In rural India, young women find their voice.

In places like Varanasi, India, girls learn at a young age that traditional expectations of them are to get married and tend to the domestic sphere. However, many girls, like 17-year-old Rani have other hopes and dreams. “Being a girl is difficult,” Rani says. “First we must face our family, then we have to face society and everyone else around us.” Despite barriers such as poverty, discrimination and war that prevent more than 130 million girls from attending school worldwide, girls like Rani are helping to turn a new page for female education.

Girl Icon, a 360° documentary combining film and animation, chronicles the hopes, frustrations and dreams of Rani as she pursues an education. Director Sadah Espii Proctor notes that documentaries about countries like India can often fall into extremes, focusing on pessimism and poverty or superhero characters overcoming all odds. Instead, the engagement of VR allows us to jump into the ordinary, everyday moments of Rani’s life as she bicycles along dirt roads, pours over classroom notes in her bedroom, and plays games in a grassy field with friends.

“I was always taught that the shortest connection between two people is a story,” Proctor says. “That connection you make with a subject sharing a story is even more potent in VR.” Girl Icon was created in partnership with Malala Fund, an international organization that champions every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe and quality education. The film specifically highlights Malala Fund partner Milaan Foundation and its Girl Icon Initiative in India.

Along with the everyday moments of Rani’s life that we experience through the immersion of 360°, we witness the support systems that bolster her dreams: her family, her school and her community. Amid these 360° scenes, Proctor intersperses paneled video segments that feature snapshots of Rani’s life. “You see something, take it in, and let it pass over you in a visceral way versus intellectually,” Proctor says. “It goes back into 360° and you’re able to be carried through and into the next part of the story.”

Proctor ultimately underscores how it takes work at the community and institutional level to help girls access education. Through the Girl Icon training, other girls are able to witness Rani’s determination and feel inspired to achieve anything they want.

“Every country has some form of barrier when it comes to girls’ education,” Proctor says. “For some, there’s a physical danger or barrier; for others, it’s more psychological. Each country should look at these barriers – they are not just isolated to India or the Global South.” She hopes that viewers will consider supporting Malala Fund and Milaan Foundation, as well as contemplate the simple things they can do in their own communities to empower girls. Everyday activities, such as playing at the park with your niece, buying a book for the neighbor girl, or taking your daughter to the museum can make a lasting impact, Proctor says.