For the 40 children who call the Mulberry Bush School in Oxford, England home at any one time, the school offers possibly their last chance at a normal life. The kids boarding at Mulberry are not brain-damaged, and many are very bright. Yet their extreme behavioral problems — often caused by emotional trauma and including violent outbursts, agitation and verbal abuse — have gotten them excluded from other schools and institutions and made their families’ lives intolerable.
As compassionately documented by acclaimed British filmmaker Kim Longinotto in classic vérité style in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, the staff at Mulberry eschews instruments of restraint, punitive measures or drugs as a means of helping these kids. Instead, staff members offer patience, determination and a human embrace. It is a program that requires immense fortitude and steadiness in the face of incipient chaos, and one where success seems always to hang in the balance —nonetheless, it achieves some remarkable turnarounds. Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go has its American broadcast premiere on Tuesday, July 28, 2009, at 10 p.m. on PBS during the 22nd season of POV (Point of View).
The Mulberry Bush School has a staff-to-student ratio of 108 to 40. To watch a staff member restrain a hysterical child in his or her arms for as long as it takes the child to calm down is to watch a wrestling match between human reason and human self-destruction, as heart-wrenchingly expressed in the lives of troubled pre-adolescents. Throughout Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, this firm but loving embrace emerges as Mulberry’s signature approach to severely disturbed kids. It expresses not only a commitment to non-violence but a determination to get the child to focus on what is happening and why — and how to change self-destructive behavior.
The kids ages five through 12 who attend Mulberry (most of them boys) can broadly be described as having attachment disorders, with some having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go introduces five of Mulberry’s students over the course of a year. Eight-year-old Alex is given to mania and kicking. Ben, also eight, is a violent biter and hitter. Twelve-year-old Michael appears the least sympathetic, perhaps because he is older (about to complete Mulberry’s three-year program), and certainly because, in addition to hitting and spitting, he shouts racist curses at Mulberry’s black staff members. And Robert, age nine, is constantly relieving himself in his room.
Longinotto’s camera is also there to capture these children feeling hurt, troubled, anxious for human touch and desperate to change. When Alex’s mania doesn’t get the best of him, he is charming and smart as a whip. At one point, with his attention directed to artwork after an outburst, he makes a remarkable comment for an eight-year-old: “With a few words, I could change the world.” Before film’s end, he does make a change in his life — he earns advancement to a higher class.
Ben, meanwhile, unable to control his temper, twice attacks Alex. Ben is then lost in guilt and shame. Helped by the staff to see that his behavior mimics the violence in his own family, he must finally admit to having the feelings of a frightened and confused little boy.
In the course of the year, Robert discovers that good things can come from not urinating everywhere. And Michael, his time at Mulberry nearing an end, seems suddenly more mature, showing focus and determination in learning to play the recorder and new self-confidence when visiting his family. His final week at Mulberry is a moving expression of the bonds that form among the school’s staff and students. It is also testament to a new Michael, who was, at the film’s beginning, an ink-eating, spitting, racist hellion — a seemingly irredeemable child.
But it is Mulberry’s quiet determination that no child is beyond saving. Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go presents a heartbreaking, engrossing tableau of the consequences that family and social dysfunction can have on small children and of the tremendous transformations possible in young lives when a community of determined adults envelops them in love rather than force.
“When I first went to see the Mulberry Bush School, within 20 minutes of arriving, I knew I wanted to make a film there,” says director Longinotto. “I remembered that during my own school days, the driving force behind everything was punishment and discipline. The aim of the school was to break down your self-esteem.
“By contrast, at Mulberry, the goal is to help the kids feel happier and more confident. When they misbehave, the teachers don’t punish them, but try to find out why they are acting like that. The Mulberry Bush School tries to mend the hurt of the outside world.”
Says John Diamond, CEO of the Mulberry Bush School, “The film captures the minute-by-minute issue of staff grappling with ‘what is in the best interests of this child in the here and now?’ In this way it is a ‘warts and all’ view of the work of the school.”
Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is a production of Films of Record in association with the BBC. The film is distributed by Women Make Movies (WMM), the world’s leading distributor of independent films by and about women, including 14 films from Kim Longinotto.