For all the "No Child Left Behind" dogma vomited forth by the Bush administration, there are a hell of a lot of boys and girls being neglected by underfunded, overburdened schools. Case in point: the heartbreaking Baltimore preteens in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary The Boys of Baraka. The film presents a snapshot of a charitable program aimed at reforming or at least redirecting the "bottom percentile" of schoolboys, the persistent troublemakers who've made it through six years of school and are still considered to be unteachable. Though their focus is very narrow, the filmmakers make a compelling argument on the "nurture" side of the old nature vs. nurture debate: In this film, there are no truly bad kids, just bad environments.
Those familiar with the exploitive ABC reality series Brat Camp will see superficial similarities here. But where that show dwelled on the failures and tantrums of juvie teens, this documentary more compassionately analyzes a group of at-risk preteens from the ghettos of Baltimore, who are given the chance to spend two years at the Baraka School in Kenya. The program seeks not the highest achievers but the lowest, and as we meet some of the applicants, we begin to realize that just the chance at a different life the opportunity to be singled out in a positive way begins to boost the boys' self-esteem.
Some, like the self-proclaimed "strong like Frederick Douglass" Richard, look as though they'll take well to a new culture, while others including the unpredictable, short-fused Montrey don't seem like they can withstand a day in a controlled, isolated setting. The separation anxiety from their (mostly) single moms and guardians is palpable. Praying that the selection committee will allow both of her boys to go, one parent says, "Don't make one a king and one a killer."
Once the boys touch down in Africa, however, the road to a better life doesn't seem so clear. Stranded 20 miles from the nearest town and subjected to a mind-boggling array of new insects, animals and people not to mention the novelty of no longer being in the racial minority the boys react in radically different ways. The filmmakers capture moments both poignant (they befriend the lizards in their rooms) and uncomfortable (one boy single-handedly turns the cafeteria into a battleground).
Boys of Baraka has received some criticism for its Hoop Dreams-type concept and execution. It's true that by striving to give the audience a you-are-there experience, the filmmakers miss out on one crucial aspect of the story: The history and background of the Baraka Program, which would go a long way in explaining one soul-crushing development late in the film. But as a touching and objective look at what happens when you give a few "problem children" an exceptional lease on life, Baraka succeeds brilliantly.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.