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article imageReview: 'Girls Don't Fly' is a complex tale of passion and colonialism Special

By Michael Thomas     Apr 29, 2016 in Entertainment
A group of girls in Ghana are training to become pilots, under the tutelage of a British man who started his school as a charity. But something insidious worms its way through this uplifting narrative.
Girls Don't Fly certainly feels like it should be an inspirational story. We are first introduced to Lydia, a young student in Ghana who is making progress on getting a pilot's license despite her right arm, which was disfigured when she was attacked by an animal.
Though it's not clear if her story is a direct inspiration, viewers are introduced to a group of girls in Ghana who are afforded the chance to train to become a pilot. The school, located the country's Kpong Airfield, is run as a charity by a British man named Jonathan and his Ghanaian wife, Patricia. Later in the film, Jonathan says that he is running the school not for money, but to be able to transform lives. It's a tough school — it's run like a boot camp, encompassing intense physical training, classroom education and more.
At first, the film is a bit meandering, touching briefly on each girl and their passion for flying. There are numerous little scenes of the girls starting their training and fraternizing, but a red flag appears early on. As Jonathan explains how tough the program will be, he proceeds to give each girl a t-shirt with a number on it. From that point forward, each girl is no longer referred to by her name, but her number. They are also forbidden to speak any language but English.
As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that there's a sense of paternalism and even subtle racism that finds its way into Jonathan's speech and actions. At first, the would-be pilots react to Jonathan's harshness as anyone would a boot camp leader (following orders, however glumly), but the girls become increasingly unhappy with his words and choices. In one particularly shocking story retold by the girls, he even uses racial epithets.
There's not really a solid thesis to the documentary; director Monika Grassl is content to let the drama unfold in front of the cameras. She doesn't press Jonathan to explain his actions (at least not overtly) and as the film comes to an end, viewers are left to make up their own minds on what message to take from the documentary in light of the abrupt revelations of the last few minutes.
One thing is for sure — these girls definitely can fly. But Jonathan's school is not the answer.
Girls Don't Fly is playing at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto on May 2, 4 and 8. See Digital Journal's 2016 Hot Docs coverage here.
More about girls don't fly, monika grassl, Ghana, kpong airfield, hot docs 2016
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