Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: When Children Are the Subjects of Docs

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I often get this conflicted feeling when I watch a documentary about children, like this week’s POV broadcast of Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go: I am immediately concerned that the subjects are being exploited in some way, since they’re not really able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be involved in a film. But at the same time, I am also totally engrossed, for the related reason that these little subjects usually have what I find to be a refreshingly limited sense of self-awareness — this often provides for more of a “pure” representation of reality in a documentary. Of course, most docs about children are usually intent on helping them, so my initial concern usually takes a backseat to engagement.
Still from Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go

My favorite docs about children are Michael Apted‘s Up series, Born into Brothels, Spellbound and My Kid Could Paint That. (I hear Autism: the Musical is also pretty good.) In these films, the kids are such forces of nature, that when the filmmakers capture them on camera, the viewer gets a sense of true reality, like in a great nature doc. Whereas when watching a doc with adult subjects, I find that the experience can often be tainted when their personas and the façades they present are unraveled.

While watching Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, I was struck by how little judgment (which is normally established through the edits, music and other filmmaking decisions) was projected by director Kim Longinotto as she told the story. In fact, there was so little context provided that I began to worry that this was a doc without a point, but then I began to see how the relationship between two worlds was being portrayed: the one of children and that of adults, who can be broken into two categories. There are the adults (family members) who fail the children, confuse them or drive them into painful patterns. And then there are those (the teachers) who try to support them, and try put them on a better path.

I found it compelling to think in these terms as I watched these children stranded in this world. I began to think about the kid in 400 Blows, Truffaut’s fictional depiction of a street urchin. We get to know that kid, empathize with him, but ultimately, he remains separate from us. As parents, teachers and/or filmmakers, we try to bridge the gap. But it’s hardly easy.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Lita Abbott

    FOREIGNID: 19574
    I accidentally came upon the Doc HOLD ME TIGHT, LET ME GO while changing channels and although its sad and painful to watch I couldn’t stop watching. Maybe its just me but I started to gather that the children really just needed some personal love and attention, to be noticed and appreciated. I noticed that the more they were “held down” the angrier they became. No one likes to feel controlled and unable to do anything about it or express one’s feelings. I noticed the one little boy was fine (I think it was Alex (or Alec)) when his Dad was there showing him a little one on one attention. When the Dad left, Alex became unruly again. When his teacher stopped her “lecturing” for a second to notice that the train he’d put together was going down the track, Alex became in a good mood again and almost amorous. The same with Ben. When his Mom was there showing him exclusive attention and affection he responded. He became frustrated again when he felt “controlled” by the teachers and his circumstances. I felt so sorry for them. It reminded me of when I adopted my cat. She was really afraid of the broom and attacked it whenever it came near her and me also when I came near her with it. When I tried to hold her down to calm her, I know she could sense that I was really angry with her even though I wasn’t hurting her; and she scratched and bit me. I tried to stay calm, like the teachers, but I couldn’t all the time and just started ignoring her. Then I tried projecting onto her (when I was holding her down) that I loved her and thought she was beautiful. She eventually came around and was dearly beloved by the family until she was old and died. Point is, I think those kids can feel the anger and resentment in those teachers when they’re holding them down (even though they are trying to help). I just wanted them to hear me say “just give the boy a hug and tell him you understand his anger but that you know he’s a good boy in his heart” . . . or something like that. Although I’m sure the therapy is apparently helping some of them, its my opinion that what helps them a lot is that they feel a part of something and ultimately that someone cares about them as a person. But sometimes the teachers seem more like unfeeling robots than human beings. I guess its a good example to teach them to control their anger; but what about their more positive feelings? What’s the incentive, other than being talked to death? I came in in the middle and haven’t finished watching, but this is what I’ve gathered so far. I wish them all the best.

  • Katado

    FOREIGNID: 19651
    To say these kids just need a hug and some understanding and one-on-one attention is very simplistic ans ignores the reality of their situation. These kids are so severely disturbed they obviously cannot function in a normal environment. How could one elementary school teacher with 30 to 35 children in a classroom, possibly deal with such an angry, violent child and meet the educational and emotional needs of all the other children. These children act out and are extremely violent even in the protective environment of this very special school. In the U.S., I’m afraid they’d be drugged into submission or locked up. Recently some very young children in California have even been tried as adults after committing violent acts. Without this intense and very thoughtful intervention, one can only imagine the dire future they would face. Violent adults do not come out of nowhere. It is obvious that the goal of the school is to help the children learn to understand their emotions, and learn positive ways to cope with them so they can function in a normal environment in the future.