POV: How would you describe The Hobart Shakespeareans?
Mel Stuart: The Hobart Shakespeareans is a documentary about an extraordinary teacher, Rafe Esquith, who teaches at one of the largest inner-city elementary schools in the United States, in Los Angeles. The students are nine- and ten-year-old Korean and Mexican immigrant children. Their parents don’t speak English. And he puts them through a rigorous year of study, the highlight of which is a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
I think part of the success he’s had is, he doesn’t tell them, this is difficult; it’s part of the curriculum, they’re supposed to do it and they do it. And he proves that you can teach any kinds of kids anything if you know the secret of how to reach them. It just makes you begin to believe that with the correct teacher anything is possible.
POV: What drew you to the subject?
Stuart: Luck plays a great deal in the making of films. In this case I happened to pick up a copy of the Los Angeles Times and saw that a teacher, Rafe Esquith, received a medal from a British group for his work teaching inner-city children. They were putting on a performance of Henry IV. I happen to be a Shakespearean nut so this interested me right away. I went to see him and I asked if he would allow me to shoot the film during the coming year. And the fact that he was planning on doing Hamlet was perfect for me because Hamlet is a play that, whether people realize it or not, they all have a great familiarity with. And after that I went to POV and told them about the project. They said, “go ahead.” And that’s how the film was made. Just reading an article in a newspaper.
POV: How long did it take you to make the film?
Stuart: The documentary took a year to shoot. I followed Rafe and his children throughout a year of their term. We see them learning math, geography, history, particularly English, reading books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies — all for nine- and ten-year-old children. But the idea is he felt they can get it and they found out they could get it. And he went on trips to Washington, DC and to South Dakota with them, to try and give them a deeper understanding of American history. After a year they finally put on their production of Hamlet, and a very wonderful time was over for me. I enjoyed it enormously.
POV What’s compelling about Rafe?
Stuart: Rafe Esquith is an extraordinary subject. In the documentary world we have a phrase: There are certain people that can talk and walk at the same time. Everything that comes out of their mouth is just the way it should be. Rafe is one of those people. Everything he says is the perfect take. I never had to ask him to say something over, to explain himself. This is a very rare quality. He could be walking and teaching, at the same time, he could be talking to the camera and it always came out exactly the way it should come out. He’s extremely devoted; after years of teaching he still makes the same salary, $40,000 a year. He’s been offered to go to many places, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to stay in LA and teach these kids year after year, just as a teacher. And his commitment is one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen in all my years of documentary filmmaking.
POV: What makes him extraordinary as a teacher?
Stuart: I think the secret of Rafe’s approach is that he will not move on unless the children understand perfectly what he’s trying to get at. And one of the kids, the young man that plays Hamlet tells over and over again how if he didn’t understand something, Rafe would get it to him. And [that] contrasted with other classes he was in where the teacher would say, “Well, if you don’t get it, that’s your problem.” And Rafe wouldn’t allow that, he wouldn’t give up with any of the children until they really got the message. Now Hamlet is not the easiest play in the world for a nine-year-old, but all those children knew exactly what he was about.
POV: What kinds of values does Rafe want to instill in his students?
Stuart: Part of what Rafe wants to do is to train the kids so that when they go out in society they don’t try and just be joiners, that they’re their own people. That they think their own way and they are not swept into groupthink. And that’s one of the key lessons he tries to instill in them and we show that in the film quite a few times.
POV: Tell us about Shakespeare and what that part of the film means to you personally.
Mel Stuart: When I was twelve years old, I saw Henry V by Olivier. I went back ten times. Never forget it. It was so impressive to me, such a fantastic film, that I’ve been immersed in Shakespeare for many, many years. And when I found that here was a teacher that was taking a bunch of immigrant children who have no background in this subject, and making them do Hamlet, the greatest play in our language, I said, is it possible and can they do it? And can they understand it, more importantly? And they did. And there’s a moment at the end of the play, school term’s over, they finished Hamlet and the kids are all crying because they know that this wonderful life they had with this teacher is over. And he looks at them and he says, you can’t cry now, because there’s going to be much greater moments in your life, don’t cry about this. He says, “The readiness…” And the whole class answers, “…is all.” This is the end of one of the great speeches from Hamlet. But that all the kids knew it and that he said it spontaneously is what this picture is all about. “The readiness is all.”
