Interview with Going to School Filmmaker, Richard Cohen
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
I find myself inspired by the ways people survive difficult and often life threatening circumstances, and make the best of life. I'm always looking for moments that reveal human nature: courage, determination, humor, hope, defeat, greed, and resourcefulness.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?
Going to School - Aaron Bruck receives occupational therapy in a room near his second grade class.
I had been thinking about making a film on my own experiences in neighborhood schools during the nine years or so that I used crutches to walk. When I was asked by the Class Member Review Committee of the Chanda Smith Consent Decree to submit a proposal to produce two short videos, it seemed like an opportunity to explore what I had been thinking about.
I began researching the Consent Decree. In 1993, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District alleging systematic violations of the civil rights of students receiving special education services and their parents. The school board admitted liability and entered into the Consent Decree, a court supervised agreement promising to bring the nation's second largest school district into compliance with federal and state laws. Hundreds of parents, teachers and other members of the school community volunteered to work on a roster of committees that were created to assist and guide two hired administrators.
The committees were ripping apart the fabric of an institution that had been shaped by a policy of segregation, discrimination and fear, and they were creating a new culture of inclusion. Once I understood their idealism and commitment I decided that I wanted to make a film.
What were your goals in making Going to School? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film?
Going to School - Seventh grader Cynthia Delgado helps her friend with math.
Mostly I want viewers to watch the film and feel the humanity of the parents and children, and the teachers sharing their lives. If a viewer can laugh with Le Doan when she expresses her desire to be a lawyer, or feel her anger at the unfair isolation of children with disabilities within the school, limiting their chances to learn then I think the film is working.
There are other images and feelings I hope viewers will remember: the expression of curiosity on the face of Richard Martinez when he gets a chance to look through a microscope in class, and the powerful determination it took his mother, Sandra Renteria, to make sure that her boy could sit in a regular seventh grade class. Richard was the first student to be included in El Sereno Middle School while receiving special education services. The idea that special education is not a place, but services that can be delivered anywhere is something essential to understanding inclusion. When special education teacher Greg Laskowski stands in his classroom surrounded by his students and speaks candidly, I think it shows the respect he has for them. I hope viewers remember the important lesson he taught his students: that they should be able to feel that they can go anywhere in the world and be welcomed.
It's important to see how Ruben Rodriguez eats lunch through a tube into his stomach, to not turn away, but to appreciate the nuance of expression, subtly revealing of his life experience: choosing a flavored beverage to be poured down the tube, nodding his objection to the arm restraints, or smiling when another student, Ellie, comes over and asks if he is full after eating lunch.
What would you like to see happen with the film?
Going to School - Ana, Cynthia and Le on their way to lunch at the middle school cafeteria.
What do I want to see for Going to School in the future? I would like to see VHS tapes or DVDs available at extremely low cost in stores frequented by a diverse cross-section of our community, stores like supermarkets and corner groceries. I would also like the film to be available at many more public libraries. The more images that are at hand in familiar places, the more accessible and inclusive our society becomes.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
There were few difficulties in making the film. In part, this was due to a great crew: Baird Bryant was the cinematographer and Mario Ruiz was camera assistant. Baird and I have worked together over the years, and our history helped to ease filming in a sensitive environment. He is a profoundly talented man who sees deeply with his eyes, intelligence and heart.
I experienced a range of emotions during the work. For example, I became deeply saddened one day when researching a segregated special education school. There was a windowless classroom for the students who were thought of as "hopeless ones," the most vulnerable and in need of attention and education. They were lying on gurneys while a woman moved about the space shaking a tambourine in beat to a scratchy 33rpm record. It reminded me too much of conditions in the state hospitals long ago before most of those institutions became extinct.
Hopeful conditions existed at other schools in Los Angeles, and those places helped me to shape a vision for the film. At one high school, for example, where inclusion has a foothold, there was a girl who I was told had the intelligence of a very young child. To me she had a remarkably sensitive appearance, though frail and terribly frightened by the slightest approach. Instead of being confined and shut away for her own protection, she was being taught to put napkins in the holders on the tables in the school cafeteria. For her it was an A+ lesson, something that may give her a chance to make a living and have a better life down the road. For society, it could be one less person totally dependent on charity. For the students and workers at that school, it was a lesson in diversity beyond what we often think diversity means.
The four women making up the Consulting Committee for the project had been through defeats and victories with their own children with disabilities. Helen Wu, Lucy Matsumoto, Emma Guanlao and particularly, Barbara Marbach offered support and insight that helped tremendously to prepare me for the actual filming.
Going to School - Seventh grader Ana Uribe catches the late bus after school.
El Sereno Middle School, where most of Going to School was shot, was an environment ripe for change. The students generally appeared open and enthusiastic about being at school, the teachers I met were idealistic and enjoying their work. There was a large population of students with disability, yet for some reason they remained segregated by an invisible barrier, even in the common spaces like the cafeteria or library. This led me to ask why? And, were parents becoming empowered by the Consent Decree to help change this?
Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?
The children at El Sereno taught me a lot about myself, about the world I grew up in, and the world in which they are growing up. It became clear to me that the spirit of the Consent Decree was empowering children to stay focused on their education, rather than on their anger. Cynthia, a bright mild-mannered girl, flared with quiet anger one day when she questioned why there were no curb-cuts in her neighborhood. She reminded me of things like how difficult it was for me to cross a street and step up onto a sidewalk before curb-cuts, and the consequences that facing barriers like this may have on a child's self-respect.
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on??
Going to School - Richard Martinez signs with his interpreter during seventh grade math class
Since finishing Going to School more than two years ago, I have been self-distributing the videos. I work out of an office/editing room in an old hotel in Culver City. Meanwhile, I've been shooting another cinema verite style documentary about life around me in the hotel and the construction of a nearby multiplex cinema. In a sense it's a story about people experiencing change in their lives and their community, and about creative expression and business. The film is very different visually from anything I've made before. It's been interesting to have a camera resting nearby that I can pick up, carry outside the door and start filming.