Jezza Neumann on Making the Film & Helping the Kids

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Director, producer and editor Jezza Neumann reflects on making Poor Kids, what he’s learned while making films about children living in poverty over the last decade and what he hopes viewers will take away from the film. He also shares what you can do to help.

You’ve worked on a few different films about children in the U.K. and around the world. What brought you to this project about children and poverty in the U.S?

Originally we’d made a film called Eyes of A Child approximately, now 12 years ago, which looked at poverty through the eyes of children [in Britain] at the time of Tony Blair’s government coming into power. Obviously things have moved on since then. With the change in government the BBC said, “How about looking at child poverty again?”

So we did, and that was then called, Poor Kids (2011), a story told by four kids across the U.K. and had a bit of their family around it as well. … It was very much told through these children’s viewpoints of what it meant to be poor, and what that meant for them and how that affected their aspirations, their thoughts on future. …

[There] was a phenomenal response. Everyone was talking about it. … The two things that were coming up time and time again were that the middle class in Britain came out and said, “Oh my god, I didn’t realize it was that bad.” And the working class were writing, saying: “This is what it was like when I was a kid. I can’t believe it’s still this bad. … With all the wealth that we have, why are there kids going without food?”

For the middle class I think they were just finally shocked because what we managed to do was find these kids that broke stereotypes. Particularly in Britain, people think of a poor kid and they think of some “hoodie” in a gang, on the streets, who swears at people. … They think all poor people are stupid. … They’ll blame people that it’s their fault. With the kids that we showed in this film, they were anything but; they’re intelligent, charming, funny — you know, kids. …

We were trying to pitch this to the U.S. market, saying would you want to do this as a slice of Britain, would it interest American audiences? There was a meeting we were having with an American broadcaster. … We kind of got this glazed look like: “I’m sorry but unless there’s American foreign policy included in it then people really won’t get it in this country. You can’t really sell a film so tied to Britain.” … And it was at that meeting that the idea of doing Poor Kids, USA was born. …

The one thing I find is that there can be a lot of bigotry in the U.K. about America. A lot of people meet the tourists who have all the money and speak loudly. I can already see that there’s an opportunity to dispel stigmas and pre-perceptions just from the off, not even getting into the world of poverty, just to show the British public a different side of America, the humanity of America and that actually, and when it comes down to the issues and problems, we’re all facing the same ones. We’re in it together. So I kind of felt on that level that it was an opportunity to make a film and it wasn’t just a film about kids growing up in poverty, but it was a way of maybe doing something to connect the British public and the British human suffering in this recession to the Americans that they often hear so much about. …

So what happened was basically that BBC This World ended up saying: “Yep, we’re up, but we can’t afford it. Let me talk to PBS.” This World had a very good relationship with [FRONTLINE Deputy Executive Producer] Raney [Aronson-Rath] so they talked to each other and Raney said, “Yeah, I’m interested.” So they came on board and we basically set off.

How did you decide where in America to film, ultimately choosing to focus on families the Quad Cities? And how did you pick the families?

We spent a month traveling around America. The original idea was to do East Coast, Middle, West Coast, because that’s kind of neat. In that process we went to New York, New Jersey, Dallas. We went to Chicago for the middle, and then we went over to California and also to Phoenix, in Arizona. During that period we met loads of kids.

Prior to my coming, I had a couple of researchers in London and they just hit the phones and the Internet and found the organizations and towns who dealt with kids. Wherever they could, they tried to set up meetings for [co-producer] Lauren [Mucciolo] and I prior to us arriving, so at least when we flew into San Francisco we knew that the director of the Girls and Boys Club knew about us and the press officer was ready to meet us and put us in touch with some of the local the Boys and Girls clubs. We had access to various organizations on the ground, and they you just work it; you go somewhere and you meet someone and you’re friendly to them, you explain what you’re doing. There’s a lot of suspicion in a film like this.

