One of my favorite things to do when watching documentaries is to try to figure out what really happened. In a blockbuster, you know the story will play out, and in most cases you can see how it’s going to end (plus or minus a few details). With the best documentaries, we remember that life is more complicated than art and very rarely has the perfect happy ending – and oftentimes doesn’t actually end, we just don’t get to see any more.
GIRLS DON’T FLY seems to be a rare kind of documentary. From what I could see, the film was going to be about a novel concept taking place in West Africa, an aviation school for women in Ghana. Almost celebrating this amazing breakthrough, we see Jonathan Porter and his wife, both pilots, opening a school for female aviators, initially told through the lens of their young protegé, Lydia.
Lydia is a young girl desperate to learn to fly who has had to undergo several surgeries to restore function to her right arm after an infection as a child. Lydia is self-assured, determined and seems well supported living at the airfield with Jonathan and his wife. We see the first class of 11 women join them – all smiles, eager to be given the opportunity for something better.
Jonathan is a white, British citizen who rankles when he wears a t-shirt that says, “I am not a white man,” and articulates that he is African. His Ghanaian wife was one of the first female pilots in Ghana, and they seem like a pretty good team. However, their methods are a bit intense.
The first day they assign the girls numbers – which at first glance seems like an interesting team building (strip down their previous identity and then let them build back up together). But when Jonathan and his wife later explain that their actual names will confuse future clients (which doesn’t make much sense when their names are Esther, Mary, Bernice, Jennifer, Fauzia, Mabel), we get a little more confirmation that perhaps this isn’t as benevolent an organization as we might initially thought. The drill-sergeant nature of Jonathan’s behavior could be seen as preparing the students for rigorous training and helping them persevere, but my suspicious nature was raised.
We don’t get the full story for quite a ways into the film, and I don’t think the filmmakers expected it to become the film it does. It’s clear that an element of story-telling luck was on their side when they get to show a dramatic shift and follow-up with our real heroes after they get a sense of what they really want out of life.
It’s rare that a film, blockbuster or documentary, gets to live out a real-life stranger than fiction scenario. But watching GIRLS DON’T FLY, I hope you’re as filled with the anger that I believe the title is supposed to inspire as I was.
GIRLS DON’T FLY plays at Hot Docs 2016 on Wednesday, May 4th, 1:30pm at The Lightbox. It then plays once more on Sunday May 8th at Isabel Bader Theatre – 9pm (facebook page)