When I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya in 2003, Kenya had made primary education free for the first time in decades and thousands poured into an overwhelmed system. My first task, imparted by producer Judy Katz, was to help determine which child we would follow for the next then 12 years to tell the story of this revolution in education. My job was made incalculably easier by hundreds of hours of advance work done by Judy, her colleagues at PBS, and Kenyan production manager Ruby Kang’ethe. The choice was soon narrowed to three possible families.
I mention a few names because I knew very early on that I had the privilege of being brought into a large, dedicated and extraordinary team that was working on several continents at once. The potential choice of Joab and his family was discussed both before and after I met with each of the three children—but I remember feeling that Joab was especially articulate about his hopes and dreams and enthusiasm for education. Filmmakers always look for that special relationship between subject and camera, and Joab had that, but his story was also uniquely illustrative of what was happening in Kenya. Because of the new law, Joab was finally able to start first grade at age 10 in the same classroom as his younger brother, who was 7, and his mother had such high hopes for them. Soon after, and over the years, came the many events of his life that we were able to document, some tragic, some inspirational.
As a filmmaker I have learned much from Time for School. It was a rare opportunity to really follow a story over time and grow in my craft as Joab grew as a human being. After this long immersion, here’s my takeaway on education, which will not surprise professionals in the field: It takes more than free tuition to get a child through. A kid like Joab, who essentially raised himself and his siblings, from age 13 on, needs more than a classroom to succeed. There is no replacement for parenting, mentorship and emotional support. And his battle continues to this day.
As exciting as that first shoot was in 2003, it was also sobering. To see Joab and his family struggle just to eat and to film them during that struggle is a hard ethical dilemma for journalists and documentarians. We are meant to observe and not intervene. That is why —13 years later—I describe the experience of Time for School as alternately rewarding and painful. Rewarding to get to know a special person and be allowed into his life; painful to see all the valleys he’s had to climb out of: loss, abandonment, homelessness, leaving and returning to school multiple times… well, see for yourself.
Click here to read more field notes from the producers.