POV: Describe the film stylistically.
Heidi Ewing: We made a few stylistic choices in the film that we thought would help better tell the story. We tried to use very open spaces in Africa, and you’ll notice the colors of the shots there are enhanced, they’re richer and redder. This is not just because we shot in Africa; it’s because of the filter package we chose to use. The color palette in Africa is very warm and open, and we wanted to contrast that to Baltimore, where the color palette is a little bit blue and more claustrophobic. We also used a lot more tight shots in Baltimore as a metaphor for the constraints that a child feels living in the inner-city, as opposed to how they felt when they went to the Baraka School.
POV: What was your relationship like with the boys? How did you develop trust with them?
Rachel Grady: Most of the boys trusted us. Sometimes Devon would ask us not to shoot, and we would respect that. He’s got a really strong sense of self, he’s very confident, and he speaks up for himself. I actually loved it when he said no to me, I thought, “Good, you should be able to say no to people.”
In some ways, for the boys, it didn’t fully sink in that we were making the movie about them. I don’t think they realized that we had hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. We would try to ask them, “How would you feel about if we included this scene or that scene?” They would give us their opinion, but most of the time they’d say, “I want that in the film because that’s how it is and it’s got to be real.” They’re very brave kids.
Ewing: A lot of people ask us how we developed the trust and the intimacy with the boys and their families to make this film. The answer is simple: we just got to know them, we hung around, we talked about ourselves and they talked about themselves. Before we ever brought a camera around we just got to know everybody and explained our intentions and why we were making this film. With these kids, we asked them things that no one had ever asked them before. These kids live in really stressful environments, their parents are trying to make ends meet and there’s not a lot of time to sit around and talk about one’s deepest feelings. And these kids had a lot to say. So it turned out that the simple things that Rachel and I wanted to know about were things they had a lot to say about. There was no special magic; it’s been a journey that we’ve all taken over the last three years together and our relationships with them developed over time. At this point we’re very close friends with these families and these boys.
POV: How did you choose which boys to focus on?
Ewing: There were actually 20 kids who went to the Baraka School and we chose four to focus on. We were looking for different types of kids that would contrast against each other. Obviously Montrey was the troublemaker: he had the most trouble in school, got into a lot of fights, but also had this big brain. Richard and Romesh were brothers, and it was interesting to have these siblings go to the same school. Devon the preacher is just one of the most extraordinary, charismatic people I’ve ever met. They each had something extremely emotional to offer. They all had a lot to say, and we chose them based on our instincts and on their willingness to share with us.
POV: How did you decide to use video letters from the boys to their families as part of the film? What did they add to the film?
Ewing: We used video letters in the film because we thought it would be an effective device to give the kids an opportunity to basically tell their mothers and grandmothers back home about how things were going. We would shoot video letters in Kenya, and then we’d go back to Baltimore and show them to the families.
In Kenya, we would set up the camera and walk away while the boys recorded their video letters, and when they were done, they would have to shout across campus for us to come back. So this incredible intimacy developed because we just left them alone with the camera. The boys knew we would watch it, but something about being alone brought out these very emotional and funny statements.
The boys’ families also wanted to also send greetings to their kids, and because we were going back and forth between Baltimore and Kenya, we were the only way they could communicate with their kids. Around Christmas time one night we went to a middle school, told all the parents we were going to be there, and even though there was a snowstorm, almost all the moms showed up and they stood in line and we shot them conversing with their kids. It was incredibly emotional. They’d come through the cold of night to say “hello” and “Merry Christmas” and “We’re so proud of you.” The video letters were a great way for the audience to understand the sacrifices that these mothers and grandmothers had made for their children, to make it clear how much the boys were missed, to make it clear that it wasn’t easy for these mothers to give these kids up to the Baraka School for a year. The videos helped the parents become a much bigger presence in the film, because it’s not just a film about these kids, it’s a film about families. These very brave grandmothers and mothers raised their kids in very difficult circumstances, and I think that their video letters really helped them shine through.
POV: How did you approach filming?
Ewing: The Boys of Baraka is largely a vérité film. We tried to be flies on the wall whenever possible and just let scenes play out. So there was a lot of waiting around for things to happen, or just having the patience to roll tape after tape, trying not to miss anything. At the end of shooting, we had over 320 hours of material. We thought it was important for the kids to speak for themselves; we were just vehicles for the kids to tell their own story to the public, and so that was the approach that we took to the film.
POV: In total, it took you over four years to make The Boys of Baraka. How did that break down between pre-production, shooting, and editing?
Ewing and Grady: We began developing the project in the summer of 2001. Gaining access to the school took a year. We started shooting in April, 2002, and shot on and off for two years. We edited the film between April, 2004 and February, 2005. During that process we did some additional shooting. The film opened at the South by Southwest film festival in March, 2005.
POV: Vérité filmmaking can lead to many, many reels of tape. You had over 300 hours of shot footage. How did you approach the editing process? Did you storyboard things as you went along? At what point were the two of you able to say, “This is it. We have the film. Time to edit.”
Ewing and Grady: We intended to follow the kids for two years in Africa and then see how they fared when they returned home, but the closing of the school accelerated the “ending” and the film as a whole. After the kids got back in May, 2003, and the school was shut down and we spent a year shooting the kids back in Baltimore, we knew that the bulk of the storytelling was in the can and we could offer a satisfying “ending” for each boy. The frustrating part with that, of course, is that in many ways the reality of their lives is still unwritten. They are young, vibrant men full of surprises and anything could still happen. However, the indicators of where their lives are heading became clear to us and we knew it was time to cut.
We had every interview transcribed by our trusty interns and we personally spent three months straight watching every vérité tape (we put everything on VHS working tapes). Every vérité scene was cut by our editor Enat Sidi — she’s fast — and we began to assemble the film in chronological order. We also had a big wall with each child’s story laid out on note cards. Each boy was represented by a certain color (Richard and Romesh were pink; Montrey, green; Devon, blue), which helped us keep everything straight. At one point we began weaving their stories together. It was a fascinating process.
POV: Any major filmmaking influences?
Ewing: I like to attempt to bring a narrative film approach to my documentary projects, including shooting and editing styles. For The Boys of Baraka, we borrowed some editing techniques from Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.
Grady: My big documentary influence was Streetwise, a beautiful film made in 1984 by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark about Seattle’s street kids.
POV: What is the biggest lesson learned from making The Boys of Baraka that you’ll take with you to your next film projects?
Ewing and Grady: Kids are fantastic, honest documentary subjects that can lend a fresh perspective to any story. This reality inspired us in part to make our next film, Jesus Camp, about the evangelical movement through the eyes of ten-year-old children in Missouri. It will be released theatrically in late September, 2006.
Portions of this interview were conducted by email.