Media Life: Inspirational “Girl Rising” movie has Auburn premiere

Auburn’s Gareth Smith teams on Sierra Leone documentary segment
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
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Reach Media Life’s Gus Thomson at (530) 852-0232 or You can catch Thomson tweeting at A_J_Media_Life or talking at 6 p.m. most Fridays on Dave Rosenthal’s KAHI 950 AM drive-time radio show.




As movie premieres go, Auburn hasn’t seen anything as big since the 1990s, when the crowds turned out to see which local made the cut in “Phenomenon” and “Breakdown.”

In this case, however, the big news wasn’t about the contribution in front of the lens. Nearly 200 people turned out Tuesday to see the creativity and visual pyrotechnics of Auburn expatriate Gareth Smith and his wife and production partner Jenny Lee in the new documentary “Girl Rising.”

The work is the brainchild of Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins. He was on the Oscar shortlist for 2007’s “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.”

Robbins’ contributions make up seven of nine segments in a documentary that shows how girls in impoverished nations around the world can fight to rise above very limited opportunities and strive for an education and the freedom that promises.

But Robbins hand-picked Smith and Lee to add their own stylish flourishes in a segment that provides a lighter, thematic bridge to some of the documentary’s darker moments.  

The gripping series of vignettes was given the glitzy premiere treatment last week in London and Los Angeles. The list of narrators added to the dazzle, with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek among the voices.


“Labor Day” titles

For the Auburn audience at the Regal Theater on Sacramento Street, while Selena Gomez provides the narrative, the real stars were Smith and Lee. Smith, a Del Oro High School grad who grew up in rural Auburn, has teamed with Lee on the much-praised titles sequence for the movie “Juno,” as well as “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up In the Air.” In fact, the Smith-Lee creative duo have been at work on titles for director Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” a film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that’s expected to be released later this year.

For “Girl Rising,” as Smith explained during a Q&A after the film, Robbins was looking for a segment filmed in Africa’s Sierra Leone that would serve as a “palate cleanser” and give audiences a lighter story after some disturbing moments.

Lee and Smith co-directed a seven-minute segment, filming in a style very similar to the “Juno” titles segment. It tells the story of a teen who runs into cultural roadblocks in her attempt to help other teens on a popular radio show.

Lee spent nine days filming in the rough-and-tumble world of Freetown, Sierra Leone – which is still digging out from the destruction of a decade-long civil war that made it the poorest nation on the planet. Among women, the literacy rate is 10 percent for people aged 10 or older.

With thousands of frames of photos, Smith and a team of UCLA film interns worked to put 4,000 of those images on screen in a stop-action collage, aided by Lee’s background images.

The film is now being shown around the nation in a kind of guerilla-marketing campaign that makes use of volunteers to sponsor screenings.  So far, the effort has sold more than 400,000 tickets.

For the patient, the film will start to be shown on CNN – a production partner with Intel – in June, providing a wider audience with a chance to learn more about an education vacuum that Smith and Lee are helping shine a light on in darkened theaters throughout the nation.


Marley in the park

Mr. Party in the Park Scott Holbrook has been sweating out the details for the last few weeks in securing what he was predicting to be a band with some positive vibrations.

Holbrook and the Auburn Recreation District is now proud to announce that Southern California reggae band One Drop Redemption will headline the June 21 outdoor concert at Regional Park.

The annual music fest is on June 21 – a Friday, as always – and One Drop Redemption promises to up the good-time ante with a performance of the complete “Babylon By Bus” live album originally committed to vinyl by none other than Bob Marley & The Wailers during their 1970s “Kaya” tour. It’s an eight-piece band, including horns.

The free event in a grass-covered natural bowl at the park attracts thousands and One Drop Redemption out of Claremont should continue to help make the event a regional draw.

Reach Media Life’s Gus Thomson at (530) 852-0232 or You can catch Thomson tweeting at A_J_Media_Life or talking at 6 p.m. most Fridays on Dave Rosenthal’s KAHI 950 AM drive-time radio show.