Girls Don’t Fly

Girls Don't Fly [poster]

Girls Don’t Fly (Director: Monika Grassl): When British expat Jonathan Porter appears onscreen for the first time wear­ing a t-shirt that says “I AM NOT A WHITE MAN,” you know you’re in for a bumpy flight. You see, Jonathan is the ste­reo­typ­ical white man and a cringe­worthy reminder of Britain’s colo­nial past. Porter runs an NGO in Ghana that pur­ports to train young women to be pilots. Along with his Ghanaian wife, Patricia, he tries to instil a very Western style of dis­cip­line and organ­iz­a­tion in his stu­dents, mostly girls from rural back­grounds. Although dir­ector Grassl intro­duces the girls by name with her title cards, Porter’s pro­gram assigns each one a num­ber and for­bids them from using their own names (or speak­ing any other lan­guage than English). What starts off look­ing like dis­cip­line very quickly begins to look like abuse and degrad­a­tion.

These young women are used to listen­ing to white men tell them what to do. Even though Ghana achieved its inde­pend­ence from Britain in 1957, there is still a sense that white people should be respec­ted and even obeyed. That sad situ­ation is what allows a creep like Jonathan Porter to thrive. His wife Patricia, a former stu­dent, gained her pilot’s licence on her own mer­its and is a strong woman, but she clearly has hitched her wagon to Jonathan’s scheme and believes in his meth­ods. In one scene, she muses that maybe Ghana achieved its inde­pend­ence too soon, and that they still have a lot to learn from their former colo­nial mas­ters. Instead of encour­aging her stu­dents to think for them­selves, she becomes an ena­bler of Jonathan’s most miso­gyn­istic traits. He shouts at the girls, he tells them to smile, he dishes out mean­ing­less pun­ish­ments, and after weeks at the school, nobody’s seen the inside of a plane. Instead, he puts them to work mow­ing the grass on the run­way, or assem­bling trinkets in the metal shop. The pro­gram is four years long, though he tells the cam­era that in Europe it would prob­ably be two. He claims to be an African and yet he has no respect for the Ghanaian cul­ture and actu­ally tells the girls their names would con­fuse out­siders. The girls have names like Esther and Lydia.

Speaking of Lydia, she’s been turned into a sort of prize. As a res­ult of an infec­tion after an insect bite, her arm is shriv­elled and has lim­ited range of move­ment. But her determ­in­a­tion to fly has turned her into one of the earlier classes star pupils. She says she’s been there 3.5 years and is almost ready to gain her licence, but she must have more sur­gery in Germany on her arm. Porter’s NGO has paid for the sur­gery and pays all the “tuition” and accom­mod­a­tion costs for the girls, although they appear to gain noth­ing from the exper­i­ence. Lydia is used shame­lessly in the NGO’s mater­i­als to keep the dona­tions pour­ing in from around the world. She is incred­ibly cha­ris­matic and the newer girls love her, but after a while, the stu­dents con­fide to the film­maker that they’re unhappy. Esther is one of the bet­ter stu­dents and she takes a lead­er­ship role in their brew­ing revolt.

Girls Don’t Fly turns the feel-good story of char­it­able organ­iz­a­tions help­ing the less for­tu­nate on its ear. When cul­tur­ally insens­it­ive and just plain nasty people like Jonathan Porter can sup­port them­selves “teach­ing” while their stu­dents get no closer to their dreams, some­thing is wrong. When he can act­ively dis­cour­age them from going back to tra­di­tional school­ing to con­tinue his pro­gram, some­thing must be done. Although Grassl’s film effect­ively turns over a rock and finds nasty things wrig­gling, one has to won­der how many other NGOs are oper­at­ing in a sim­ilar fash­ion.

The film­makers have set up a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to help the stu­dents con­tinue their reg­u­lar edu­ca­tion. You can donate to help them pay their school fees here.

This entry was posted in Documentaries, Film Festivals, Hot Docs and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.