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Boys of Baraka

Trying to find a way to reach young students and to keep them in school so they graduate daunts educators now more than ever. Students dropping out of school are a distinct problem and the problem is even more pronounced if you are non-white, male and from a low income, inner city family. Three-quarters of African American boys will not graduate from school notes an opening graphic in new documentary,

The Boys of Baraka

. The film focuses on a group of 20 African American students plucked from an overcrowded Baltimore public school system and given a chance to experience a different kind of education in Kenya, East Africa.

The Boys of Baraka opens with shots of young kids on the streets of Baltimore. We see one kids being arrested while another group of kids reenact a gang shooting. Then we see the school they attend, and circumstances seem just as chaotic. An assembly of kids can't be quieted and the classrooms look like war zones. Enter Ms. Jackson, an African American woman who's come to the school to recruit at-risk 12-year-old boys for the Baraka program. She explains that the boys have three options in their life before they reach the age of 18: they could be arrested, they could be killed or they could graduate from high school. The Baraka program, she explains, will take students out of the Baltimore school system and out of their inner city neighborhoods, and bring them to a school in Kenya where they will receive more specialized attention and intensive study.

Twenty boys are selected and the film narrows its focus to a handful. A confident boy named Richard says, "I'm strong like Frederick Douglas and I'm willing to do this to get away from here." He also wants to get his younger brother Romesh away from the problems of city life. Then there's Devon who wants to be a preacher and even at this tender age sounds like a veteran from the pulpit. And finally there's Montrey who's failing at school.

When the kids arrive in Kenya, it's a culture shock. They are out in the middle of nowhere, twenty miles from any kind of town with no television, and electricity only during part of the day. Some rebel, some cry and want to go home, and some are frustrated by the work. One teacher notes that Richard is at a second grade math and reading level and can't believe that no one before ever made note of that. But bit-by-bit, through confrontations, through determined efforts of teachers and staff, and through the children coming to terms with their new environment, progress is made. The children start to marvel at the animals and nature surrounding them, and start to accept the teachers as people who want to help them. When two boys get in a fight, they are taken to a base camp and forced to work together to build a tent before nightfall. The lesson is designed to teach them to cooperate rather than fight, and it eventually has an impact.

The pleasure of the film comes from seeing these kids blossom. They start to learn, they start to have hope about their future, and they grow before our eyes. Then they return home for a two-month summer break and its culture shock all over again. Richard looks out his window and explains that he doesn't want to go out because he has nothing in common with the unruly kids on the streets who belong to gangs and sell drugs. He's been given a view of a different possibility for his life and seeing this old view disturbs him.

Then the students and parents receive bad news. Because of violence in Kenya, the U.S. has closed its embassy and the Baraka School has been forced to suspend its program. No new students will be recruited and the current students will be unable to complete their second year. The parents, having witnessed first hand a miraculous change in their children are enraged. One man says the kids are more likely to be killed in Baltimore than in Kenya.

The outrage expressed by the parents is nothing compared to the betrayal the kids feel. In a heart-wrenching scene Richard tells us "My dream's not gonna come true so I might as well get it out of my head." His eyes reveal such sadness and lack of hope, and we share both his anger and sense of betrayal. When the film returns to Richard nine months after the Baraka School closed, he's fighting with his brother and has completely stopped making an effort at school. His face says "what's the point?" And in his look we sense the tragedy of his situation. While at the Baraka School he seemed to have a whole world of possibilities ahead of him, but back in Baltimore Ms. Jackson suggests he enroll at a school where he can study automotive since he could always get a job working on cars. In that moment we see, with devastating clarity, how tiny his world has just become.

Devon and Montrey, however, seem to have fared better. Devon is still determined to be a preacher and Montrey is excelling at school. So there is a note of hope that even that brief exposure to a better education left a mark on these two students and has probably put them on a better course in life.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are not exceptionally skilled filmmakers but they have picked a compelling story and they have compassion for the students. They have chosen their subjects well and have picked boys who are able to express their situations well. The filmmakers choose to subtitle much of what the boys say, which is distracting, annoying and a bit unnecessary, but I imagine some viewers may find it helpful. The filmmakers don't go into much depth about the program itself (which seems to have predominantly white instructors and staff) or into the details of life at the school. Their main strength is in their ability to capture intimate moments with the kids and convey an emotional truth about their lives.

The Boys of Baraka makes a very strong case for the need to find new ways to reach at-risk students. It proves that you can reach even difficult children but it takes the kind of time and effort that cannot always be found in under funded, overcrowded public schools. Hopefully, this film along with films such as Mad Hot Ballroom will inspire people and the government to fund and seek out new ways of reaching children. But the haunting image that The Boys of Baraka left with is of Richard, a young, bright boy whose potential has been tragically wasted. -----

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