SIFF Interview: Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker
Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT at SIFF (read my review here), and wanted to know more about the subjects of the film. Luckily, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker were kind enough to grant me an interview via e-mail since we weren't able to connect at the festival. Here is that exchange:
Tassoula Kokkoris: Tell us about how you came to know both groups of students and where the idea for the project originated.
Chad Walker: Dave pitched me this idea when we were on a long train ride into New York City. He told me about how he wanted to shoot another documentary in Africa. He had shot a documentary on the legacy of the child AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson in South Africa. I had shot documentaries in Boston a few years before and also wanted to shoot another.
Dave LaMattina: When I was with the kids in South Africa, I was struck by the sense of hope in a community where outsiders (like myself) felt there should be none. It was inspirational--I was looking to recapture that experience and initially, I turned to South Africa to look for a similar story.
CW: Funny enough, his mom said to him, "You know, there are kids in our own backyard who need help too." This got Dave searching around and he found the RESPECT Refugees Pen Pal program. This program links kids in the first world with refugee children in the third world. Dave contacted them and soon a pen pal program was implemented at the School for the Urban Environment (the school featured in our film).
DL: We were actually looking at a pre-existing RESPECT pen pal partnership between a school in the Congo and a school in New Jersey because it was close to our home in NY. I was sharing this with my wife, who is the teacher in the film, and she said that she wanted to have the program at her school, and that, if they did, we could feature her class in the film. It worked out great. We had nothing to do with the pairing of the schools or selecting the countries--RESPECT just happened to pick a school in Sierra Leone. I couldn't have picked Sierra Leone out on a map. Actually, I would've been hard-pressed to tell you it was in Africa.
CW: We went in and did some test shoots four years ago at UE and realized right away that these kids had stories and unique voices, and those stories and voices needed to be heard. We spent the next school year following four kids from UE. We also went to Sierra Leone for just under a month where we found another bunch of amazing kids, kids who were so hopeful, kids who had so much faith. It blew me away. In the film, Emmanuel, one of the children from Sierra Leone, talks about how [the place] where he lives has no electricity and no lights. Instead of waiting for someone to fix this, he is determined to be an electrician so he can bring light to his people. They were just absolutely amazing kids in both places and I feel lucky to have met them.
TK: How does the pen pal program work? How can such a poverty-stricken nation such as Sierra Leone afford the paper, postage, etc.?
CW: In a nutshell, the kids in Bed-Stuy will send a bunch of letters to Sierra Leone. The letters can get there as fast as within a couple of weeks, or it can take as long as a few months. Once the kids in Sierra Leone have the letters, the read them and write letters back. But, your question is a good one because this school in Sierra Leone can't afford postage, so the teachers at UE will wire money to Sierra Leone. Then the letters are sent back, and again, it can take them anywhere from a week to a few months to get back to UE in Bed-Stuy.
DL: Lately, we've been trying to send letters over with friends who are visiting Freetown. It's a great way to get updates on all the kids there AND expedite the process a bit!
TK: Do the children still keep in touch? How about the teachers?
CW: Sadly, most of the kids in BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT do not write to each other anymore. The kids from Sierra Leone have all moved on to different secondary schools, which are spread throughout the region, so getting the letters to all the different schools is pretty much impossible. However, the pen pal program is alive and well. Kids from UE are still writing to kids in Sierra Leone, just not the same kids as before.
DL: The teachers have stayed in touch. Again, communication can sometimes be spotty, but I know that my wife will write letters (and sometimes receive them) from her counterparts in Sierra Leone. I think it's been a pretty amazing experience for her. Chad and I also send letters to the kids--nothing major, just a little note to let them know that we think about them all the time. I also made a mixtape once--it was actually really fun to compile music that I thought they would like, but maybe hadn't heard.
TK: If other schools around the country want to get involved with the pen pal program, what should they do?
CW: The best thing to do to get a pen pal program started is to either visit our website: www.copperpotpictures.com/help.html
All the information to start a pen pal prgram can be found there.
TK: If viewers of the film wanted to donate money to the people of Sierra Leone, what programs/non-profit groups would you recommend they use to facilitate that?
CW: We have raised over $53,000 to build a new school in Sierra Leone and help create a library in Bed-Stuy. Obviously, the school in Sierra Leone needs replacing, but we were shocked to find that UE did not have a proper library. The best way to donate to either of these causes is to visit the Schools for Salone website: www.schoolsforsalone.org. This is the Seattle-based non-profit we have been working with. Here, you can make donations to sponsor your child's education, to help build a school in Sierra Leone or to help build the library in Bed-Stuy. When you donate, please make sure that you designate what the donation is for and make sure to put "Brownstones to Red Dirt" in the description field if you want to help the kids featured in our film.
DL: Just to add to that, we've already raised enough money for the school in Sierra Leone. We are simply waiting for the right piece of land to open up. The school will cater to nearly 400 primary school students. Once they graduate, however, they'll need school sponsors for their secondary school education. It only costs $250 a year to sponsor a kid's education--that money goes towards uniforms, books and even food. Often, even if a kid can afford to go to school, they have to drop out in order to work to make money so they can feed themselves. The sponsorship program that Schools for Salone has established takes that into account. They also make sure the kids keep their grades up!
TK: Do you have any updates on the children featured in the film? Where are they now?
CW: The kids from Bed-Stuy are now 8th graders. They are so big now! They are all doing well. The kids in Sierra Leone are also doing well, however we have not had a chance to see them since we left Sierra Leone two years ago. We do hope to go back once construction on the new school begins.
DL: It's crazy to see how big they are. I know that makes us sound like old-timers, but it's true! I'm not a big guy and a couple of them are definitely taller than I am. They're all applying to different high schools throughout New York. I can't wait to see where they end up. We've spoken with the headmistress in Salone a lot and she always says that the kids are doing very well--for a while, some of the kids didn't have the money to take their exams, so they couldn't go on to secondary school. I'm happy to report the kids featured in the film now have sponsors and they're all diligently working towards completing secondary school.
TK: Are there any plans to do a follow-up piece with the same groups of students?
CW: As of now there is no "sequel" planned; however, when we go back to Sierra Leone for the construction of the new school we are definitely going to bring our cameras and document the whole thing. Maybe it will be a special feature on the DVD!
TK: What will your next film project be?
CW: Unfortunately, we cannot announce our next project just yet. But we do have a new project we are working on that we are very excited about and can't wait to make it public!
DL: Be sure to follow us on all the social media channels out there--Facebook, Twitter and anything else that pops up--we'll definitely update those areas with any news about this project or the next one. Also, if you check out our website, www.brownstonestoreddirt.com, you can sign up for our mailing list where we'll announce additional screenings and any new spertaining to BROWNSTONES or future Copper Pot Pictures' projects. We promise not to spam!
BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT screened at the 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival.