This film is in total contrast to Step. Set in St. Louis it describes the struggles of a young high school student from a poor and underprivileged neighbourhood to overcome incredible obstacles to achieve her goal. The documentary follows her over two years with incredible intimate and emotional scenes. In this case however it is the public school system that comes through. St. Louis has established a school to support kids who for a variety of reasons are not making it in the regular school system. They have been suspended or expelled for a variety of behavioural issues and are placed here for their last chance. The school is however amazingly supportive. Daje is the 17-year-old student who is sent here after being expelled. She understands this is her last chance but circumstances of poverty and racism make it very tough. She is distracted by a boy friend, a pregnancy and birth of her son, Ahkeem, during her senior year. Does she continue or does she drop out to raise her son? In the end, she survives all the ordeals and graduates. The film focusses not only on her amazing story but on the nature of a society that puts many black students in urban America on a school to prison pipeline from which escape is incredibly difficult. One of the great parts of the festival is the Q and A at the end of many films. In this case we had not only the directors but also Daje who gave us more about the story. Sadly her boyfriend and father of Ahkeem did not escape the prison ending and is currently serving 7 years for what amounts to misdemeanours like possession of marijuana, driving while black and not showing respect to the officers who stopped him, and not meeting his parole requirements. Seven years! As for Daje however she starts an ultrasound technician training program this fall. One of the more moving scenes in the film is her visit for an ultrasound and seeing her fetus on the scope and learning it would be a boy. Her career path made so much sense.
This film also raised another issue for me. The two directors are white males. Daje was asked about this in the Q and A and made light of it. She noted that when they arrived at the school to ask for volunteers to be in the film, Daje and the other students were suspicious because, as Daje remarked, most encounters with white males in her neighbourhood and experience involved cops or some other kind of racist oriented trouble. However she liked the guys and was the one to volunteer for the film. She really liked the outcome of the movie and while some of the experience was difficult for lots of reasons she trusted the directors and what they were trying to do. I went to a second film that day and sat behind some people who had also seen For Ahkeem. Their friends asked how they liked it and their only comment was: “Its problematic, a film about a black girl made by a couple of white guys.” I guess they didn’t stay to hear Daje. In these days of political correctness and cultural appropriation I suppose there is some justification for this statement. I however learned a lot and the film is a great critique of our racist society, how we can work to overcome it and how public education properly funded can be part of that solution. Look for this film for an inspiring story.
Step is a dance/exercise program that is the focus of this documentary. The title and the description were a bit misleading but basically this is about a program in Baltimore to give a group of primarily female black kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods a shot at College and escape. The step program is part of the curriculum at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The girls are preparing for a state step championship as well as preparing to be the first graduating class from the school. Of course, the film is inspiring and all the girls make it. Not only winning the state championship but also all making it to College. The Director was present for a Q and A where I lost some respect for the film and its subject. The Director is rich, very rich and comes from a very rich family. She is a producer of Broadway shows and her mother, in an act of charity funded the Baltimore school in which this film is based. The school is a charter school and admission is limited although handled by lottery. So the girls who get in are lucky, very lucky and there is no other option of similar quality for the rest of the population in similar poverty in Baltimore. The director was confronted about this by one member of the audience but declined to respond saying: “I don’t want to get into that controversy”. Sadly this is the real point. The US is increasingly relying on charity or profit motive to provide quality education to kids rather than a robust public education system. This will be enhanced under the Trump presidency and Betsy DeVos the new Secretary of Education. The contrast to my perception was a group of girls from Jane/Finch who were also part of a step program who cheered the movie big time. I think sadly they did not understand the larger issue. I should also note that while some of the docs at the festival do have support from major funders like Netflix and Amazon, this film has been picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox. Of course. For more of my leftist attitude on this issue please see the review of For Ahkeem.
This was a short documentary paired with Death in the Terminal. The themes had some overlap but very different situations. In this case we have a director making his first documentary based on his personal experience of a violent confrontation on a bus. Set in Australia, the situation involves a group of people forced to take a bus after their train is cancelled. There is drunk passenger who begins to taunt and insult a group of French female tourists. The comments are racist and the women respond and get confrontational which results in people taking sides on the bus and getting into fights. The Director who was present on the bus filmed the whole incident on his cell phone and later posts the whole thing on YouTube. The idea was to shame the drunken racist passenger but in the end resulted in some unfortunate and unintended consequences for all involved. Mike Nayna decides to make a film about the whole outcome and it raises some very interesting questions about social media and how it is used and the ethics around the same. Nayna himself was clear in the Q and A following the film that he would not have done the same thing again and maybe tried to handle the situation that evening on the bus very differently. Interesting film.
One of the reasons I love documentaries is that you can never be sure what you are going to learn but almost always it is something you did not expect. Those of you old enough to remember the 70’s and roller derby being on TV all the time would appreciate this film. Although roller derby declined in enthusiasm after a brief time after inspiring that great James Caan film Rollerball, it is now experiencing a revival internationally. This film focussed on an international tournament and in the process on some of the stars of the game. The film centred on a Montreal women’s team as they prepare to compete with teams from around the world. To increase the anticipation of the climax we also get insight into players on the team from New York City and London, England. The interesting thing is that the recent revival is largely by female teams and it is totally amateur. This film appears to imply that this is largely a subculture within the lesbian community but in reality, ability to skate is much more important to the players than sexual orientation. There is however a whole culture around player pseudonyms and tattoos. The names are great including Michelle O’Bam Ya and Princess Lay-ya Flat. The women interviewed expressed concern that this aspect of the amateur game may be hurt as popularity expands. There are talks of the game making the Olympics in 2020 and other moves toward professional leagues. Still the charm of the film itself is in the characters interviewed and the progress toward the tournament. I guess I was not sure what to expect and was surprised but as I reflect on it – it was fun.