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September 9th, 2009
Time for School Series
Filmmaker Notes

Hervé Cohen, Field Producer in Benin, 2009

Ruhi Hamid, Field Producer in Afghanistan, 2009

Oren Rudavsky, Field Producer in India, 2009

Three years ago, I was responsible for finding seven children in seven different countries whose stories highlighted something particular about education in their parts of the world — children whose families would let us film them, and who were charming and articulate. All of this was to be done long-distance — without ever leaving WNET’s New York offices. My associate producer and I would start with UNICEF or another NGO to establish contact with a school. From there, we’d speak to principals and teachers who would fill us in on some of the first-year students. Then we’d narrow it down to two or three candidates. Even though we might have a strong hunch about one particular child, it would rest with the field producer/camera person to make the final decision.

The field producers, most of whom I’d never met, were phenomenal. I sent them a myriad of interview questions, shot lists, and suggestions for scenes, and we spoke on the phone during filming. But ultimately I had to have absolute faith in their judgment, which I did. And in every case, it paid off beautifully.

This time around, the groundwork had been laid. We were following up with the same seven children. For six of the seven segments, I worked with the same field producers as last time. What was astonishing to me while producing “Back to School” was how much had transpired in the lives of our students in such a short time. Our two students in Africa had each lost a parent since we’d filmed them last, and Neeraj in India was hanging onto her already tenuous schooling by a thread. The gap between the children in the industrialized countries and those in the developing world seemed to be widening at an alarming pace. And yet in terms of potential — their curiosity, questions, dreams — they were all at the same starting gate.

Over the next five months we spun the material from three years ago into the new film. One of the highlights this time was having our students meet each other on camera. We were able to show them the segments we had filmed three years earlier and have them ask each other questions. In Benin and India, whole villages came out to see the film — and for some it was the first time they had seen a portrait of their community or what life is like in other parts of the world.

Frederick Rendina, Field Producer in Kenya, 2006Photo of Frederick Rendina, Field Producer in Kenya.

When I first met Joab, he was a quite shy boy of 10 — and looked much younger. His living conditions were very harsh, he had little food, and his father was struggling with alcohol abuse. Joab spoke very little English then, so our communication was through a translator or our Kenyan sound recordist. Then, the bright light in his life was his mother, Leah, who was full of energy and dreams for her son.

We were all devastated to learn of Leah’s death just a few months after filming the first segment of “Time for School,” and we were gravely concerned about what had become of Joab. Visiting Joab for the second installment, “Back to School,” was therefore a mixture of happiness and sorrow. I was thrilled that Joab had grown to a confident, and sometimes tough and combative, young man. I was glad that I could converse freely with him now in English and conduct interviews in English. And I was pleased we could joke around more easily because of that, and that we had established a degree of trust that allowed us to talk about the very painful things in his life. Throughout the filming, Joab bravely spoke to me about his mother and the stigma attached to her death. At times, some memories were so difficult that the camera had to be turned off.

Nonetheless, Joab is back in school and doing well, despite the continuing hardship of life in Kibera

Hervé Cohen, Field Producer in Benin and India, 2006
Photo of Hervé Cohen, Field Producer in Benin and India.

Benin - The first time I laid eyes on Nanavi three years ago, I liked her right away. She was bright eyed with a big warm smile, and I was also fascinated by her story

Nanavi lives in Koutagba, a Voodoo village a few hours away from Benin’s capital. She was the first of her generation to attend school, hence defying her destiny and village tradition of being relegated to a Voodoo convent, like most girls of her village.

There, education is a privilege traditionally bestowed only on boys. I was excited to film the first steps she took on her way to school, and I also remember the difficulties she had writing the number three. In spite of her timidity, we hit it off quite well and built a trusting relationship.

