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June 20, 2005

The Boys of Baraka, 2005

baraka.gifOn a typical summer night in inner city Baltimore, a children's game of cops and robbers shootout plays against the morbid backdrop - undoubtedly in familiar imitation - of a real-life police arrest of a teenager on a neighborhood street. A single statistic posted on black screen provides a sobering context to the children's "art imitating life", role-playing games: that 76% of all African American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. A dedicated middle-school school counselor and program recruiter named Mavis Jackson seeks to remedy this grim statistic by assembling some of the city's greatest "at risk" boys into a school auditorium in order to confront the reality of their situation, explaining that that by the age of 18, as an African American young man in Baltimore, their futures can take on three paths: an orange jumpsuit and a pair of Department of Corrections "bracelets", a black suit and a brown wooden box, or a black cap and gown and a diploma that can also serve to open up opportunities for them. Handing out an information package and application form for a two-year boarding school in Laikipia, Kenya called The Baraka School, Jackson encourages the children to give serious consideration to the educational opportunity, citing that graduation in The Baraka School offers them entry into the city's most competitive schools where most then go on to graduate high school. An introverted, musically inclined (and emotionally closed) boy named Devon who lives with his doting grandmother (and away from his financially unstable, drug-addicted mother) dreams of becoming a preacher. An argumentative boy with a natural aptitude for mathematics named Montrey aspires for a career in science. An academically struggling student named Richard and his thoughtful younger brother Romesh are encouraged by their supportive, strong-willed mother to undertake the journey, realizing that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to change the direction of their future (Asked what would happen if only one of her sons had been accepted into the program, she immediately answers that one would become a king, the other, a killer). Far from the distraction of their desperate surroundings and impersonal institution of the public school system, the boys begin to academically (and emotionally) thrive in the challenges of their new environment, returning home for summer vacation with a newfound sense of maturity, deliberativeness, and character. However, when heightened terrorist concerns and global politics intervene and threaten the future of The Baraka School program at a critical stage in the boys' development, their learned life lessons are soon put to the test. Following the real-time progress of the Baraka boys throughout their formative years (since their recruitment to the school in 2002), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture the depth of intimacy, conflict, poverty, and desolation experienced, not only by the children, but also by their well-intentioned families and guardians who realize the weight of their children's demoralizing environment but feel powerless and financially unable to easily change their circumstances - a sentiment articulated by a concerned father who debates the issue of safety to a program official after hearing the heightened security warnings for the school by commenting that his son has a greater chance of being killed on his own neighborhood street in Baltimore than he does by becoming a victim of a terrorist attack in Africa. In presenting an equally bittersweet, tragic, and affirming portrait of the boys' bifurcated trajectories since their Baraka School experience, the film presents a haunting and complex portrait of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement that defies socially expedient trivializations of human worth, ability, perseverance, and destiny.

*Screened at AFI Silverdocs 2005. The film will premiere in NYC at the HRWIFF on June 23, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch


Hi! I've been following your posts and website for quite some time now. I've even used one of your reviews for a small paper on Mizoguchi! I've been wondering where I can get involved in these film festivals and film writing. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Clifford Hilo on Jun 21, 2005 8:58 PM | Permalink

Hi there, I don't know that there's any one tried and true way to go about it. I'd suggest just going to some of these festivals and for some events like NY Human Rights Watch or the recent NY African Film Festival, there are people handing out pamphlets for people interested in finding out more information about the festival and the works that they support. I started the site back in 1998 because I was trying to learn HTML, and it was because of that online presence that I became involved with Senses of Cinema as they were just starting out. So I guess what I'm saying is, just start with anything (website, blog, college gazette) to build up your portfolio and the opportunities will come from that.

Posted by: acquarello on Jun 21, 2005 9:43 PM | Permalink

Hey... I just stumbled onto your site and I think it's really interesting. I can't see why you don't have more comments than you do... what the hell is wrong with people :)

Well, I just wanted to say that I bookmarked your rss feed and I can't wait to read more, keep up the good work!

Posted by: mike on Jul 22, 2005 1:18 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the encouragement, Mike. I think the comment moderation is probably a deterrent, but the site was getting bombarded with a lot of spam, so I'm trying to keep it under control. I'm also using this section as a catch-all for festival reports, so the feeds come in intermittent waves, rather than semi-regular updates. Oh well, we'll see how it goes... :)

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 22, 2005 8:36 AM | Permalink

You should use the SpamLookup plugin. It rules almost as much as Strictly Film School does.

Posted by: Adam Harvey on Aug 03, 2005 1:50 PM | Permalink

Ah, thanks for the tip. I was waiting to see what's in MT 3.2 before fiddling with the installation, but this one was easy enough to install. I tried MT Blacklist earlier, but this one looks easier to configure and maintain. Nice! :)

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 03, 2005 6:35 PM | Permalink

Very nice and informative site. I put it on my link list. Rock on...

Posted by: Bottom Buzzer on Aug 14, 2005 8:18 PM | Permalink

I watched the video and I really enjoyed it, but I would like to know what happened to the boys after they left Baraka School. I would also like to know if there will be any more opportunities for this type of invention in the future. I'm very interested in the Kenya area of Africa since I am sponsoring a child there.

Posted by: Deborah Griffith on Aug 24, 2006 10:31 PM | Permalink

This is a question that would be better directed to the filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady themselves (try Loki Films) or by the people who run the Baraka empowerment fund rather than a film site. I just saw it at a film festival, I'm not an authority on the subject.

According to the Loki website, Devon (the one who wants to be a preacher) appears to be doing fine and is now mentoring other children. Richard's fate (the older brother) is unknown, he had some early success appearing as a guest on Homicide (presumably facilitated by the filmmakers), but he's dropped out of school. This is one year old information though, when I saw the film.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 25, 2006 7:49 AM | Permalink

Malcolm (13yrs) noticed the video on cable, and was instantly drawn to the story. He was very moved by the various situations and backgrounds of the boys. Malcolm thought that being in Africa made a major impact on the willingness of the boys, as well as the changes that they made. Where are the boys? Malcolm is interested in going to Africa himself.

Posted by: Malcolm c/o Marlissa his mom on Sep 14, 2006 12:07 AM | Permalink

i just saw this documentary on pbs last night, and needless to say its was incredibly moving and an A+

just thought id throw my little tidbit in there.

Posted by: tony on Sep 18, 2006 4:00 PM | Permalink

Info on purchasing video please

Posted by: Rosa Ngemi on Nov 04, 2006 6:48 AM | Permalink

It's readily available on DVD, like Amazon.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 04, 2006 8:46 AM | Permalink

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