Co-director Eddie Martinez talked with us about his exceptional new film "To Be Heard," Eddie was here in 2010 for his cinematography work on Charlotte Glynn's "Rachel Is" and returned along with co-director Deborah Shaffer and star Pearl Quick.....".
I live in Inwood in northern Manhattan, right across the river from where I grew up in the Bronx, which is just across the street from the high school featured in the film. I went to a different school, but my younger brother– who was the sound guy– went there for his senior year and my mother works there as well. She was the reason I got connected with the project.
Are you working on anything new?
I'm looking at doing short projects. After five years' work on To Be Heard, I could use a break. Some creative recharging. I'm working on a PSA.
So whose idea was To Be Heard?
Roland, Amy and Joe had wanted to document, somehow, what they're doing for quite some time. They didn't quite know how to do it. At the end of 2005, there was a Spring Slam, where the kids in the Power Writing class get everyone excited for the years' work. It's a fundraiser and a party. In 2005, Deborah Shaffer was there and got really excited about the kids and what they're doing. She was the catalyst. She said, “Let’s make this film!” Roland and Amy wanted to document it, but they were busy teaching, so they contacted me and we started shooting.
There are four directors listed on the webpage, two of whom are Power Writing teachers. What was your role in making the film, specifically?
My role as director happened organically. At first I was a cinematographer but I became really invested in the work, the kids and the story. I started taking a deeper ownership in the project as a whole rather than just being a hired gun. I started scheduling and planning things. I kind of stepped up into more of a leadership role. Then they asked me to cut it, though I wasn't trained as an editor.
TBH does a wonderful job of showing an outsider teaching style which asks the students to not only write, but perform, revise, and analyze the work of peers. It is certainly an unconventional way of teaching storytelling as therapy. Do you see this program moving to different school districts?
The Power Writing teachers have worked at other schools in NYC with different student populations. This is the first step to finding out if the program is replicable and that is huge when you're looking at apparently unique programs. There are two major aspects to the PW program. It's obviously the people in the room, the trust, and the relationships between them. The other thing is the approach to language as power, and how they deal with these kids. There's something very simple about the core rules of the class that don't exist in other educational spaces. The rules do a lot to create a space.
There's the main maxim, which is in the film: "If you don't learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you". The rule the kids tell the other students is what's said in the room stays. You can say what you need to say here, then go to the place you need to go. But you aren't going to hear about it in the hallway. And the kids respect it. It's amazing. They're in a volatile environment. They approach language as a weapon – as active, powerful. The culture of the space is definitely extendable if other schools and administrations out there are willing to taking those risks.
Do you see the film helping replicate this teaching philosophy?
I hope people will be convinced that there is value to challenging new people to take ownership over their own lives. The PW teachers are putting together information on how to bring this work into your classroom. We can convince people about the value of the work, then offer people access to information on how to bring it into your classroom. We're also creating an outreach platform for power poetry. It's a platform where kids share poetry with each other via cells or internet. Then, content of the poetry can be connected to non-profits. The platform would allow teachers to interact with that space as well. The teacher could bring this tool to a classroom, along with proper study guides, and create their own module. We're trying different, off-the-wall ideas to try to expand PW into classrooms.
Why did you choose Pearl, Anthony and Karina over any other PW students?
The class form fluctuates a lot, it’s a fluid body politic. Anthony and Karina were the strongest poets around in '05 and '06, and it was their last year in school. Originally, we were planning to make a film about the program, told through a small subset of poets. The concept evolved into something less about the program and more about the characters' real lives. I don't feel people care about programs as much as people. You've got to care about people in order to care about other worlds and interesting places.
Did the filmmakers' presence foment a stronger friendship bond between Pearl, Anthony and Karina?
Making a film, you always impact the world you're portraying and the world of the characters. I don't think we made them friends. Yet, we likely fostered a new aspect of their friendship that was very strong and unique - their making this film together - but they weren't hanging out just because of the film. They hang out all the time and have a vibrant relationship outside of the film, which we were able to capture. They were all in the same school, but the PW class bonded them. They saw themselves as the stronger poets in the class. That's what brought them together in the first place.
Pearl is teaching?
she's teaching at her sister’s high school. She likes it. Her real ambition is to start a girls' program in the Bronx - a center for young girls' issues. Her teaching this class is the first step to creating her own thing and to giving back a lot of what she's learned. And this fall she's going to attend City College here in NYC.
In the second half of the film, there is an unexpected major life change for one of the characters. Tell me about experiencing this type of curve in the road as a documentary filmmaker. Were you thinking, “this is a bad thing to happen” or “this is good material”?
Sometimes the bad stuff's good material. We see them [the films subjects] as people first. My initial reaction was despair and sadness. When you're close to [one of the characters], you condition yourself to not being surprised by anything. We didn't realize it was “good material” until we were editing later on. Someone said, “it complicates the story, you've got to show it”. It's real life. If you stick with characters who have enough to say, real life makes it so you don't have to create things.
How have the screenings gone?
We finished our cut literally the night before the DOC NYC film festival, November 3rd . The festival was on Wednesday. Tuesday at 10 pm I was finishing the film and I took it right to the festival, literally still warm from the deck. We haven't had many screenings. We're having a screening at the Renessaince Charter school in East Harlem, a new school where Power Writing now teaches. At the big screening at DOC NYC everyone was there. The teachers, the three kids, and other Power Writers.
There was a lot of anxiety from Anthony, Pearl and Karina as to how they're being portrayed. There are intimate moments, close, sensitive things for people to see in the wrong kind of context. Anthony, Pearl and Karina are used to seeing a ghettoization of people like them on T.V. and film. They are societally portrayed as victims. “I'm poor, black, let me find some white people to help me out of my misery”. It took them some time to get over the simple fact that they were in a film. Pearl said, after seeing the film, “You don't treat us like victims, you treat us like fighters”. They're going through some serious stuff, but they're fighting through it. They could stand behind an image of themselves as fighters and could stand up saying, “even in our darkest moments we're not giving up. Not on ourselves”.
I noticed the editorial decision to not show very much of the troubled home lives the kids talk about on screen. You let them talk about a rough time at home, but you never really need to show it.
It's something we wrestled with a lot. We have to convey the badness. We wrestled with finding the balance between how much information the audience needs to see what's going on, and what we want to dwell on. The film is allegorically one of their poems. It's really about their telling of their own life story. We're facilitating that. We had to be careful of showing them spending time in their home spaces, because people have seen that before. We just had to fill in the gaps.