Tell me about that. The film is very intimate. People are sharing private details about their financial struggles and they’re very candid about it. How did you establish that trust and get that access to really get inside people’s homes?

You have to remember that ultimately your goal is to make a film. Particularly when you start out filmmaking, you’re terrified. You’ve got to bring the story back at all costs and you can’t come back with nothing. What happens is you tend to push things too far and that’s why, so often, things go wrong. You have to be prepared that you might turn up to a kid’s house and film nothing. If you take that premise, you know that your investment at the beginning is really important, because it’s like any relationship.

You don’t walk into a bar or coffee shop and, in the first five minutes of meeting someone, tell them your entire life story. You might pass a bit of chitchat about the weather. And if you bump into them in the same coffee shop or bar a week later you might talk about your day. It’s a gradual process that you’ll open up a bit more with each time.

It’s exactly the same with filmmaking. You have to invest in time with the families and time garnishing the relationship. That’s the point of this: It is a relationship, which ultimately means that, therefore, you can’t just dump them at the end of it. I didn’t end the shoot and go, “Thanks very much, got what I need, bye! See you later!” This is ongoing. This is an investment in them. We’ll keep in touch with the families. We’ll keep sending birthday cards and Christmas cards.

Why did these families want to share their stories? Did they have different reasons?

Primarily, they do it because the kids want to do it. You get kids who want to do it and you meet the families and the families say, “No, way.” Over the course of making this film we must have met at least 300 children. …

Initially, setting out, we would just go in as visitors and meet the classes. I’m from England and Lauren’s from New York so it was always fascinating to these kids to have us there.

We went as guests of the school to come and talk to the kids. In honor of that, of course, we wanted to meet kids in order to make a film but we very much give them time. We basically go in and present and go, “Here, you’ve got your token Englishman, what do you want to ask me?” So we spent time with the kids and get a feeling for their world and the environment they’re in, in the schools and as visitors at the Boys and Girls Club.

The guy from the Boys and Girls Club would contact the parents and make it clear which ones were happy for us to talk to their kids, and then we would talk to them about the film, so it kind of made it clear where we are and what they are doing. We’d never discuss films or poverty or anything like that with the kids, we would just talk about general life. …

You’d go through hundreds of kids and we’ve even filmed with several families and it fell through. For one reason or another, the families bailed out and they didn’t want to do it, anymore. It really comes down to the investment back from us because we make it an experience that the kids enjoy so that, at the very least we know, whatever happens, whatever comes of this, at least we know the period they spent with us was a fun time.

Describe your relationship with the children and their families during the filming.

During the filming you try to stay as distant as possible, while remaining connected. It’s really difficult because, of course, as a human being, you don’t want to witness what you’re witnessing. You’d love to change things for the kids, but you know in your heart of hearts you can’t. If I changed things for Kaylie and I bought her all the food, can I buy the food again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? If I buy her a bunch of clothes, should I buy them for Tyler? And should I therefore go and buy them for the kid next door, who also doesn’t have any?  Where does it stop?

[I] have to keep maintaining the belief that my purpose is to bring back something as honest as I can, to be true to the viewer, that what they’re watching is as true to reality as possible and that my being there is affecting their world as little as possible. You try to pull back all the time and disappear. That’s how you get this stuff. …

There’s always a sensitivity in filming children. Are you worried that, in the future, these images of them as children will sort of stay with them for the rest of their lives?

No, there is absolutely no reason for these children to feel anything other than pride in having taken part in this, being proud that these pictures are out there. Why, on Earth, should they feel embarrassed about it? What do they have to feel embarrassed about? That’s just people, again, putting stigmas on these kids.

What were some of the stigmas about poverty and children you encountered while filming or in response to previous films you’ve made?

Everybody loves to blame someone else. … It’s human nature. Everybody does it. I do it. I’m just as guilty as the next person. It happens again when you watch the film.

