The Boys of Baraka

Statistics show that Baltimore is the most dangerous city in America. Among its African American population less than 25% of male teens will ever complete high school. But, every two years some of the boys are lucky enough to be chosen for a special program. If selected, they are sent to a private boarding school in Kenya, East Africa and become “The Boys of Baraka.”

Laura's Review: B

In the city of Baltimore, where 76% of African American males do not graduate high school, a unique program allows for twenty at risk students to attend the 7th and 8th grade in a highly disciplined school in the African Bush. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady study the before, during and after of this journey taken by "The Boys of Baraka." This fascinating documentary shows the profound changes made in four lives when these disadvantaged kids are given the opportunity of a focused education in a completely different environment. The Baraka School is located in Kenya, twenty miles from the nearest town, a place where twelve year-olds can gather lizard eggs, hike a mountain and keep a hedgehog as a pet. With echoes of such films as "Born Into Brothels" and "Lost Boys of Sudan," "The Boys of Baraka" makes its own strong statement about the impact of environment on human development. Richard and his younger brother Romesh are a handsome pair whose mother is concerned that if only one should be chose, one son will be a king, the other killer. She is lucky - both her boys get to go. Despite an upbringing that includes drug-addicted parents and a father in jail, Devon has the makings of a showboating preacher. His maternal grandmother sends one child off and tentatively accepts the boy's mother back into her household. Montrey is a troublemaker at school, and yet, when asked about his ambitions, claims he wants to be a 'chemologist.' The filmmakers follow Richard on a farewell trip to visit his dad in jail and the seemingly thoughtful and supportive man we find there is surprising. It's a terrific scene that reminds us not to jump to conclusions, but it is followed by a mass goodbye at the airport that is only attended by women, a sad truth that goes uncommented. The year at Baraka is charted month by month. In video 'letters' home, Montrey is unhappy, stating that Baraka recruiter Miss Jackson lied, while other youngsters profess varying degrees of homesickness. Montrey continues to be troublesome, yet makes academic inroads. Richard is a bright optimist who continues to try even though he says he cannot remember what he reads, a learning disability a teacher is shocked has gone undiscovered. Younger brother Romesh tries to run away. When Christmas greetings from back home are screened, Devon's mom is proud to tell her son that she's been entrusted with a basement bedroom that has its own back door. Several months later, Romesh says he is doing great and will return to Baraka even if Richard doesn't and Devon's grandma holds back the news that his mother is in jail until his return home. When the boys do come back for two months of summer vacation, their neighborhood stoops seem like a far more alien land than the one they've returned from. The contrast slams home just what these kids are up against. Then the real challenge drops - just as September looms, the families are informed that the Baraka School's operation has been suspended due to security threats. There is nothing to be done but reenter the Baltimore school system. The four boys we've followed react in every spectrum of possible behavior and not necessarily how one would have anticipated. There are several questions I wish the filmmakers had addressed. We are informed that the Baraka School has existed for seven years, but not how it came into being or how it is funded or how these specific children were selected. The boys are introduced to it by Miss Jackson, a black woman, then arrive to find an entirely white staff (indeed, the filmmakers are two white women as well), something no one sees fit to mention. Still, these aspects aside, Ewing and Grady achieve astonishing character arcs from their real life subjects and an extreme divide between their two locations. The film is nicely shot, with observations like a giraffe crossing the horizon in one world and a cop car, its siren blaring, seen from an upstairs bedroom window in another. Some MTV-style editing in the film's last minutes is jarring, but otherwise the film flows well and is nicely scored. "The Boys of Baraka" should be required viewing for educators, particularly those of inner city schools, but it is also an involving and often entertaining journey for a general audience. "The Boys of Baraka" is one of the fifteen films short listed for the 2005 Best Documentary Oscar and will be broadcast on PBS's POV in 2006.

Robin's Review: B-

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady do a reversal on “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” where young Sudanese men were given the chance to come to America and escape possible genocide. With “The Boys of Baraka,” it’s American kids who are in danger for their lives in their own city and it is in a foreign land that they may find hope and salvation. The Boys of Baraka” is a solid, chronological bit of meat and potatoes documentary filmmaking that does it by the numbers but has a subject matter that is compelling and interesting. Done mostly with subtitles – the Baltimore boys’ dialect is so strong that they frequent need the visual aid – we learn about the Baraka school and how it was created as a sort of missionary in reverse. The school opens its doors to the downtrodden but redeemable youngsters in one of the worst cities in the US. The film follows the selection process as Richard, his younger brother Romesh, Devon and Montrey, among others, are chosen for the opportunity to get a quality 7th and 8th grade education. Even more important, the school has the reputation for instilling the worth of an education and the desire, when the boys return home, to finish high school and beyond. After the selections are made and the boys receive their all-expenses paid chance for a good education, they are elated with the mysteries ahead. Then, as they pack and prepare for the trip, the reality of the separation from their families sinks in. The kids go through a tearful goodbye with their mothers and siblings – notably, there is distinct lack of father figures at the airport, a telling notation of the black, inner city matriarchal family. No sooner than their plane’s wheels leave the ground does the excitement of the trip take over and the families are, for the moment, forgotten. Then, they land in Nairobi and make the miles long journey to the Baraka School. But, their excitement has been sapped by the long trek and things like herds of elephants go virtually unnoticed by the pooped out kids during the lengthy drive to their new world. As you would expect from 12 and 13 year olds far away from family and friends, homesickness kicks in soon after they arrive at Baraka and, if they could, many of the boys would head for home. Fortunately, kids are pretty resilient and the strange and different new world envelope the boys. As their two-year tour of duty unrolls, missing home and mom become less and less trying. The Boys of Baraka” has a nice arc as it chronicles the trials and joys the youngsters experience during their time in Africa. It is both hopeful and bittersweet as we see these kids get a real, life-altering opportunity only to have to return to the inner city – a year early for the docu subjects as political strife force their tenure to be cut short. Some will overcome their environment while, for others, it is simply coming home to a hopeless status quo. Ewing and Grady show a solid sense of documentary making staying out of the picture and putting the focus on their subjects. Lush lensing and tight editing are pluses for the film.