POV: Can you talk about the style of the film?
Stuart: For whatever the word is worth, this film is cinema verité. There’s no music. There’s no sound effects. There’s no narration. The wonderful part was that Rafe himself, the teacher, was the whole essence of the film. There were moments that I couldn’t even expect from the beginning; suddenly there’s a call on the school radio somebody’s been shot outside the school. Uh, well I happened to be there, it was a lucky incident for me, unfortunate for the person who was shot. But I could capture the feeling of what the school was, how it was surrounded by this very bad neighborhood. And so after a year I think we’ve put together a very accurate, honest picture of what it was like to be in Rafe Esquith’s classroom.
POV: What draws you to documentary filmmaking?
Stuart: The wonderful thing about documentaries, if they’re done honestly, is that they are the closest thing we can have to the chronicles of our time. If you lived back in Rome AD 10 and there was a library of films, would you rather see a documentary about Christ or Caesar, or would you like to see Everybody Loves Raymond? These are the reflections of our time and if they’re done honestly, I think you cannot have a more important record of how we lived.
POV: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Stuart: I knew I had the right leading character, I knew the kids were fine, but the biggest challenge over all those days that I shot was that I was there on a day that things would happen that would really be of use to the film. For example, luck, I’m there when somebody’s killed outside the school, so I can hear the announcement, somebody’s killed outside the school. That was the [type of] neighborhood that it was in.
I was there on the day when Ian McKellen came to the class, when Michael York came to the class. I was available to shoot them teaching these children. In a strange way, [this was a] very easy film to make because everything was going right all the time. The subject was right, there were no hardships. It was just making sure over a period of twelve months that I would be there when the action took place.
POV: What was your greatest satisfaction in making this film?
Stuart: The greatest satisfaction in the documentary was seeing the effect of Rafe’s teaching methods on these children, who god knows come from very humble backgrounds, to see them emerge as little adults, to see how children with really very poor backgrounds can learn, can understand things like Shakespeare, books like Catcher in the Rye… The question I always ask people is, what are the six states surrounding Idaho? Well they know them, but does the audience out there know them? Give me the six states that surround Idaho. I don’t know if very many people could do it. And yet Rafe’s class can do it, coming from this humble immigrant background.
POV: Who is this film for?
Stuart: Well, I hope this film could be seen by three billion people, but it won’t be seen by three billion people. But I do hope that this film can be seen by as many parents as possible and teachers as possible, because I want them to realize that through a great inspired teacher and with students that are willing to meet him halfway, extraordinary results can be accomplished. And I just want to give a positive energy to the art of teaching if I possibly can.
POV: What do you want other teachers to get from this film?
Mel Stuart: I think what you can take away from this experience as a teacher is that it can be done, that miracles can be accomplished, that you can make a definite change in the makeup of a society with the upcoming generation. And it takes perhaps more patience than sometimes you want to give. It takes a lot more belief in the children than you want to give. But here it is folks, you see it, you see what an inspired teacher can do with a group of children that are willing to come halfway.
POV: Did this film change you?
Stuart: I’m a natural cynic. My favorite picture, Willy Wonka, is an exhibition of, in a strange way, cynicism…a little bit of madness. And after doing this film, which is my second favorite film after Wonka, I have great hope that it’s possible to change society in a positive way. And that’s why it means a great deal to me.
POV: What are you working on now?
Mel Stuart: While I was doing this film and I’m continuing, I’m doing a series about uh, modern American poets. Portraits of some of America’s greatest poets. And uh, that also is a very exciting project. The wonderful thing about making documentaries is — look at all the people you meet! You meet presidents and kings and poets and teachers and workers and everything else. And that’s why making documentaries is such a joy.