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

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‘Biblioburro’ is a Parable About the Power of Small Actions

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This is a time that’s ripe for parables — those short, simple stories that illustrate a moral or religious lesson (at least that’s how my computer’s dictionary defines them). With the overwhelming sense of gloom and doom stemming from the financial crisis, the problems in Pakistan and other volatile regions, the seemingly irresolvable domestic issues. . . all of which is filtered through ever-mounting, confounding cultural clutter; yikes, it just makes the world seem like it’s in need of some straight-forward answers we can all understand and agree on.

And yet, we know there’s no fortune cookie message that’ll provide the right answer or a masked hero who can shoot down these great issues with silver bullets.

But then along comes Luis Soriano, an intrepid schoolteacher riding on a donkey loaded with books for dispossessed children in a war-torn region of Colombia. Sidestepping politics, Soriano, and his donkeys, Beto and Alfa, bring books, a sympathetic ear, and a glimmer of constructive hope to these children.

A scene from 'Biblioburro: The Donkey Library' in which a child looks at books on the shelf.

A scene from Biblioburro: The Donkey Library in which a child looks at books on the “shelf”.

Soriano is the subject of POV’s Biblioburro: The Donkey Library, directed by Carlos Rendón Zipagauta, which first airs tonight on PBS (check listings), a documentary that struck me as remarkably unique in its streamlined presentation of a subject without any extra trappings, special edits, grand political analysis or filmmaking tricks. Zipagauta matches Soriano’s essential answer to these kids’ problems with an equal dose of back-to-basics filmmaking. We watch Soriano on his journey to the children, he talks to his donkeys, he teaches the children, and then he goes on his way.

The documentary reminds me of those short, maybe one-minute non-fiction films that Sesame Street (or was it Mr. Roger’s or the Electric Company?) used to run between the puppetry and jokes. That may sound to some like I am belittling the film, but I am not: if we take the time to stop our frenetic lives, slow down, and appreciate the beauty of a sunset or a kind gesture from a stranger, why can’t we also do the same with a film?

According to POV programming director Chris White, Biblioburro is yet another example of how “different stories can be told in so many different ways.” He likens the storytelling of Biblioburro to a couple of past POV films, The Hobart Shakespeareans, about an inner city school in Los Angeles, and The Way We Get By, about troop greeters in Maine. White says that the simple storytelling was “a consideration,” when choosing the film, and he indeed compares it to a parable, with its Don Quixote humor that verges on being a Winnie the Pooh-ish. Ultimately, the film is about “the power of small actions,” White says. “We see this in Soriano’s journey with his donkeys, but the symbolism is richer than that. It points to how literacy and education give children the tools to create positive change, no matter what their circumstances.”

I can just imagine all of the people who’ll be flipping through the channels tonight, being irked or dazzled by the “talent” on America’s Got Talent and being irked or dazzled by the wit and wisdom of Anderson Cooper. And then being struck by the absolute calm of Biblioburro. The film doesn’t portend to have a laugh-per-minute or to have all of the answers to life’s problems, but that’s OK. I hope that the channel-flippers can appreciate that sometimes there need not be more there than what’s there.

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