“The film follows three seniors who were at the tipping point in their lives, graduating this year, which to me is pretty metaphorical to the life of school,” Mollenkof says. This year Howard either comes off the state’s list of worst-performing schools or faces a range of intervention options, including state takeover.
“In some ways it’s appropriate that we haven’t heard what the final story is on the school yet, because we don’t know the final story on these kids’ lives. They’re moving forward into the future, many of them without big prospects,” she says. “I think we look at this piece as such a small moment. It’s a year, it’s moments within a year of the lives of these students. So we don’t at all think this is comprehensive. We think of it more as a way people who wouldn’t naturally go over to Howard are able to connect. You have to deal with the hard issues an impoverished community faces, but you have to have hope that there will be solutions. Either you deal with it or you ignore it. We know there are rough spots in Chattanooga. We have some very underperforming schools, and there’s not a lot of consternation over it.”
“Its not a comprehensive guide to gang violence or teen pregnancy. It is a window into a world that is often passed over in Chattanooga. At the same time, it is a world that a large population takes great pride in,” Belz adds. “There is a great culture at Howard. As history shows, as we show in movie, real integration between those worlds—between the Howard community and the rest of thriving Chattanooga—is still not happening.”
Crossing a Line Into Advocacy
Most powerful documentaries have a strong point of view, a vantage point that might say “This story needs to be told” or “This problem needs to be fixed.” Passionate storytelling rarely goes well with total objectivity.
“We’re not afraid of the tag of advocacy,” Belz says. “Early on, I think we were a little skeptical. Like what if we had to reveal some serious dirt about Howard? How are we going to be objective documentarians working within the system? As we got to know the school and as they trusted us more, we began to feel like we had no problem with advocacy. But it’s not about making a social statement. We wanted to tell a story and we wanted that story to speak for itself.”
Mollenkof began the project with a journalist’s eye for impartiality, but soon became caught up in the lives of the students.
“I have a background in newspaper photojournalism, so I’m always asking, ‘Where is that invisible line you’re not supposed to cross?’” she says. “But one of my teachers always said, ‘You’re a human first.’ For this situation, we felt like in so many cases we might have been the only resource for that kid. We tried to be sensitive and show true stories but definitely with care and compassion and love. If that takes on an advocacy voice, we’re fine with that.”
The resulting film—a compromise between art, objectivity, advocacy and the mandate set by the school’s principal—shines a light on the struggles of the students to achieve their goals against long odds. And while Smith told the Times Free Press that the documentary has its uplifting moments, it doesn’t come across as a “feel-good” film.
“I’m really glad Paul Smith forced us to be more of a partner with the school and teach a class, because the problem at Howard or any failing school is really complicated,” Belz says. “For us to have come in and been sort of a fly on the wall and put it into some artistic form would have been one thing, but to have lived and taught and had the Howard experience was something else entirely. These kids aren’t the smartest kids at Howard or the worst kids or the gangbangers. They’re not one thing—they’re three kids we happened to have relationships with, and they do represent the whole in a way.”
“It changed me, and it changed Drew,” Mollenkof adds. “We can see better how those issues can be addressed. So why wouldn’t we make something that could change other people, too? Those kids just get you, man. They get your heart.”
“Build Me A World” Events
Premiere: 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 16
Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
Tickets are free, but must be reserved online at buildmeaworld.com
The Howard Summit
10 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 18,
The Howard School, 2500 S. Market St.
The Camp House
8 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 22,
The Camp House, 1427 Williams St.
Movies at the 700 Block:
Urban Theater in the City
8:45 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 1,
728 Market St.