People naturally want to blame the parents. They want to blame adults. And they feel that adults “had a choice.” The belief is if you watch a film about poverty and it was a parent who said, “I can’t get a job, I can’t do this, I can’t do that” and you’re supposed to feel sympathetic towards them. It’s much, much harder to get people to garnish that sympathy. People will go, “You could have done this” or “You could have done that. Maybe if you’d studied harder at school you would be richer.” They’ll look for anything to say.

Whereas if you look at a child and how can you blame Brittany or Kaylie or Roger or Tyler or Johnny or Jasmine for the situation they’re in? You can’t. You cannot blame them; they have nothing to do with this and this is their story. This is what life is like to be poor in America through a child’s eyes. It doesn’t matter what their parents did or didn’t do at the end of the day. That’s irrelevant.

What’s relevant is these children today will be the adults of tomorrow. That’s a fact. That’s about the only given fact that we can take out of this. They are going to be who are in charge of this country when we get old. Who do you want in charge of the country? Dysfunctional adults who have no education and don’t care because nobody cared about them? Or do you want to have a generation of people who have a great work ethic, who are doing their best, who are teaching their children that they should go out and work and can stand up and tell their kids, “Don’t worry, as long as you work hard, people will be there to help you.”

And they’re not crying out — people love to stigmatize and say, “Oh, yeah, they’re welfare people. They want a free living, they’re after the state.” They don’t! They just need a helping hand.

The thing that really stood out for me, is how much people still want to work. They really, truly do. Everybody I’m meeting. Because we are taking people who have known a better life to a degree. In this film, I’m not looking at the generational poor [or] drug addicts or alcoholics. We’re not looking at people who have already “slipped off the radar,” so to speak, that are also involved in social services and things like that. … These are Americans who maybe not have had the greatest jobs in the world, but they worked, and they tried to make that path for themselves. They tried to climb ladders and get further and follow this dream that you can hit the middle classes by working harder, but they’re seeing it slip away from them. And they are in a point right now where things just haven’t worked out. And because they never got to that level where they’re able to create a proper safety net, it didn’t take long for them to fall down to the bottom of the ladder when it went pear-shaped for them.

It’s not in the film, but there’s a fantastic scene from Johnny in the shelter and he says, “When you look at a homeless shelter, there are an awful lot of people in there who do have an education, who did go to school, and all it took was one paycheck, one electricity or utility bill that they didn’t pay, that can cause things to start going wrong.” And if you don’t have savings — for that family they were plowing money back into a business that was failing — so eventually you end up with nothing. The problem is, when you have nothing, where do you go? Where do you fall back on? …

This is an issue you’ve been looking at for a while now, but did anything surprise you during filming? Is there anything that you didn’t expect that you learned?

The main idea was this idea of the work ethic. I was really surprised that people still genuinely wanted to find a job and work. Nobody was looking for the state. The majority of people that we spoke to were really embarrassed about having to seek help. For a lot of people, they didn’t actually know how to find help. There seems to be a real disconnect. There are agencies out there helping, there are people doing really good work. …

Tell me a little bit about the making of the film. How big was your crew?

It was just myself and Lauren, who started out as my AP but, but given what she’s done throughout the whole project, was credited as producer and effectively that’s the role she played.

It was a bit of a gamble, at first; she didn’t know me, I didn’t know her. … But within a week or so on the road it’s very clear that Lauren was a fantastic person and that’s what you need. You need to be able to sit with a chain-smoking alcoholic and show sympathy toward them and understanding and mean it, and at the same time be able to go and have dinner with “Lord and Lady” whoever. You need to be able to relate to them in their world, too. There’s no room to be racist. There’s no room to be bigoted. There’s no room to make judgment on anybody if you want to make a film on this. You have to be prepared to disagree with people but yet, sit and listen to them, because they are people and people have all sorts of reasons why they might have views that you might not agree with. They might be slightly right-wing views, they might be overly left-wing views – who knows? Lauren was one of those people, and not everyone’s like that. …

What was different about making this film from others you’ve done? What was challenging about the process?

