Charity work may be the ultimate celebrity PR campaign, but sometimes, they're in it for the right reasons. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have greatly mobilized the ongoing cause to protect and empower women and girls in developing countries. Their book, Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide has now inspired a multi-part documentary featuring celebrity activists Olivia Wilde, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Diane Lane, and Gabrielle Union. Each of these women travelled with Kristof to regions in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.
We spoke with Olivia Wilde at the Half the Sky screening hosted by Revlon and the Tribeca Film Institute. Wilde was cool, candid, and gorgeous as ever as she described the welcoming Umoja women, future projects, and wanting to make the world just a little bit better. Find out more when the feature premiers on PBS October 1 and 2.
So, what was the most daunting aspect of hearing these women's stories and being involved in this project?
"Well, I was such an admirer of Nicholas Kristof and I was initially kind of intimidated that I would be interviewing women alongside him. I didn't want to get in his way. I wanted to add to the experience, as opposed to hinder it in any way. I suppose that was the most intimidating thing. It actually ended up being really smooth and fun, and he taught me a lot about interviewing. The experience of being in these sometimes difficult conditions was wonderful because of the people we were meeting — these women who welcomed us into their homes and villages. So, that was just all wonderful."
Which villages specifically did you go to?
"We were in Nairobi, in the Kibera slum, which is the largest slum in Kenya. Then, we went to northern Kenya to a town called Umoja. It's a village of all women. It's a safe village for women who have been attacked and suffer from all different types of gender-based violence. It's a place they can go to raise their children and become part of a cooperative of artists who make beaded jewelry. They then sell it to tourists, and that's how they sustain this community. It's unreal. They have really awesome takes on the traditional Kenyan beaded jewelry. They make really thick, tight cuffs for the arms, big dramatic neck pieces, and headpieces."
Where can people purchase this and support the village?
"They sell it in different markets around the country and at www.umojawomen.net."
How was this experience different from just contributing or donating money to a charity?
"Well, this is something I got to participate in, which is a wonderful feeling. When you have the opportunity to really participate in philanthropy, aid work, or journalism, it feels different than just reading an article or writing a check. It's an opportunity to really see things for yourself. Then, when you return home, you have that firsthand knowledge that you can speak about and share with other people, which I think makes it more valuable. When I read the book Half the Sky, I immediately wanted to go on this journey because reading the book really makes you want to meet these women and experience it for yourself. So, it was a dream come true when they said they were making this documentary. It's a huge part of my life, traveling to different parts of the world, and I had spent a lot of time in Haiti, but this was my first time in Africa."
What was the single most inspiring moment from your journey?
"When I got to that Umoja village, the women welcomed me by singing the 'vagina song,' which is all about celebrating their vaginas. These are women, most of whom have been victims of female circumcision. So, the fact that they were celebrating their femininity, and specifically their vaginas, was so incredible. I didn't know what they were singing about at first; I was like 'What is this? Is this a traditional song?' and they were like 'Vagina!'"
So, you come from a family of journalists and writers who are very passionate about human-rights issues. How do you think that influenced you growing up? And how did that lead you to where you are now?
"I think it gave me a sense of responsibility toward the world, to grow up and do whatever I dreamed, but to make it somehow serving humanity, to leave the planet a little better and more peaceful than it was when I got here. I think we just grew up with a sense of responsibility as people, and that has influenced every decision I make."
What projects or films are you currently working on?
"I'm about to start a film with Paul Haggis called Third Person, with Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, and James Franco. That one shoots in Italy, so I'm really excited to go. I also have some films coming out this fall, so I'll be doing some PR for that."
Photo: Courtesy of Half The Sky.