Upon my return three years later, I was pretty touched to see that she had not forgotten me. But while she still had that wonderful smile, I could see in her gaze that something was broken. The lives of Nanavi and her family had changed drastically within the last three years. Nanavi’s father had passed away a year prior, and the family was left in sheer poverty. The corn mill, which was their source of income, had broken down and with the father gone, they had no means to repair it. Nanavi, her mother and siblings were forced to leave the family farm and settle in a small hut in the village center. And so this shoot, compared to the one three years ago, was a bit more of a challenge. Nanavi was very emotional especially when it came to invoking the memories of her father. I later realized that she was the one closest to him. Before Nanavi’s father passed away, he made the mother promise that she would keep Nanavi in school no matter the circumstances — a promise the mother kept in spite of all her hardship, and one that Nanavi was more than happy to fulfill. Difficulties writing the number three were now a thing of the past. She loves school and is one the most motivated students in her class.

During our visit, the corn mill was repaired, and I was able to see it function before leaving the village. The last day, before heading back to the capital, the entire team received blessings from the Voodoo priest. I left Koutagba happy, knowing that Nanavi and I had renewed and strengthened our ties. I told her that I would like to return in three years to film her again. She said she would be waiting.

India – The India segment of our show this year was the most challenging — and quite an adventure! Neeraj, who had been filmed three years prior by Oren Rudavsky, had to leave night school to go on the road herding the family’s cattle. Our mission was to track her down. Neeraj’s parents, though very cooperative, were not of much help in our search; they had no way of keeping track of their daughter on a grazing trip that could take her and other herding families hundreds of miles away from home.

But before embarking on my search for Neeraj, I attended a ceremony hosted by Neeraj’s mother and the other mothers of the village — a ceremony held at the crack of dawn on the morning after my arrival in Rajasthan. Through the ceremony, the mothers were asking the Goddess Sheetla to protect their children against smallpox. Although the disease has been eradicated, this tradition is still perpetuated.

The next day, while I was interviewing the parents, they received a phone call from an uncle, who informed them of Neeraj’s whereabouts a few hours’ drive from her home village. So off we went. We knew it was not going to be easy to find Neeraj in the vast region of Rajasthan, and alas, by the time we got to the place Neeraj was expected to be, she was already gone. No one could tell us in which direction she had headed.

After several other attempts, we settled for filming “around” Neeraj’s life: her parents, sister, friends, and even her school. Luckily for us, three months after our first visit, we learned that Neeraj was once again back home and back in her night school. Needless to say, it was impossible to let this opportunity pass us by. I was more than eager to pursue the second part of the adventure and finally meet Neeraj. No matter how compelling those images of her absence may have been, there was no one better to evoke Neeraj’s experience than Neeraj herself.

When I did finally meet Neeraj, I was quite impressed by her; she had grown and matured quite a bit since the young woman I saw portrayed in WIDE ANGLE’s last show. She was much more at ease, confident, and quite vociferous about her determination for a different life than her parents — one that only a good education could help provide. Her desire was to go to day school like most of the boys in order to get, in her own words, “a real job” such as a civil servant in the military or the police force. Though in the meantime she has to settle for night school, like most girls and the less fortunate of her village, and though she must carry on with her daily load of house chores, Neeraj is driven by her dreams of a better life. We all hope she will one day bring her dreams to fruition.

Alexandre Lima, Field Producer in Brazil, 2006

Photo of Alexandre Lima, Field Producer in Brazil.

When I started scouting for “Back To School,” I called up Leslie, the mother of our main character, Jefferson and arranged to go over to her place to have some coffee and talk about the shoot. Between this first afternoon in her house and the day we started shooting, I spent about two months visiting the community where Leslie and her four kids live.

Try to imagine a favela stuck up on a hill, with a population of almost 300,000 people. Here, families of five to eight members usually live in tiny two-bedroom concrete shacks, and yet they’re still able to smile everyday

It’s a place where you can hear all kinds of music, lots of noise, dogs barking, and always hundreds of people walking up and down the narrow streets.

This is Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas in South America. It is ruled and controlled by drug lords and their gang members — a place where the state powers don’t do much for the people unless they are using their police violence against them. It does not matter if a person is a worker or a criminal; the police will shoot first and only after they kill will they find out if the person hit was a worker or a criminal. Located in the most expensive neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha is the most lucrative drug dealing market in town, coveted by drug gang rivals, the police, and the rich neighbors who consume its drugs. A war can start at anytime, without warning. Rocinha has its own rhythm — it plays by its own rules. Once you understand it, you must respect it, and then you will be safe.

