Last week, I went with J.G. and Mike to see The Boys Of Baraka, a documentary that follows four "at-risk" boys from Baltimore city, average age 12, who are enrolled into a boarding school in Kenya that is supposed to give them the education and discipline they can't get in Baltimore public schools, so that they might be given a better chance at going to a good high school and graduating. The City Paper's been covering the Baraka School for years, and I'd been looking forward to seeing this movie since it first screened at festivals last year, and it finally opened at the Charles a couple weeks ago.
The night we went, the movie had already been playing there for a week, but I guess since it was a Friday night, they went all out, with one of the film's 2 directors, Heidi Ewing (who, I have to say, is kind of a babe) speaking before and after the film along with the cinematographer. Two of the four boys the movie centered on, Montrey and Devon, who are now about 16, were also there, taking tickets before the movie, and after the movie answered questions from the audience along with Ewing. So it was kind of cool to see how they're doing now, and hear their own thoughts about their experiences in Africa. One of the classmates of the 4 kids featured in the film who's seen a little bit in the movie is now a local rapper named Ammo who I've met and seen perform a bunch of times, and also plays Spider on the 3rd and upcoming 4th seasons of The Wire, so it was cool to see him in the movie. And in other Wire news, we saw Detective Freamon in the lobby after the movie.
The movie itself is definitely worth seeing, although by no means perfect. At 84 minutes, it felt maybe too short, and sometimes I questioned what the filmmakers chose to focus on. It's decidedly a story about the 4 boys more than about the school, but I would've appreciated a little more background about how the school was started and how their teaching methods differ from that of U.S. public schools. Although it will definitely make more of an impact as a feature film, I almost wish they had gone the route of a mini-series or some other format that would allow them to show more footage and explore the topic at greater length. Maybe an eventual DVD release will offer more information, I hope. And sometimes the dramatic ambient music was a bit much, but for the most part, the storytelling was handled well and with a light touch, and allowed its subjects to define themselves. Although there are some incredibly sad and infuriating moments, there's also a lot of footage of kids just being kids, excited to be in Africa around lizards and hedgehogs.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting look at an experimental alternative to public schools that is unfortunately no longer available, as the Baraka School closed down a year into the shooting of the film due to political turmoil in Kenya. But the film will hopefully shed some light on what is happening in Baltimore and in cities like it all over the country, where young kids that are as full of potential as anyone are being statistically presumed to end up dead or in jail if they aren't given a fair shot at graduating high school. One of the most promising things that the director mentioned after the film is that current Baltimore mayor and possible soon-to-be Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's wife saw and loved the film and made him see it, and it's led to him discussing options for opening a boarding school like Baraka here in Maryland.
It is worth noting, though, that while the film closes with Montrey getting great test scores and getting into one of the best schools in the city and generally being the beacon of hope at the end of the movie, the truth is apparently a little different. I came across a blog post by a Baltimore city school teacher who had a little inside track on the situation, and reports that Montrey failed out of the school he got into after a year, and is now at a decidedly less prestigious public school (although he also has very positive things to say about some of the kids he's taught who went to Baraka). Of course, there's no way for the filmmakers to have really known that when they finished filming, but I noticed that noone mentioned anything about that or clarified his situation when speaking after the screening. I was tempted to stand up and ask a question about that or something else, but I do respect what the boys and the filmmakers have accomplished and didn't want to come off rudely. They said at the end of night that the movie is going to keep playing at the Charles as long as people keep coming to see it. So I hope it gets a long run and people from all over the city get a chance to see it and the movie isn't limited to the Charles' usual art house crowd and reaches the kind of people it's really about, so if you get a chance, definitely go out and see it.