Filmmakers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan talk about "Muppet Power," the challenges in filming abroad and the longevity of Sesame Street.
What led you to make THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET?
The first time that we heard about Sesame’s international work was when we heard that the Workshop was trying to boost girls’ literacy by way of its Egyptian co-production and its new girl Muppet Khoka. Upon further research we found that there were culturally specific co-productions around the world focusing on each country’s specific needs. We were fascinated that something so inherently American, that we grew up with, could be used all over the world to educate children of so many different nationalities and backgrounds.
When we started to research the co-productions, we became fascinated that Muppets could be the catalyst for social change. Through Sesame’s international co-productions, Muppets are tackling the world’s biggest issues for two to six year olds. As Ed Christie, the Muppet designer for the Jim Henson studios said, “Kids will listen to a Muppet say things in a way that they can’t hear from adults.”
How did you decide upon the countries and specific issues to document?
We sat down at the Sesame Workshop offices in New York City with Cooper Wright, who oversees all of the international producers at the Sesame Workshop. She introduced us to the producers, who told us about all of their projects and what phases of production they were in. We chose Kosovo because the Kosovars would be creating their show based on the idea of mutual respect and understanding, using the Sesame model from their Middle East programs. Although the ethnic conflict came to head in 1999, tensions and hatred between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians are still intense. They wanted to design a curriculum which could “humanize the other” for young children hoping to ease tensions in further generations. We chose South Africa because their show focused on acceptance of kids/people with HIV/AIDS, which is probably the most pressing issue facing that country today. And we selected Bangladesh primarily because they were just getting underway there and the chance to document the entire process of a co-production was a great opportunity.
What did you want to achieve with THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET?
Linda Hawkins Costigan: There are several things that we hope that people take from the film. Number one is reflected in a quote that Anu Gupta of Sesame Workshop said: “Children are not born haters, they are taught to hate.” We were so surprised to find three- and four-year-old Serbians and Albanians in Kosovo talking about each other with distrust and hatred. We hope that people understand that our actions and speech have repercussions.
Linda Goldstein Knowlton: I keep thinking about this quote from Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Sesame Street was born of a conversation between two people. The co-productions are all born of conversations between people who want to change the future of their countries. What if we all asked ourselves, “What difference do I want to make?” And every day, we did one thing to achieve it?
What has the audience response been so far?
We have shown the film at several film festivals including Sundance, Hot Docs and Seattle. The audiences really responded well to the film. What was so great for us as filmmakers was that we had real cross-generational audiences from junior high school students, to university grads, moms dad and grandparents alike—and the response was the same with all of them!
How did you go about coordinating all the coverage of the countries?
Because the filmed spanned so much geography and time, we had two primary crews that we traveled with, and hired local crews that we could theoretically call at a moment’s notice.
What were some of the challenges you faced in filming in multiple different locations abroad?
The biggest challenge was definitely dealing with the infrastructure of the countries we were in. Bangladesh was, without a doubt, the most challenging. Communication via telephone and Internet was inconsistent at best, not to mention language barriers and the 13-hour time difference.
Kosovo was also logistically challenging, but in a different way. Because the region is divided according to ethnicity, everything was more complex, particularly travel and communication. For example, when traveling in Serbian enclaves, your car had to have Serbian license plates, and Albanian plates when traveling in the rest of the region. We also had to find two crews, one Serbian and one Albanian to film in each region. If one crew went to shoot in another’s territory, we would be jeopardizing their safety. Finally, security was very tight and after the riots in 2004 there was real concern for the safety of our crews.
Sesame Street was launched in 1969 and yet, as you document, it is still going strong in many countries. To what do you attribute its success and popularity?
There are a few things that make Sesame Street an ongoing success. Number one is that even after 36 years on the air, Sesame Workshop still views itself as an experiment. They are constantly re-evaluating themselves to make sure that they are up to date in how they communicate with both children and adults. They adapt to changing social trends and cultures, while still not straying from the original mission “to help each child reach their highest potential.”