Nowadays, a camera has became a threatening weapon in places like this, so in order to film or photograph in a favela in Rio you need to make it clear why you are there and what it is you are shooting. So before I started filming, I made sure I talked to the main characters in order to let them know what I was doing there. First I spoke to the school’s principal, then I went to the community association president, and finally I spoke to the drug dealers. I went to talk to a man surrounded by a few young boys carrying AK-47s, and after the man heard what I had to say, he smiled at me and said these words: “Fé em Deus e nas crianças,” which translates to “Faith in God and in the children.” Then he called me by my name, saying, “Alex, if your work concerns children and education, the favela is yours — you have it. The children are the future and the most precious thing we have; if you are dealing with the children ain’t nobody gonna mess with you around here! Go ahead, do your work, and if you need anything let me know.”

I put my people together, my camera, and my gear, and I started shooting.

By this time, I knew almost every little corner of the favela where we were going to work. The principal and the teachers of the school were willing to help as much as they could, and the community association president had one of his men walk along with us as our guardian angel. The great part was also that Jefferson was having the time of his life participating in “Back to School.”

In a favela there is not only violence and misery, but also much hope and joy among its people. Even knowing that most Brazilian kids won’t encounter the right conditions to go on and finish their education, I still believe that one day the right to be educated will be preserved for all human beings.

Yes, there will be a day when a poor Brazilian kid from a favela won’t have to choose between becoming a criminal or being a soccer star in order to get out of the ghetto.

Bruno Sorrentino, Field Producer in Japan and Romania, 2006

Photo of Bruno Sorrentino, Field Producer in Japan and Romania.

Japan - When I first filmed with Ken two years ago, he was five and just starting school. He was a little nervous about his first day. By then he was already conversant with Hiragana and Katakana, the two phoneticised scripts used in the Japanese language. He could already count and do basic sums, could pen the odd Kanji Chinese character and, to top it all, was already familiar with the Latin alphabet. He crammed in after school classes, and on it went. But this wasn’t to be the story familiar in the West: overworked automatons in Japan’s school system.

Two years on, Ken is one of his school’s best baseball players. He has a terrific sense of humor, is one of the most popular kids in his class, and he enjoys fooling around in the same way kids anywhere else do

Much of the teaching is designed to encourage free and creative thinking to allow the individual inside to develop as much as at any school in the West.

I’m looking forward to revisiting Ken in another couple of years when things may again be different: he’ll soon have to cram extra hard for higher grade exams. But his parents say they want him to just do what he loves doing best. If that means sport, and not bookish subjects, that’s fine by them. We’ll see!

On my last day, I was treated to the entertaining sight of an end-of-term tradition in Japan’s schools: The entire school (some three hundred kids in all) were cleaning their classrooms and scrubbing down the rest of their school — right down to the stairway steps. For an outsider, this was amusing enough, but these kids were cleaning their school by skateboarding and tobogganing across classrooms and corridors on an array of cleaning cloths, dust pans and brooms, sometimes getting up to breakneck speed. They were cleaning in the way only kids know how.

Romania – On our return to Bucharest, we were glad to see Raluca retains her hilarious sense of humor. She speaks a few words of English and French, but because of her ongoing passion for Middle Eastern TV soaps, Raluca sings numerous songs in word-perfect Arabic.

On the face of it, not much has changed in her life. She still spends much of her time outside of school hours in the care of her grandmother because her parents have to work long hours. But what happens in her country will have a profound effect on her future.

Raluca’s hard-working parents have to hold down a number of jobs between them in order to maintain their (by European standards) modest standard of living. When we returned to Romania for our latest update, I looked out for signs, however small, of economic improvement. Just outside of Raluca’s parents’ apartment block, a swanky new shopping mall has just been completed on the site of what used to be an old slum. Other malls and office blocks have sprung up in other parts of town.

