Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is the film about?

Heidi Ewing: The Boys of Baraka is a documentary film about a group of 20 inner-city African-American boys who leave home to go to school at the Baraka School, located in the bush of Kenya, East Africa. The school was created as an answer for boys who have a lot of potential and a lot of smarts, but who are not getting the kind of nurturing and care they need in their schools, as Baltimore is one of the top five worst public education systems in the country.

Rachel Grady: We followed the boys during their first year at the Baraka school. We checked in on them three times and filmed the ways in which they were changing. They then came home for the summer and spent two months in Baltimore. Right before they were supposed to go back to Kenya for their second year, the news broke that the school was being dissolved, and that the boys had to go back to the same miserable middle schools that they were originally in.

POV: Tell us more about the Baraka School and its philosophy.

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Ewing: The theory of the Baraka school is that if you take a group of at-risk boys who have a lot of potential, who want to change themselves, and you remove them from negative surroundings, difficult households, drug-infested blocks and overcrowded classrooms, and give them a chance to learn and be out of the mix for a couple of years, that they can turn themselves around and come back home to go on to be extremely productive members of society.

At the Baraka School there are extremely small classes, so kids who might have been slipping through the cracks previously in a larger classroom, where teachers wouldn't have noticed that they're not learning anything or that they can't read, can no longer slip through the cracks. Suddenly all these things become clear and the students get very specialized attention.

Boys of Baraka - Mavis Jackson, a program recruiter for the Baraka School, interviews Devon Brown.

Mavis Jackson, a program recruiter for the Baraka School, interviews Devon Brown.

The school consists of learning, a little recreation, study hall and lights out at ten o'clock. There's no electricity on campus. There was only a generator for about an hour a day. The students are absolutely transported to the middle of nowhere and there are no distractions, no television, no video games. There is nothing to do but learn and read and play and be boys. In fact, someone in the film says that the Baraka School is wonderful because it lets boys be boys for the first time ever, because a lot of these kids — even though they're 12 and 13 — might be heads of households. There are oftentimes no fathers in the homes. A lot of times there are six or seven brothers and sisters, and these boys basically have become little adults; they haven't had a chance to actually be kids. So being at the Baraka school is a combination of focusing on their studies and also allowing themselves to play, let loose, not have to be so tough and not have to grow up too quickly.

Boys of Baraka - Richard and Romesh, two brothers who were accepted from Baltimore to attend the Baraka School

Richard and Romesh, two brothers who were accepted from Baltimore to attend the Baraka School

POV: What drew you to the subject of this film?

Ewing: I was drawn to the subject because it dealt with children, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film about kids, because I'd never done it before. I was also drawn to the radical nature of this program. It seemed wild to open a school in the middle of nowhere and expect inner-city kids to sign up and go. I thought: What kind of kid would want to do this? And so I was drawn to the courage of the kids.

POV: Why was this story so important to you?

Grady: The things that were important to me about the film changed over the course of filming. First and foremost, I wanted for people to see that these kids who are very much considered to be throwaways were actually dreamers who had hope for themselves. They had a vision of what they wanted their lives to be like, and I think that makes them special. By signing up for the Baraka School, they signed up to completely change their lives, to give up everything, to leave their families, leave television, leave girls, etc., in order to save themselves. The second I met the kids I was totally energized by them and by their passion for life and survival. So for viewers to really see what these kids are like was important to me.

Over the course of filming the story changed, and when the school got canceled, Heidi and I were both crushed. The kids were crushed for a minute, and then they bounced right back, because they are much more resilient than Heidi and I are. I don't know if it's because they're kids, or if it's because they're used to being disappointed, but they were able to bounce back and be fine. In fact, they comforted Heidi and me about the fact that they weren't going to get to go back. So once the school closed, for me, the important thing became to show the system failing the kids yet once again.

The school never had anything but good intentions for the kids, but when they decided to shut it down, there wasn't an emotional aspect to the decision, it was thought of as a business decision. Of course, the school cost a lot of money, and there was a lot of risk for the school to let the kids go to Kenya , but they didn't know Devon like we knew Devon, so they didn't know what the school meant to an individual. Closing the school was a decision that was made at the bottom of an envelope rather than from the bottom of the heart. So that part of the story was important to me: to show that when you give someone a chance, you have to give them a full chance; that you have to keep your promises. Sometimes they can be the difference between survival and failure.

POV: Tell us about the boys who leave Baltimore behind to go to the Baraka School.

Ewing: When I read about this program, what struck me was how brave these kids must be to go to this school. I thought, Who would do this? What 11- or12-year-old kid from anywhere would sign up to leave home for years to give himself an education? When we finally got to meet the kids, when they were being interviewed to sign up for the Baraka School, it turned out to be absolutely true that these were extraordinarily brave kids, and they had a special insight. Every kid who walked in that door wanted to go to the Baraka School. A couple of kids said: I want to get away from these drug dealers out there. Other kids said: I know I could do great in life and I have a lot of potential, but I'm not learning anything in my school. They knew that they could go somewhere in life and they also knew that they couldn't advance in the situations they were in.

