Cinebanter

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

SIFF Sighting: BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT (documentary; Sierra Leone)

The Sierra Leone Civil War, which began in 1991, caused thousands of deaths and created millions of refugees.

Many of these young refugees, who were orphaned as a result of the war, are featured in this touching documentary, Brownstones to Red Dirt.

In the film, we meet a class of youngsters in the region who have been paired up with pen pals in Brooklyn, New York. They are getting to know each other the old-fashioned way—through handwritten letters and photos sent through the mail. As the envelopes arrive, we see the reactions on both sides of the globe as the children share their personal stories and form genuine friendships. The New York kids don't live the high life, but they certainly don't face the same dangers and poverty as their African counterparts.

After learning of their pals' extreme hardships (many don't have electricity or proper beds), the New York students decide to host a barbecue to raise funds for them. The money is then donated to help buy necessities (including a new building) and the lives of both groups of students are changed by the generosity.

What makes this movie so sweet is that the filmmakers let the kids do the talking. From start to finish, they are the ones sharing their experiences in their own words, clearly unscripted, which creates a raw authenticity that would be difficult to duplicate with actors. One heartwrenching scene shows the African children re-enacting the war; another shows the disappointment of the New York kids when their barbecue isn't reaching their desired dollar amount.

It's a pleasure to get to know these young, compassionate souls, and feel thankful someone is making a difference in their lives. If only there were enough pen pals to go around.

Brownstones to Red Dirt screened at the 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. To learn more about how you can help build schools in Sierra Leone, visit the Schools for Salone website. If you are a teacher interested in setting your students up with refugee pen pals, visit the Respect for Refugees website.

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