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Grazia Orsolato, who goes by “Grace” for short, founded the Get Together Girls program to teach practical skills to impoverished teens and young women from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
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Film follows project that shows teens a life beyond Kenya’s slums

Thin Line Film Fest: Get Together Girls

Not rated, 76 minutes. 1 p.m. Feb. 10 and 4 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St. The filmmaker will attend the screenings.

 

The hardest part of making Get Together Girls for Italian filmmaker Vanessa Crocini was viewing her footage after shooting it.

The personal stories of “street girls” from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, clutched at her heart.

“When you film, you pull yourself away from your emotions, and those emotions come back to you even harder when you watch what you’ve filmed,” Crocini said. “I would cry as I watched it.”

Nongovernmental organizations re­port that nearly 4 million people live in Kenyan slums, with roughly half that number in Nairobi. In total, more than half of the Kenyan population lives in urban slums, crammed into housing made of mud and sheet metal and without access to the basic utilities and services most Americans are used to.

Get Together Girls follows six young Kenyan women — Monicah, Irene, Mary, Hellen, Teresia and Esther — as they struggle to leave the slums behind with little more than their drive, a set of sewing machines and an Italian mentor named Grazia Orsolato.

Crocini filmed much of the documentary in the quieter town of Ngong, where Grace launched Get Together Girls to teach street girls practical skills — sewing and design. Street girls are not prostitutes, but children raised by slum-dwelling families or orphans who grow up in gangs of boys and girls.

Orsolato was an affluent, white-collar professional working for an Italian company. On vacations, she would often travel to Africa to volunteer for humanitarian agencies working to rehabilitate the lives of hardscrabble urban Afri­cans.

As time passed, the short, slight blond woman felt moved to make an enormous change. She would save her money, moved to Kenya and spend the rest of her life teaching young Africans a practical skill.

“She came to a place called Anita’s House,” Crocino said. Anita’s House is one of many community-based rehabilitation homes. The residential program takes girls ages 4 to 18 off the streets. In Anita’s Home, they attend school and learn basic skills to integrate into more civilized living.

Orsolato bought sewing machines and recruited Italian stylist Roberta Vincenzi to teach a free tailoring course.

The genesis of the documentary was a different assignment in a different part of Africa.

“I was in Rwanda during the production of the Alessandro Rocca film The Consul’s List, and while we were working there, we visited an orphanage,” Crocini said. “I also have a niece who was adopted from Ethiopia, so I was familiar with the disadvantages girls can grow up with in Africa. But it was while I was in Rwanda that I decided I would make a film about African girls and how they struggle.”

Crocini said she wrote to a number of aid agencies asking for contacts working in Africa. That e-mail led her to the founder of Get Together Girls. Crocini said she clicked right away with Grazia Orsolato, who goes by the nickname Grace.

“Grace is very pragmatic,” Crocini said. “She’s funny, and she’s very strong, very determined. She made this huge change in her life to do this. She left her life in Italy to be with these girls and help them change their lives.”

Crocini traveled to Ngong in March 2011 to start working on the film. She had to learn on the ground and in the moment.

“There were frustrations,” she said. “I was by myself. Three weeks after I got there, I had this breakdown. I had to rely on myself. Some of the girls who wanted to be in the project decided they didn’t want to be part of the project, then they changed their minds.

“And when you’re a white person walking around with a camera in Kenya, the people don’t always want you to be around. It’s because they’ve had so many tourists come over from America and Europe and photograph them, like they were animals.”

Crocini hooked an impressive executive producer, Italian rock star Vasco Rossi, through a video she was working on in Italy, but she approached the film with a shoestring-budget attitude.

She filmed on her own, often with a driver guiding her, one hand on her shoulder, as she walked backward to get footage. She followed the young women through the slums where their families often have to pay rent for sagging housing on plots near open sewage. She filmed the women in the sewing room.

Life stories are stitched into scenes of Orsolato laying down the law — setting consequences for tardiness and pushing the women to develop professionalism along with design and tailoring skills.

“So many of these girls have difficult family situations,” Crocini said. “They all have a lot to deal with. They had to learn some discipline. Each one of the girls has had her ups and downs sometimes.”

Orsolato also opened a shop, and the young women manage some business aspects of the shop. They take orders and create garments and handbags to the client’s liking.

Part of the Get Together Girls program is investing in young women, paying them “pocket” money so they can afford modest apartments and setting them up to be independent working women.

It’s change on a kind of micro-level, Crocini said. The women learn, one relationship at a time, that education means opportunity, and a job means a future. They learn a lot about money; more work, done well, can mean more money. More money translates into more fabric.

Crocini’s film went on the festival circuit in November. The filmmaker is hoping for distribution. She’s now in Los Angeles.

For her, Crocini said, the film has been life-changing.

“When I told the girls that the film was going to be in festivals in America, they were shocked. They didn’t think of themselves as interesting,” she said.

To show their appreciation for Crocini, the young women designed and made a dress for Crocini to wear at her premieres.

“For them, designing and making a dress for the filmmaker to wear to the premiere was really special,” Crocini said.

And meanwhile, back in the small sewing room in Ngong, Grace Orsolato adds a new girl to the program every year or so.

The steps might be small, Crocini said, but small steps still bring each young woman a bit closer to economic independence.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com.

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THIN LINE FILM FEST

What: Texas Filmmakers’ documentary film festival

When: Feb. 8-18

Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.; UNT on the Square, 109 N. Elm St.; Fine Arts Theatre, 114 N. Elm St.; and Cool Beans, 1210 W. Hickory St.

Details: Individual tickets cost $8 for adults, $6 for students, seniors and military personnel with ID. For information about festival passes, schedules and more, visit www.thinlinefilmfest.com. Buy tickets online at http://bit.ly/14khzw3. Tickets will be available prior to screenings at the Campus Theatre box office.

 


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