The ITVS-funded documentary To Be Heard looks at a unique poetry class in the Bronx for at-risk youth where anything can be said or shared. The film was produced and directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Amy Sultan, Deborah Shaffer, and Eddie Martinez – a combination of seasoned filmmakers, educators, and instructors in the Power Writers program. ITVS’s Kate Sullivan Green spoke with all four about their nearly seven-year journey of making the film, the importance of literacy, and their online companion, Power Poetry. To Be Heard is playing in January on public television. Additional online-only content will accompany the film in the months ahead.
How did you all come together to make this film?
DEBORAH SHAFFER: On a rainy night in April 2005, I decided to drop in on a benefit poetry reading and fell in love. Anthony, Karina, and Pearl all performed that night and I was bowled over by the sheer power of their voices. Amy was an old co-parent from kindergarten days, and Roland and I had known each other as a fellow filmmaker, as we had both made films about Nicaragua in the late ’80s.
Eddie had been introduced to Roland at University Heights HS by his mother Lillian de Jesus, the social worker in the film, and he was filming the benefit that night. It was my suggestion that they make a film about these remarkable kids and the class. Roland proffered that it would be a good idea to have an outside voice, i.e. mine. A few meetings later, we decided to start filming over the summer and see where it went. Our initial idea was to follow the classroom for the academic year, 2005-2006.
AMY SULTAN: From the very beginning of our Power Writing adventure at University Heights it was clear as day that the kids and their words were beautiful and astonishing in their honesty and bravery. And we knew that it would be transformative if a wide audience could see into the world these kids live in and understand just how much extraordinary determination it takes to rewrite the narrative you are born into. It was a great gift when Deborah saw the powerful story that we saw and wanted to collaborate on this film with us.
How did you decide on your three main characters – Karina, Anthony, and Pearl?
EDDIE MARTINEZ: When we first started making To Be Heard, we set out to make a film about the Power Writing program following the class for one academic year as our main characters graduated and headed off to college. Absolutely none of that actually happened. As the lives of the handful of students we were following primarily began to take unexpected turns, we were compelled to follow a longer timeline.
However, it wasn’t until I attended the NALIP Latino Producer’s Academy where we refocused our film to fully be about the life stories of our three main characters Anthony, Pearl, and Karina. There, I realized that we needed to follow a character driven story and let the lives of these three, “the tripod,” guide us to where and what our film would become.
ROLAND LEGIARDI-LAURA: I would add that as the filming progressed the nature of the relationship between the three young writers became a clear and compelling component of the narrative. This “tripod” friendship added a layer to the storytelling that distinguishes this film from other multi-character documentaries. Often in multi-character narrative docs the stories follow parallel tracks, but these individual narratives rarely intersect deeply and emotionally. Having this added layer gives the audience another way to understand and engage with the characters.
AS: I would only add that another factor in focusing on Karina, Pearl, and Anthony was the very close relationship we had with these young people and their families prior to filming. The strong bonds between us allowed the film to explore the family dynamics with a level of honesty that would have been impossible otherwise. And I really have to underscore how courageous the mothers were during this journey.
What are some of the responses you’ve received at screenings?
AS: It’s been absolutely great traveling with Pearl, Anthony, and Karina as the film has traveled the country and now Europe. The adulation they receive is wonderful to see and these experiences have transformed the way these kids see themselves and that is a gift to all of us as filmmakers. It has also been gratifying to have audiences respond so positively to the work that goes on in the power writers’ classes.
EM: After our first ever screenings outside of New York City, at the very awesome True/False film festival, Pearl said to me wildly, “People just keep hugging me and crying!” That basically sums it up. By what people have told us they just feel so moved by the power, honesty, and courage of Anthony, Pearl, and Karina and privileged to have been granted such intimate access to their lives. While there are many films about poor, young, brown people struggling to overcome — people all over the U.S. seem to agree that there is something special about our film that transcends films they’ve seen before.
RLL: What has been the most moving for me at screenings was seeing the audiences both laugh and cry during the film. It was at those moments that I knew we had managed to tell a story that held within it universal significance.
You not only have the Power Writers Program in the Bronx and an award-winning documentary film – you also have an online companion project, Power Poetry. Tell us about that.
RLL: Thanks to the support of ITVS, The Fledgling Foundation, BAVC, The Good Pitch, and Working Films — we have been able to design, develop and, will soon launch the world’s first mobile/online poetry community for youth.
Power Poetry is a mobile transmedia environment that will permit youngsters to share their poetry on a national and eventually on a global scale. Young writers will be able to compose, compare, comment upon, and collaborate using their poetry. They will have, for the first time, a space that allows them to use all literary creativity and express themselves with text, audio, and video. But further, and perhaps even more significantly, Power Poetry will link up young people with the great causes and social issues of their time. We will create partnerships not only with the spoken word organizations around the world but also with a vast array of NGOs that seek to be change agents.
A young writer might, for example, write a poem about missing her dad, who is in prison. We will share that poem with organizations working on prison reform. One outcome of course, could be that her poem gets posted on the site of a prison reform NGO, but even better, what if that organization is so impressed with the writing skills of that young poet that they hire her to help them write the literature for their upcoming campaign? Now we will have created a way to encourage youngsters to use their words, their writing, to change the world and maybe even get paid for their creative work.
The great thing about Power Poetry is that the inspiration, the idea itself, comes directly from the kids we teach. Several years ago we began noticing that our students had mostly stopped writing in the beautiful leather bound journals we had given them. Instead they were composing, storing, sharing, and reciting directly from their cell phones or iPods. Rather then get defensive about this shift we thought, “Why not embrace it and support this shift fully?” Hence … Power Poetry.
