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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Roland Legiardi-Laura--'To Be Heard'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Roland Legiardi-Laura, one of the directors/producers, with Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer and Amy Sultan, of To Be Heard.

Synopsis: Three Bronx teens search for their voices and an answer to the question, Can language change lives? Karina, Pearl and Anthony are precariously balanced on the edge. Inspired by three teachers in a radical poetry workshop, they set out to write their own life stories, imagining a future where fathers aren't in jail, mothers aren't abusive, and college is a place where you awake every morning instead of just dreaming about it every night. A dedicated filmmaking team follows their lives, celebrating the value of poetry and devoted teachers, and the power that comes from writing your own life story.


To Be Heard


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Roland Legiardi-Laura: I studied political science and poetry in college. My life was, and still is, about trying to find ways to combine the two. My first documentary was a bit of an accident. I was in Nicaragua in the early '80s, studying and reporting on the Sandinista Revolution. Among the things I learned was the fact that Nicaragua had an amazing and popular culture based in poetry. Its tradition stretched back to the time before the Conquistadors. The native Nahuatl people composed an epic poem, El Gueguense, as a defense of their native culture against the Spaniards. The tradition of using language as a tool and a weapon continues to this day, with Nicaraguans using poetry as an element of everyday life to solve problems and explore issues. Poetry had real use and value, in much the same way we use a hammer or a toothbrush. It was not an abstracted and alienated art form to be appreciated only by a well-educated elite.

I began collecting recordings and copies of all the Nicaraguan poetry I could find. Once back in New York I had a vague plan to write a series of articles or perhaps a book about this phenomenon. One day I attended a photography exhibit about Central America that included a sequential series of beautiful photos of a young Sandinista rebel celebrating the liberation of Managua by spray-painting lines from a famous Nicaraguan poem on a wall. In one hand he held his AK47 and in the other his spray-paint can. In that instant I saw that I needed to make a film about this culture of poetry. I understood there was a story to tell and that this story was profoundly visual.


IDA: What inspired you to make To Be Heard?

RLL: To Be Heard is the story of three high school kids from the Bronx who learn to use poetry as a weapon of transformation in their own lives and in the world around them. It is in many ways a natural extension of the work I have been doing all my life. Along with one of my co-directors, Amy Sultan, and another dedicated poet and teacher, Joseph Ubiles, we started a program called Power Writing, focused on empowerment through literacy. We began that program about 10 years ago at University Heights High School in the Bronx.

About six years ago at a fundraiser for the program, Deborah Shaffer, the second co-director, came up to me after hearing our kids recite and said, "Why aren't you making a documentary about this? These kids are amazing!" Deb is an old friend and a documentary filmmaker. She won an Oscar for her short doc, Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements, so when she makes a statement like that, one has to take it seriously. I protested by saying I didn't think I could focus on the doc and be an effective teacher at the same time. She immediately offered to co-direct.

Amy became the third member of our directorial team shortly afterward. She has had a lot of experience in film production in New York.

And we soon added Eddie Martinez, the fourth member of our rare directorial quad-umvirate, a bit later. Eddie's mom is the college advisor of the high school where we teach. He grew up in the neighborhood and was completely at ease in this environment, and the film's subjects were comfortable around him. He is a brilliant DP and a strong editor, so the rest was easy. We resolved to make this a collaborative process.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

RLL: The most important focus for us has been in striking the right balance between compelling storytelling and exposing the underlying issues and themes embedded in our film. With an issue-driven documentary, that is often the toughest mountain to climb. If you rein in the story to get your points across, you can end up with a very pedantic, talking-head polemic, and if you put too much emphasis on the story, you can end up with a bit of overwrought melodrama. If we have succeeded, I think it is mainly because of the four-way dialogue we created among ourselves, along with the generous input of our executive producers from ITVS and Dialogue Pictures. 

Our film straddles a couple of sub-genres in the documentary world: The Spoken Word/Slam Competition Story, and the Struggling Inner-City Community Story. While we were making the film, and before it began to receive serious critical attention and win awards, we often found ourselves straining to distinguish To Be Heard from the many other docs that fell into those categories. Ultimately we were rewarded by the people who watched the entire film, and were moved by it. They were the ones who saw its relevance to the ongoing debate about our educational system. We were rewarded by those who understood the importance of literacy to a functioning democracy and who appreciated the power of language to enable individuals to live fulfilled lives.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

RLL: Two key perspectives evolved over the length of this process: At first we had a much broader palette of characters; our students are wonderful poets and had compelling stories to tell.  But as time passed we realized that in order for the story to be an effective narrative and have emotional depth and fully fleshed-out character arcs, we would have to focus on only a few of our young writers. And at the beginning of the process, we were more intent upon showing how the writing program itself worked and explaining why it was successful. It became evident after many tries and a lot of strong feedback that we were bogging down the rhythm of the story and in fact, we didn't need to make a "process" film in order to have our viewers understand the power of this process to transform lives.

Another important realization for us was that our film was ultimately about one of the most important challenges facing education and our country as a whole: literacy. The United States is in the midst of a literacy crisis, and we can trace most of the problems our school system has and many of the shortcomings of our democratic system to the depth of this crisis. Only one of eight American adults reads well enough to understand our Constitution. And nearly two-thirds of prisoners in the US are functionally illiterate. Once we realized this was our core issue, many of the subsequent decisions about distribution, engagement and outreach became much clearer.

Finally, one of the results of thinking about and working on this film for nearly six years has been understanding the challenge of bringing it directly to our primary audience: young people, especially from stressed communities. Making this demographic aware of docs in general has always been a problem, and motivating them to actually see the film, no matter how germane to their own lives, is never easy. The big shift for us in this case has been the development of our breakthrough transmedia project: Power Poetry, which will be the world's first mobile poetry community for youth. It will give young people a global platform for sharing their work, but more important, it will offer young people a way to use their poetry to speak truth to power and to use their creative energies to change the world. Look for our launch of Power Poetry in conjunction with the PBS broadcast of To Be Heard in early January 2012.

IDA: As you've screened To Be Heard--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

RLL: Two things:  I don't think any of us really expected that we would be regularly greeted by standing ovations after each screening. It is hard to describe how gratifying that experience can be, and not just for us filmmakers; we often bring our young writers to the various festivals we attend. We've seen that they are truly loved and appreciated by audiences. Most wonderfully, they have come to see themselves as inspirational forces in the lives of other young people.

Second, I don't think any of us saw our film as a classic Hollywood story of triumph over adversity, and yet the reactions of audiences around the country have shown us just how inspirational the characters in this film are. The young poets inspire their peers, and the mentors deeply move adults to rethink their own values and question the policies governing our approach to teaching today.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

RLL: Just speaking for myself now: Fred Wiseman, because of his unflinching commitment to his singular vision; Barbara Kopple, for her ability to tell a powerful story using the documentary form; the Maysles brothers, for their insight into the complexity of the human character; Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, for their understanding of the importance of humor as a delivery system for important political truths to a jaded public; Claude Lanzmann, for his sense of the epic in doc storytelling and his commitment to patient viewing; and finally, Robert Greenwald, for his radical approach to distribution. 


To Be Heard will be screening August 26 through September 1 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for To Be Heard in Los Angeles, click here.