In post-production, the challenge was that my initial product was 85 minutes long and the idea of getting this cut down to 50 minutes is [difficult]. Ordinarily, when you cut down 25 minutes, you’d be using narration to put it all together. You’d have 10 minutes of sync, so that’s 10 minutes of people talking.

With this particular cut, not only did we have to lose 26 minutes, we also had to do it without using narration. So that was quite a challenge because it meant, first of all, I had to cut all of that down, and I had to look at, whenever someone’s saying something or something’s happening, that you actually understood what was going on. Or if there were places were we would use narration, I had to see if we could say what narration was saying by using original shot footage. That took a long time. That meant going back to transcripts and searching for certain things to put it together that way.

What was behind the road sign motif in the film? Why did you choose to do that rather than having talking heads or narration in the film?

… When it came to doing this film, we knew we wanted to tell the story from a child’s perspective, which is very much a marker of a story, but we knew we wanted people to know the bigger picture. They would still want to know, “Is it just these kids, or is it a lot more?” We knew that we needed to get the information across. You either get that across through narration, or you get it through some kind of card. …

When we were looking at some vehicle to get statistical information across, because we were looking at the Quad Cities and the Quad Cities is technically the center of America because it’s where the Mississippi, which divides America North to South, crosses Interstate-80, that divides America East to West. Journalistically, we say that is the heart of America. Therefore, Interstate-80 is quite a significant “vein” of America. It actually goes from San Francisco to New Jersey. I came up with the idea of using the road signs of I-80 because I thought that was a nice motif and it also gave you a sense of place and we could use this as the stats. …

You cut across a few different families, but the film focuses a great deal on the experiences of girls. Why was that?

Purely because girls seem to be a bit more talkative than boys. [Laughs.] … But to say that, Johnny does come out as the stronger character of that family.

It was purely that [girls] were the ones who wanted to be there and take part. The reality is girls are generally more evolved than boys at certain ages. It’s a known fact that girls, quite often, can be ahead of boys at certain things at certain ages. Around the 9-10 year-old age group, boys are being boys and girls are being girls. There’s no interaction in the school playground and girls chat. That’s what they do. Girls like to chitter-chat. So when I’m looking for kids who are outgoing and have something to say and can articulate the world, then you find that girls are open to do that. Even in our research, there were far more girls we would find who would hit the short list than boys. …

You’ve still been keeping in touch with the families. Can you give us updates of where they are now? Did Kaylie and her brother end up in school?

We did our last trip at the end of August [early] September. The update we’ve had since has been that Kaylie and Tyler are in school and they’re really enjoying it and, luckily, the school that they’ve ended up in has an afterschool program that’s really good and they can bus them back home after the afterschool program. … They are living in a trailer.

Unfortunately, nothing particularly has improved for either of the other two families. They are pretty much where they were when we left them.

What can people who watch the film do to help?

We actually have a foundation, called the Aletheia Foundation, which True Vision films set up as a result of viewers who, at times, have wanted to donate money and other times give offers of holidays or clothing or jobs. We set this up as a way of people being able to have a governed body that they could go to. This foundation looks after all of the kids that we may have filmed with, not just in America or in the U.K. We’re talking about the kids in Zimbabwe, Gaza, South Africa. [There are ways to help for] all the films we make.

Because we connect people with their hearts, they can’t just let go of these kids either. It’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with reacting with the kids there. But the foundation also tries to encourage people that, once the kids in the film are taken care of, we try to help other kids, as well. So, for example, in Zimbabwe, once we got the kids in the film [Zimbabwe's Forgotten Children] into schools, we’d ask people who were donating, “Are you happy if we use your funds to help the kids in the school?” People have said yes. Now we have a feeding program in that school. We have built a well in that school. And that’s all thanks to viewers’ donations.

[Note: Click here to find out more about the Poor Kids fund.]

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