May 02, 2011
Film Blogging: Ebertfest in Champaign
Posted by Christine Hurt

My apologies for blog silence last week.  The fates aligned so that the two biggest non-university events in Champaign-Urbana hit simultaneously last week:  Ebertfest and the Illinois Marathon.  Between those two festivities and the last week of classes, I was pretty well booked.  (Ask me sometime about finishing the Saturday morning half-marathon, changing at the law school and walking 1.5 miles with determination to get to the theater by 11:00.  I think the walk helped with post-race stiffness; sitting in the theater for the next five hours, however, did not.) 

My two favorite films were documentaries, and you may be able to catch them in the future, so I thought I would bring them to your attention.  They both chronicle similar stories of youth competition, differing only in the magnitude of the consequences of losing.

A Small Act -- If you've ever wondered whether your monthly $30 payment to a child you'll never see actually makes a difference, then you have to see this film about Chris Mburu, a Kikuyu native of Kenya, who was sponsored by a Swedish woman so that he could go to secondary school for $15 a month.  From his rural village, he went on to the University of Nairobi (which was free, but only 10% of secondary school students qualify to attend), then to receive an LL.M. from Harvard.  Throughout this journey, he credited the faceless stranger Hilde Back with his success, the catalyst that allowed him to be the only child from his village that year to go to secondary school.  As a U.N. worker in human rights, he began a foundation named after his benefactor to give similar scholarships and eventually met Ms. Back, a very ordinary woman of average means who emigrated to Sweden as a child from Germany in 1938.  The film not only chronicles their relationship, but also the work of the fund in the incredibly difficult task of choosing children to sponsor to secondary school, knowing that the children that are not sponsored will not be educated and will probably not escape poverty.  As heartbreaking as the task is, Chris and his cousin Jane, who followed in his footsteps from their village, also with the help of a Swedish sponsor, perform their job admirably.  The underlying theme is (probably self-evident) that tiny acts may not change the world, but they may change a life and have ripple effects to others.

Louder Than a Bomb -- This film owes a lot to the other "geeky competition" documentaries that came before (Spellbound, Wordplay), but it also has a lot in common with A Small Act.  The students here are in competition, but the prize does not lift them out of their daily struggles as much as the journey to the competition does.  Here, our children are Chicago high school students competing in the eight annual poetry slam competition called "Louder Than a Bomb," or LTAB for insiders.  While watching 12 year-olds spell words you've never heard of has some attraction, watching 17 year-olds perform their own poetry is absolutely mesmorizing.  And much of this poetry is drawn from raw, personal experience -- child abuse, alcoholism, drive-by shootings, school shootings, and teenage pregnancy.  Though the subject matter is shocking, the gift of these poems is not shock value but the thoughtfulness and perceptiveness of the author/performer.  (The group slam Counting Graves will haunt me for some time.)  Some poems are not "ripped from the headlines" but are nevertheless moving because of universal insights into the human condition.  (Nate Marshall's poem about being a poet; Adam Gottlieb's poem Maxwell Street about racism.)  Familiar with this genre, you realize that not everyone will win, but for these kids, winning isn't going to be the difference between college and no college.  Fittingly, the motto of LTAB is "The point is not the point, the point is the poetry."

If you see these documentaries play near you, change whatever plans you have and go.  I took my eleven year-old to see LTAB, and she loved it.

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