GIRL TALK follows a group of girls as they struggle to find their voices in the competitive, male-dominated activity of high school debate. The female debaters of the nationally ranked co-ed team of “Newton-South”, an elite public high school just outside of Boston, promise to be part of our nation’s next generation of leaders, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor and Kamala Harris — all high school debate champions.
Unlike most winning debate teams with full-time paid coaches, Newton South has a part-time volunteer parent coach, with the young debaters principally coaching themselves. The teams’ senior co-captains (girls and boys) juggle multiple responsibilities, including teaching the younger debaters aka “novices” the finer art of debate. Nearly half the team’s members are first generation Americans, with native languages like Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Vietnamese, or Hindi. They share an insatiable curiosity about world issues. Each month, the students throw themselves into a new debate topic — “ripped from the headlines”, and grapple with the pros and cons of important social and political national and international issues, such as repartitions to African Americans, gun control, public vs. market housing, and selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
The viewer is dropped into an intensely demanding extracurricular activity and observes teammates conducting daily after school practices. The students develop and refine their speaking skills, build their confidence, and prepare for competition. During debate season, almost every weekend, the team wakes at the crack of dawn to dress in suits, travel to and compete in day-long or weekend-long tournaments. These girls learn to navigate the thrill of winning alongside the disappointment of losing in a high-pressure environment where the odds are stacked against them.
Like national politics, high school debate has more male than female debaters, with a disproportionate number of males reaching the finals and winning. A study conducted by Harvard University student Daniel Tartakovsky indicates: “women are about 4 percentage points less likely than men to win preliminary debate rounds. Moreover, the gap appears to be much larger in rounds 1 and 2 of a tournament than in other preliminary rounds…” (Gender Disparities in Competitive High School Debate, May 9, 2016). As the girls of the Newton South team learn to become better debaters, they must confront bias head on. Debate prepares them for a future that is less likely to listen to them than their male colleagues. While the female debaters struggle with how to present themselves in a world dominated by males, the film raises crucial questions about gender (race and class) bias and representation in America today. What do these debaters learn along the way, what does it cost them, what how might their defiance impact our nation’s future?
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Lucia Small (Director, Editor, Producer) is known for her boundary-pushing, first person non-fiction work, tackling gender, class, race and filmmaking ethics. MY FATHER, THE GENIUS (2002), garnered multiple festival awards, was distributed by New Yorker Films/CS Associates, and aired on the Sundance Channel. Her next two films, The AXE IN THE ATTIC (2007) and ONE CUT, ONE LIFE (2014), made in collaboration with Ed Pincus (1937-2013), were supported by the Sundance Institute, LEF, and workshopped at the Sundance Institute Documentary Story and Edit Labs. Her films have screened at festivals around the world, including at the New York Film Festival, Cinema du Reel, Torino Film Festival, IDA, and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. ONE CUT, ONE LIFE opened theatrically (First Run Features) to multiple critics’ picks. (FULL BIO)
Ilisa Barbash (Consulting Director and Co-Producer) Lisa was the Co-Director and Co-Producer during the formative years (2015-2017) of GIRL TALK. She co-produced the critically acclaimed SWEETGRASS(2009) and IN AND OUT OF AFRICA(1992). For twenty years, Lisa has served as Curator of Visual Anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology where she makes films, curates multiple exhibitions, edits and writes books, including the award-winning Where the Roads All End: Photography and Anthropology in the Kalahari (2017).
Dia Sokol-Savage (Producer) is the creator and executive producer of MTV’s hit series “16 and Pregnant” and the “Teen Mom” franchise, one of the longest running documentary series on television. She began her career working for acclaimed director Errol Morris and produced Andrew Bujalski’s MUTUAL APPRECIATION and BEESWAX for which she was nominated for a 2010 Independent Spirit Award.
Amy Geller (Co-Producer)is a veteran documentary and television producer (PBS’s THE WAR THAT MADE AMERICA), served as the Artistic Director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, and currently teaches in the graduate Cinema & Media Production Program at Boston University. Her award-winning, feature-length directorial debut THE GUYS NEXT DOOR was released in 2016.