But one thing in particular caught my eye at one of the three office jobs that Raluca’s mother holds down. Two years ago, I saw a local advertising publication there; it was just a little bigger than a magazine. Today, it’s the size of a regular telephone directory, with literally hundreds more businesses inside advertising goods and services — a sure sign of an economy that’s picking up.

When we next return, Romania will be a fully fledged member of the European Union. How will the inevitable changes around the corner affect Raluca and her family

Polly Hyman, Field Producer in Afghanistan, 2006
Photo of Polly Hyman, Field Producer in Afghanistan.

I first met Shugufa in early 2004 while filming for “Time For School.” Shugufa is one of 11 children and lives with her huge family in the village of Ashtagram, a few hours’ drive from the capital city of Kabul.

It was a pleasure to return this year to visit this charismatic young girl, now 13-years-old, and see how her life has progressed over the last two years.

I instantly recognized Shugufa’s welcoming smile in spite of the modest veil that now covers her head. She is still full of energy and enthusiasm for her studies, although there was a hint of restlessness that I didn’t see in her before. Perhaps this is typical of all girls of this age, but I suspect that she is becoming anxious about her life and the future of her beloved Afghanistan.

When Hamid Karzai was elected President in 2004, people dreamed that their lives would improve. But a recent increase in insurgent activity and countrywide poverty has created a frustration amongst the Afghan people that did not exist a few years ago. Shugufa and millions like her have seen little change for the better. She continues to go to school and studies hard, but all of this seems fruitless when there are few qualified teachers at her school. She dreams of a happy, educated future where she can earn enough to support her family. I hope that her dreams are possible.

  • Mary Newman

    The “Back to School” series is excellent!! I would like to use it in my middle school classroom. However, I am having trouble finding the entire series on video. Can you help me? Thank you.

  • Larry Farkas

    The courage and determination of these young students is inspiring. We in the United States take for granted that which much of the developing wold struggles with relentless vigor to attain.

  • Grant Jacobus

    We desperately would like to help Joab. Please help us make some kind of contact. Please email familytree42@hotmail.com or call us 231-384-1665

  • Molly

    Excellent, hardbreaking and hope-driving series.

    I too would like to know how Joab is doing, and if there is a way I can help. A way where the help would actually get to he and his brothers.

    (Although I know his father struggles too, it was disheartening and heartbreaking to see him take the food away from his children.)

    Molly
    molfrench@gmail.com

  • Annmarie Singh

    I so very much want to help Joab and his siblings. Please let me know how I can help him directly. He is doing the hardest thing of all–the right thing. He’s staying with his siblings, believing in himself and their future and keeping them going as a family. His efforts cannot go on unassisted. This is a young man of such good character. Please, let me know how I and my family can help him and his family.

    Thank you for such a superb documentary.

    Best,

    Annmarie Singh
    annmarie.singh@gmail.com

  • Kristen

    I too am interested in helping Joab and his siblings. I watched the show and was left with a deep desire to help him and his siblings with shelter, food and education. Please give us viewers direction of how to help him directly. He has touched our hearts and left me speechless and I want to share my blessings with him. It’s clear that others want to help him as well….wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can help him have a better life. Please advise. Thanks

  • Celeste

    Who can we contact about helping Joab and his brother and sister? UNICEF? Please provide a contact point. Thank you.

  • Kathleen Rister

    Please, please give me information on how I could directly help Joab and his siblings! What a fine young man to tackle the responsibility that he has assumed. I may not have a lot to give but it sounds like I’m not alone in wanting to help him. I’d love to be able to help him and his siblings break free from this cycle of poverty and education is the key.

    Kathleen Rister

  • sharon

    I would like to help JoaB, Nanavi, and all the children. Also, want to be a penpal to the children.

  • Debbie

    My husband and I watched the show last night and have not stopped thinking about Joab and his siblings. He is such a mature, courageous young man and we would like to be able to help him and his siblings directly. They deserve a break and noone should have to go without food. Please let me know how we can help him – donation, food, clothing, books anything. We would also love to be able to write to him. Thank you.

  • Jana Rey

    Is it possible to purchase a DVD of this series? I would love to share this series with my foreign language classes. It is so inspiring. I believe all my students would benefit from this series.
    Thank you.

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