Thursday, February 23, 2006

Paradise Found - Paradise Lost - The Heartbreak of The Boys of Baraka

The Boys of Baraka is a documentary about a dozen boys that are invited to leave a crime-ridden neighborhood in Baltimore and spend a year at a special school in Kenya. The boys and their families are interviewed throughou film and they discuss the lack of resources and the inability to conceive of a healthy future given the options and the overwhelming statistics at hand. One of the principal claims that drives the film is that only 25% of African American males in the neighborhood graduate from high school.

The boys travel to the Baraka School, which is located in an environment that defies most Americans' definition of rural. Their living quarters have no televisions, no electricity during certain hours, limited running water, no local "conveniences", etc. The boys can walk short distances from their living quarters to observe zebras, hippos and other forms of wildlife. After an initial adjustment the boys begin to flourish, and many reach honor roll status by the end of the year. The film shows certain conflict resolution the Baraka School uses that are familiar to programs like Outward Bound, which place inner-city kids in nature in order to have them manage their feelings and behaviors against rugged natural elements and tough physical challenges. Many of the boys lose their desire to fight - since they themselves are nearly all they have to remind them of home - and many begin to cherish each other's friendships and develop new-found respect for others and themselves.

The film does an excellent job of not forcing an obvious point: that once removed from the perils of their inner-city environmnet, the majority of their negative behaviors change and they acheive a variety of success in a relatively short period of time (one year). Viewers are left with some tough questions on how we can change the dynamics of the urban jungle - or the dynamics of the urban classrooms that have failed so many of our children. What is painfully clear is that we are failing the children of improverished neighborhoods when we offer them so little and expect so much in return.

The close of the film ushers a new wave of frustration over the problems that plague the children. When the escalating war in Kenya threatened the security and safety of the boys, and after the closing of the U.S. Embassy, the Baraka School was forced to shut down and the boys were not allowed to return. The families who were offered a glimmer of hope that they might have found a way out of the ghetto for their children were left to their own devices to carry on. While the disappointment was considerable, some of the boys carried on with newfound inner discipline and strength while others fell prey to the usual suspects: drugs, violence, and the self hatred and self destruction that so often accompanies abject poverty.

The Boys of Baraka is a wakeup call for anyone who believes schools have all the money they need and that we as a nation are meeting the challenges of educating ALL of our children. It seems fairly clear that the kids we ignore every day who fall prey to circumstances beyond their control are so often the children who long to be challenged and inspired and who rize to the occasion when they are given the opportunity. Viewing the film may inspire viewers to hold our local, state and federal governments accounable for educating our children, and that it is not a privilege to receive a decent education in a safe environment, but an inalienable right that all children deserve.

The Boys of Baraka is playing in Berkeley at The Act 1 & 2 (I believe), and in San Francisco at the Lumiere. There weren’t too many people in the theater when I saw it and that usually means that with independent documentaries like this, it will probably leave theaters soon.

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