“i think art has lot of leverage to change conversation,” says Drew Belz, co-producer of “Build Me a World,” the new feature-length documentary about the Howard School that premieres at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 16, at the Tivoli Theatre. “There hasn’t been a piece of art—especially a feature-length film of any sort—about who we are as a city, made by people in the city. We want to join the artistic effort that is growing in this city, that acts like a can opener on some issues.”
Belz’s film does more than open the can—it exposes a side of Chattanooga that is unknown or ignored by many amid the city’s recent hype as a cultural and technological gem. As the film’s website dramatically intones, Chattanoogans live in two cities: “The first is the smart city,” the introduction begins, “Volkswagen, Amazon, and a history of wealth. The second is a world away: bottom-rung public schools, food deserts, and an absurdly high crime rate. The gap between the two grows deeper every day.”
The story of the Howard School is long and in many ways mirrors the black experience in the South, from its birth as the first public school in Chattanooga launched at the end of the Civil War, through Reconstruction, winding its way through eras of success and collapse. By 2007, the school was classified as a “dropout factory,” with a graduation rate of 28 percent, and was tasked with changing or having changes made for it by state authorities.
The film approaches Howard’s challenges by documenting the senior year of a select group of students who are part of the school’s Talented Tenth leadership program.
“The goal is for Chattanooga to hold mirror up to itself, to think about how Howard fits into the story of Chattanooga,” says Belz.
“Art has a way of getting the point across in a different way than news or a written report or all those stats we read,” adds Bethany Mollenkof, the film’s director.
Belz and Mollenkof both work for Fancy Rhino, a video production company whose staff of nine is just a few years older than the students they profiled at Howard. “We’re all about 23 or 24,” says Belz, who co-owns the company with Isaiah Smallman. The two began doing freelance video projects for CreateHere two years ago after graduating from Covenant College. They formed Fancy Rhino in 2010 and began working with Lampost Group last year to accelerate their growth. After starting out supporting local nonprofits and startups, the company has recently signed Samsung and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors as clients.
“Build Me A World” began with a MakeWork grant to create a short documentary film about Howard, but when the would-be filmmakers approached Howard principal Paul Smith last year, he was cool to the idea of yet another piece of journalism about the school.
Storytelling from the Inside Looking Out
“He said, ‘I want people who care about the kids. I want this story to be told from the inside looking out, not from the outside in,’” recalls Mollenkof. “I asked him if we could teach a class to prove that we really do care about the kids, we care about the school, we’re not just making a movie.”
The filmmakers soon realized the subject matter was worthy of a feature-length film, so Fancy Rhino sought private donations and launched an online fundraising campaign to help fund the film. For the last school year, Mollenkof and Belz taught a filmmaking class working with students in the Talented Tenth leadership program and their teacher Mason West. In addition to filming the students themselves, they gave students cameras to take home and document their own lives.