Chicago International Film Festival: Girls Don't Fly
By Andrea Thompson
At first, the documentary “Girls Don't Fly” seems poised to become another deeply uplifting story about overcoming obstacles. And why wouldn't it be? British expat Jonathan Porter and his Ghanaian wife have set up an aviation school specifically for women in Ghana, and the dozen or so would-be pilots who sign up are all driven, hardworking, and eager to become high-achieving, independent career women. One of them even has a disabled hand, but seems poised to get both the surgery she needs and her pilot's license. But things get unsettling very quickly, as it becomes apparent that the school might be more exploitative than helpful. Jonathan constantly monitors the girls' moods, asks them to be more ladylike, and insists that they (and the other Ghanians he encounters) smile. He also constantly underestimates their knowledge, their capabilities, and their work ethic, and his pupils seem more and more amused by his leadership. The tests they take are more about their attitudes, they are not allowed to fly the planes, are called by numbers instead of their names, and used as cheap labor while he has them making paper airplanes. It's enough to make the most hardened viewer queasy. The women themselves reluctantly acquiesce to a situation that constantly reminds them of their colonial past because they feel it's their only opportunity to achieve their dreams. But as time goes on, they begin to doubt that they will gain anything by putting up with such treatment. The most empowering moments in the doc come when the women are left to work and talk among themselves, and we see what could have been. Instead, “Girls Don't Fly” emerges as a cautionary tale of exploitation and colonialism in the modern era. Director Monika Grassl takes an observational rather than a confrontational approach, wisely recognizing that any narration or confrontation would undermine all the complex issues at play here. It only backfires is due to a lack of information on the general situation in Ghana, as well as an epilogue where the audience could learn about what's happened to the women since the documentary ended. There's no question they are capable of achieving great things, and one can only hope at least some of them found a better opportunity to do it.