Kenya as Alternative to Mean Streets of Baltimore
The Boys of Baraka
Directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Runtime: 84 min
Original Music by J.J. McGeehan
Cinematography by Marco Franzoni, Tony Hardmon
Film Editing by Enat Sidi
Film Review by Kam Williams Poor (0 )
After Born into Brothels won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, it was only a matter of time before the imitators came along. That film chronicled the efforts of a couple of fledgling filmmakers to improve the lot of some Calcutta street urchins whose mothers were all prostitutes.
Conveniently borrowing Born into Brothels’ reliance on the letter ’B’ for alliteration, Boys of Baraka follows similar efforts to save about 20 adolescent underachievers from Baltimore by shipping them off to an experimental, academically-oriented school located in rural Kenya. I hesitate to review this film at all, because it frequently struck false notes, though presenting itself as a documentary.
Scene after scene seems staged, starting with the recruitment sales pitch delivered in the auditorium of a ghetto-based middle school where we witness a counselor attempting to scare 12 year-olds into the study abroad program by inappropriately suggesting that they have only three prospects in life:
prison, a casket or a high school diploma.
In another equally unlikely tableau, we see the mother of two applicants worrying that if only one of her sons is accepted, the child left behind will grow up to be a killer. Throughout this highly-exploitative production, the children appear to be playing to the camera in a rather unnatural manner, as if they’ve been coached prior to filming.
I even suspect that scenes which were supposedly shot before the students left for Africa were actually re-enactments made after their return. Worst of all is the picture’s overall suggestion that because the Baltimore schools are failing black youths, these boys would be better off in Africa, away from their families and in the care of non-native whites for two school years, boarding at an institution without most modern conveniences.
Sorry, but Boys of Baraka is a disingenuous docu-drama which fudges the truth in service of an infuriating, self-serving agenda, namely, accolades and awards for the film itself, and at the expense of accuracy or improving the lot of the young souls sacrificed in the process.
Rebuttal by Tony Hardmon, the movie’s cinematographer.
As the Cinematographer on the documentary, ’The Boys of Baraka’ I found Kam Williams’ ’review’ shamefully inaccurate. His snide remark that the filmmakers were somehow mimicking the title of last year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary, ’Born Into Brothels’, speaks more to his own cynical thought processes than to the true intentions of the filmmakers.
Williams repeatedly implies that many of the scenes in the movie were staged going so far as to speculate that, ’scenes supposedly shot before the students left for Africa were actually re-enactments made after the students returned’. First of all even if one were to attempt to re-enact scenes that take place one year prior the viewer would immediately recognize the incongruities. We began filming the boys in Baltimore during their 6th grade summer and it is obvious that the boys at 11 and 12 years old do not look, sound, nor behave like the young men who returned to Baltimore a year later. Secondly, the directors (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) were not ’coaching’ the boys, their parents, or anyone else who appears in the movie. ’The Boys of Baraka’ is a documentary not a reality TV program. Reality television shows are highly scripted and shot in a couple of months, we shot for two and a half years with no sign as to where the story might take us. If Mr. Williams had the inclination to follow a group of subjects for two to three years he too would discover that his subjects would tell their own stories in their own words. This story required patience, care and a willingness to listen and learn, no scripting was necessary.
As an African-American man who has spent over fifteen years documenting the issues affecting our communities the most disturbing question for me is what compelled Mr. Williams to make such insulting accusations towards two filmmakers who have devoted three years of their lives to exposing this important issue affecting our young people. It is unfortunate that Mr. Williams attempted to discredit the veracity of the movie and by extension the good name of the boys and their families. The good news is that this film is already beginning to spark change. Since viewing ’The Boys of Baraka’ Mayor O’Malley of Baltimore, his staff, and the SEED foundation are exploring the development of a Baltimore based boarding school for children underperforming in the traditional public school setting. Perhaps Mr. Williams should consider making a donation.