POV: How did the boys change after they went to Kenya?

Ewing: Rachel and I saw incredible transformations in every one of the kids who went to the Baraka School. We were shocked, because we would go to Africa to film every few months, and every time, the boys had such a better sense of self. They became competitive with each other in classes, and they would talk about who did a better job on tests, so they really became proud of their academic achievement and their confidence just skyrocketed.

The first couple of months in Kenya were very difficult for the boys. They were definitely testing the counselors, the teachers, trying to rock the system and see how far they could get, which wasn't very far. Once they went past that period, they "got with the program." There was nowhere to go, there's nothing to do, they're not going to go home, and they gave themselves up to the program and said, "Well, I'm here, I might as well give it a try." Ultimately the boys ended up really embracing the program.

It was astounding to see how these kids changed. It was also fun to see how they changed physically. You make a film about kids, you start when they're 11 or 12, and over time, their voices change, they start looking different and talking very funny and get interested in girls. By the end of filming they became totally different people and I think it's fun for the viewer to see their physical transformation in the film as well.

POV: What kind of family structures did the boys come from?

Grady: All of the boys came from families that had varying degrees of dysfunction. The families are from very poor neighborhoods in the inner city, and they have to deal with all the problems that come with being poor in America. Despite that, these are parents who love their kids; they want their kids to succeed and they want them to graduate from high school. They want things to be better for their kids than it was for them. So while there's dysfunction in the families, while it's rough around the edges, there's the same deep love that every parent has for their kid.

POV: How did you feel when you found out that the Baraka program was ending?

Ewing: When we found out the school was closing down, our first instinct was to stop that from happening. So we started sending clips of the film to the board of the Baraka School and the Abell Foundation. We thought that we could try to keep it open, and we couldn't believe this was happening. Then the news really sunk in, and it was a shock to the kids; it was a shock to us. I think we dealt with it worse than they did. The kids were devastated, but for them it was one more disappointment, and they thought, "I've dealt with a slew of disappointments my entire life, I can deal with this."

The closing of the school set up a real conflict for the kids, because part of them wanted to hold onto their experience and what they'd learned, and to keep straight on that path. And the other part of them wanted to forget that it happened at all, and be tough and move on now that they were home again. So there was a conflict in each one of these kids that we could see developing after the first few months when they came home. They tried to stay close to what they'd had, but it was very difficult, because once you go back into that public school system, the peer pressure is incredible. It's extremely frustrating, chaotic and depressing. So they boys started feeling depressed. I hadn't seen that the year before, in Kenya, and I don't blame them: it was depressing for them to have been shown something incredible, to have been given an opportunity, and then to have it ripped away. So there was anger, confusion and conflict within the boys, but their experience has stayed with them, it's inside them. You could still see it in the boys, and they're all trying to do their best. I think they're going to go far.

POV: Why do you think it's important for people to get to know these boys?

Ewing: I think it's important for people to get to know these boys because they represent thousands of kids like them who aren't given any opportunities to succeed and to show what they're made of. These boys represent the potential that inner-city African-American kids have. People often write them off, but they don't understand that these kids have huge potential, and they just need a little push and some help, to be given a shot.

I think impoverished urban communities are written off, and I think that's crazy. These boys show you what somebody can do if they're given an opportunity.

POV: What kind of audiences do you want to see this film?

Grady: I really want children of all backgrounds to see this film, especially kids from 12 to 14. They might be different in a lot of ways, but kids all have some of the same problems. I think that this film really has a strong point of view from the kids' stance, and I'm especially excited for inner-city kids to see it.

I want people in education to see this film. I want people to discuss the possibility of different ways of educating kids and different ways that public education can be applied. I'm not saying that the only way to create change is to create residential boarding schools. That's very specific and it's very radical. It's not practical to suggest that lots of kids be removed from their homes, it's not going to happen, but the Baraka School was a very innovative way of thinking, and I think that there are charter school options that haven't been utilized or thought of. The bottom line is that the status quo is not working, so I want school boards, educators, teachers and kids to see this film so that they can start looking for programs in their community.

POV: How did you decide on the ending of the film? And what should viewers take away from The Boys of Baraka?

Grady: Heidi and I went back and forth on how we should end the film and what the message should be, because some of the kids don't do as well as others. In Baltimore, the public education situation is so bleak, but we didn't want to create this myth that there is no hope. That's just not true. There are thousands of incredibly smart kids who have a vision for themselves. What happens with Richard certainly shows what the majority of kids in that city and in impoverished environments in cities all over this country are dealing with; they have a very slim chance of graduating from high school and having a productive or happy adulthood. But there are kids who are different from that, like Montrey, for example. And with help, there are so many stories like Richard's that can be turned into stories like Montrey's. That's why we ended the film with Montrey. We didn't want the film to end on a bleak note, because there is possibility right here at home.