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The money… ha ha ha ha!
What is your favorite Sesame Street character, and why?
It is so hard to choose! They all have so many great and relevant qualities. We actually believe that several of the Muppets would make great politicians. For example: We’d make Ernie and Bert co-president (we find working as a team makes us more creative and reasonable). We hope they would be a bit nepotistic and appoint some of the other Muppets to certain cabinet posts: The Count in the Treasury, Cookie Monster at the Food and Drug Administration, Grover as chief of staff, Khoka (who teaches girl empowerment and education on the Egyptian co-production) as secretary of education, Big Bird as secretary of defense and Kami (the HIV-positive muppet from South Africa) as secretary of state.
What do you think were some of the greatest successes of the Sesame Street co-productions profiled in the film?
The biggest successes were of course accomplished by the people on the ground trying to get their shows made and on the air. We were able to see, in all of the countries that we profiled, great obstacles that would have easily deterred the show from going on air. In Kosovo, where the war ended between the Serbs and Albanians five years ago, there is still uneasiness and fear. We witnessed and filmed Kosovar Serbs and Albanians sit across from each other to discuss the making of Rruga Sesam and Ulitcza Sesam—despite the animosity they still felt for each other. These people were inspired to make something better for their children. In Bangladesh, the creators of the show had to deal with the worst floods in ten years that halted production and even displaced some of the creative team, political grenade attacks and consistent political strikes—but they persevered and completed the show. In South Africa, Kami, the HIV-positive puppet, is destigmatizing HIV/AIDS for the millions of children affected or infected by the disease.
What are your three favorite films?
Goldstein Knowlton: Harold and Maude, My Life As A Dog, Amadeus, To Kill A Mockingbird, Out of Africa, Raising Arizona
Hawkins Costigan: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brokeback Mountain, Wonderful and Horrible Life of Leni Rienfenstahl, Truly Madly Deeply
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Hawkins Costigan: I don’t know if I could call them direct influences for THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET, but there are a few films that I have really resonated for me. The first is Stephanie Black’s documentary Life and Debt. It not only opened my eyes to the sometimes personal and devastating effects of the World Trade Organization’s policy, but also showed me, amongst other things, that a documentary can be both beautifully stylized and still tell an important story. Ray Mueller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl is a constant reminder that things are rarely black and white. After watching the film six or seven times, the question of Riefenstahl’s motives still linger. Was she a Nazi supporter or merely a self-involved artist? When I saw Steven Silver’s The Last Just Man I knew that it was a film that I would never forget. I had no idea that a story told completely in that past, using archival materials and a sit-down interview could be as emotional and compelling as watching verite action unfold. It is a devastating film and after four years, it still haunts me. And very recently, Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare challenges editorial structure by daring to build to the thesis of his film in the last ten minutes. His characters show how people are affected by capitalism on a local and global level.
Goldstein Knowlton: I’d say Hal Ashby’s films have had a huge creative influence on me: Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, The Last Detail. He had an incredible ability to capture all the shades of human nature. Working with Niki Caro on Whale Rider has also been a great inspiration. Other narrative films that mean a lot to me are Dr. Strangelove and My Life as a Dog. As for documentaries, some of my favorites are Hoop Dreams, Spellbound, The Thin Blue Line, Legends, Hands on a Hard Body and Bowling for Columbine. These films move me because even though the situations and people are so disparate, they all highlight our common humanity.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
This film was a passion project. We could make this film for the rest of our lives. There are so many stories to tell that should have been included, but there wasn’t enough time. Sesame Workshop is creating shows in Israel, Palestine and Jordan and starting new co-productions in Indonesia and India. They are even doing public service announcements in response to the war in Israel and Lebanon, and that is a fraction of what they are doing.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Wishing we were. Or growing olives in Italy…
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Make your films. Don’t let anyone discourage you or your vision.
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