Why is poetry and writing important, particularly for at-risk youth? Do you think all creative outlets have a similar impact in some way?
EM: There are a lot of studies on the power and effectiveness of arts education on struggling students and disadvantaged populations. And at some level you could replace the poetry with another program and it would be effective because much of what happens in Power Writing and what these teenagers lack are healthy, positive relationships with their teachers. Statistics show that having just one such relationship makes you nine times more likely to graduate and go to college. However, what happens in the Power Writing program is specifically empowering because at the core it isn’t about poetry, it is a class about literacy and self determination.
You see it the first day of each year when each student is given the tools they will need to take back agency over their life, a journal, a dictionary, and a map. Throughout each student’s time in Power Writing they develop the ability to use these tools and read the world around them so that they can then walk it more consciously and with purpose. That is why Power Writing is special. It does what most places of schooling are too afraid or unwilling to do; to let young people wake up, think critically, and follow their own paths.
RLL: The sad reality is that the U.S. is in the midst of a massive literacy crisis. And it is not just affecting our “at-risk” youth, it touches all of us: It touches the very spinal cord of our democracy.
Here are a couple of hair-raising facts obtained from a close read of the information available from The National Center For Educational Statistics (NCES): Roughly two-thirds of all the men and women enmeshed in our penal system are functionally illiterate. That amounts to about four million out of the six million folks who are either locked up, on parole, or on probation! What does that mean? It means that being able to read well is the clearest disincentive we have for criminal behavior. There is no other common denominator amongst our prison population — race, class background, family history — as broadly represented in this particular portion of our population. If you don’t know how to read and write and express yourself, you are pretty much on your way to jail in this country.
So yes, reading and writing and public speaking are absolutely essential literacies. Without them we falter as individuals and as a society. Poetry is the music the soul makes using words and being able to read and write and recite poetry are very clear paths to literacy, perhaps the best paths because poetry empowers individuals to use their own words to explore themselves and the world around them.
Can you have this type of experience with other expressive art forms: music, dance, painting, sculpture? Absolutely! All expressive art forms are pathways to the human spirit. The great thing about words though is the fact that words are also very precise tools that human beings have learned to use to shape their environment. Words are the building blocks of thought. They are in many ways what makes us human. Without language it is very hard to change, to grow. We Cro-Magnons were able to eclipse Neanderthals because we were better at communicating through language.
AS: Roland’s answer is intellectual and thoughtful. My response to this question is less about the formal aspects of literacy acquisition (hugely important in our teaching process) and more focused on how genuine emotional expression is a tool of liberation.
It is a revelatory experience when young people are truly seen and heard for the gifted people they are at heart. In Power Writing it is often the very first time that a young person will know what it is like to experience acceptance and deep appreciation for their words, their thoughts, and their deepest emotions without judgment. The sanctity of the “safe space” creates a zone of freedom where students feel protected as they test and refine their self-expression. While all genuine creative outlets hold the key to self-awareness, the unique experience of writing and speaking your own poetry is particularly liberating.
What’s one important lesson each of you learned from making this film?
EM: The single biggest lesson I learned in making To Be Heard is in finding the balance between listening to others’ feedback and trusting my own instincts. There were countless times when I was given advice, suggestions, or direction I felt was not right for the film and each time I ignored these inner gut feelings I regretted it later on. That said, this film is also really made by the community of friends and filmmakers who saw (often repeatedly) our many rough cuts over our unusually long editing period. Their feedback and the conversations they sparked were instrumental in getting us to the finish line.
DS: Despite the fact that I’ve been making documentaries for many, many years, most of them have been historical in nature and have had more clearly delineated outcomes from the beginning. I realized as we were partway through To Be Heard that I had never actually made a truly verite documentary before, where the future was completely unknown. It was both exhilarating and unnerving, and taught me the importance of always being open and ready as things unfold. It also reinforced how incredibly risky this documentary process is, and taught me even greater respect for my fellow filmmakers and the great heights documentary film has achieved in recent years.
RLL: Making To Be Heard reinforced for me the importance of honest, courageous, and respectful collaboration in the documentary process. Each of us could have made this film on our own but in the end I am absolutely positive that by working and struggling together over the five plus years it took to make this film, we ended up with a piece that was much stronger than any of us could have made individually.
In reality, making a documentary is always a collaborative process but the concept that the lone “auteur” expressing his or her vision is the best way to achieve a powerful film will never have the same resonance for me. In fact, it seems rather a silly romantic relic to me at this point in my own work as an artist and I have come to see much more clearly that all good art is drawn deeply from the well of collaboration.
AS: Making this film has been a long slog. But there has been much joy in the collaboration, even though there were times when it was a struggle to find common ground. We each had a vision and each of those visions shaped the final film.
What’s one piece of filmmaking advice you’ve received at any point in your career that’s been particularly memorable and useful?
DS: I’m going to pass on advice that I give film students when I teach. One of the most important qualities to have as a documentarian is persistence. One simply cannot take “No” for an answer, or stop because of barriers. You have to find another way around, and just keep at it. Also, it’s important to develop a very thick skin. There is so much rejection, in funding, programs, festivals, etc. that you simply cannot take it personally in order to survive. And lastly, make sure you love what you are doing. It is far too hard otherwise.
RLL: Love the subject matter of your documentary. If you want to make a strong film you are going to have to live with it for quite a while. In order to do this you will need to truly love the story you are trying to tell, the ideas and the people in your film.
AS: Have patience, forbearance, and above all humor. And yes, a deep commitment to the people and the story you need to tell.
To Be Heard is airing on public television starting in January. Check local listings. Find out more about the film’s online companion, and the world’s first mobile poetry community for youth, Power Poetry, here.