Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you find out about the Mulberry Bush School? Why did you choose to make a film about it?

Filmmaker Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto: Roger Graef, who is the producer of this film, called me and asked me to visit the school. But I had hated school myself — I attended a very regimented boarding school, a cross between an army camp and a finishing school — and had hated all my teachers, and so I didn't want to make the film. But I went to the school with him for a morning, just to stop him from emailing me, and I kind of fell in love with the school immediately. That's when I decided I really wanted to make this film. I really wanted to show what the Mulberry Bush teachers were doing.

In the U.K. as well as here in the United States, we celebrate people for being thin or rich or famous. We focus on things like Paris Hilton finding her best friend, which I don't care about! At the school, you see these teachers, and they're amazing people who are doing amazing jobs. They are incredibly brave, patient and forbearing, and they are turning the lives of these kids around! And the teachers don't necessarily think they're doing anything particularly good. They never get praised! So I wanted to make the film because to me, they're superheroes.

POV: Can you tell us more about the Mulberry Bush School itself?

Longinotto: The Mulberry Bush School offers a last chance for the kids you see in this film. They've been chucked out of every school; nobody can control them. They've all had some trauma in their lives, or have had something bad happen to them. So they go to the Mulberry Bush School — which is a boarding school — for three years, and the staff tries to find out what their problems are and help the kids through those problems.

The school amazed me the first time I went there. My own school had been very punitive: You always felt like you were in the wrong, and you were always trying just to get through it. But at Mulberry Bush, I saw a kid really acting up and throwing punches. The teachers restrained the kid so he couldn't hurt anybody, and then they asked him, "Why are you behaving like this?" I thought to myself, "Wow, they are really finding out what's the matter with him." The kid started talking very openly about what he was thinking and his problems. It made me realize that their approach was brilliant — it was probably going to prevent this kid from going to prison later on. Because this kid was on a path, he was violent, and once you're on that path, you often go into a spiral and end up in prison. But the approach of the Mulberry School is like a template for how an ideal society would work, in that it's not punishing people; it works to find out what the problem is instead. And it made me think that our prisons should be like that and our schools should definitely be more like the Mulberry Bush School — designed to nurture our kids rather than punish them.

POV: There are some difficult scenes in the film, including scenes where adults are physically restraining children who are acting up. What was your reaction when you first saw that?

Longinotto: I was at the school for three months, and I never once thought the kids were being restrained in a bad way. The men at the school, in particular, were a revelation to me, because they were these very gentle, caring men who were looking after these kids and being almost like fathers to these kids. In the film, there's a scene where a kid is really acting up and hitting. A teacher named Peter is holding him, and by the end of the scene the kid is holding on to Peter, and saying, "Don't leave me." This kid has just heard that his father died, and in that brief scene you can see that his acting out, his fighting, has to do with wanting to be loved and held and wanting reassurance. So I never felt that the restraining was a bad thing. I thought it happened to protect the children and make sure they didn't hurt themselves or anyone else.

POV: Tell us about some of the children in the film and your approach to telling their stories.

Longinotto: I found the kids so powerful; I wanted to know what they had been through and why they were the way they were. And I knew you couldn't show that in the film with commentary. You couldn't say, "This kid has been abused by his dad, and that's why he hates adults." I wanted to tell their stories with subtlety instead.

Ben in the snow

Ben in the snow. Courtesy of Women Make Movies

People who don't like my films don't like them because they're not told what to think. People who like my films like going into a scene, watching it and picking things up themselves. I hope that in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go you can just watch these kids, listen to the things they say and have their lives be revealed to you. There's one scene that springs to mind: Ben, one of my favorite kids in the film, stabs one of the other kids with a fork. The teacher asks, "Why did you do that?" And Ben says, "I don't want to say it with the film crew here." His teacher tells him, "Maybe there's another little kid who's gone through what you've gone through, and he'll see this film, and maybe it'll help him see that he's not alone." Then Ben suddenly starts talking and opening up. He says, "My mum stabbed my dad."

There's another scene with Ben where you meet his mum and you see him interact with her. Watching that scene, I could tell what she was feeling; I could tell what he was feeling; and I could even see the teacher feeling a little bit angry. None of that is something you can tell viewers through commentary, but they can see all of it if they just watch the scene.

POV: So what is Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go ultimately about for you?

Longinotto: For me, it's about what's wrong with England. What's wrong is the way we punish and the violence in our culture, and the Mulberry Bush School shows how our society could be gentler, more nurturing, a better place to live. I hope the film will show a way of dealing with violent kids that's different than just locking them up.