“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.
“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.