take care of “the least among us” and “the most vulnerable.” Whether to view this as noble or condescending is up to you.
The second part of the series, which focuses on poverty – the building block, it argues, of all the other forms of female oppression – features Jennifer Garner visiting a trailer-dwelling pair of mothers with their children, Alfre Woodard at a school for girls in Haiti, and Eva Longoria in Cartagena, Columbia, where teen-pregnancy rates are sky-high. This segment, the least cohesive of the three, is at its best in Haiti, focusing on the story of a young girl known as a “restavek” – essentially, a child slave – who is removed from her captors’ house and resettled in a home with other formerly enslaved girls.
The more local problem of poverty in West Virginia – which, as Garner points out, is not as glamorous as farther-flung causes – proves more elusive as a compelling story onscreen, perhaps shoring up her own argument.
The third segment begins with a visit to a domestic-violence shelter in Atlanta, where Kristof and Regina Hall profile women who’ve left abusive relationships. It then moves to a slum in Kenya, where a school for girls is run by an unlikely married couple: a man who grew up homeless in the slum, and a theater major from Wesleyan.
This couple’s impact on the community – and their classes full of bright-eyed little girls – are undeniably heartening, even as the episode is darkened by sequences in which the duo attempt to help young rape victims in a byzantine legal system. Kristof’s guests here – Mia Farrow and her journalist son Ronan – are, again, well-intentioned, but take up a little too much camera time for my taste.
Ultimately, though, I did come away from this series knowing more than I did about these subjects, and I imagine I won’t be the only one. The series’ site also features an extensive list of resources for viewers who want to get involved after watching, underscoring its message about the possibility of change through individual efforts. And, as Kristof points out, so little time is spent in the media talking about the subjects relative to – well, almost everything else. “Think about all the coverage we had of the war,” he points out, “and we didn’t have any conversations or coverage of domestic violence.” If honing in on the most dramatic stories – and bringing beautiful, famous faces with him to cover them – is the way to draw more eyes and attention to women’s rights (and it would seem that it still is), Kristof and WuDunn are inarguably on the right track.