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SXSW '05 Interview: 'The Boys of Baraka' Directors Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Boys of Baraka' Pitch: On September 12, 2002 twenty "at risk" 12-year-old boys from the tough streets of inner-city Baltimore left home to attend the 7th and 8th grade at Baraka, an experimental boarding school located in Kenya, East Africa. Here, with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 5, a strict disciplinary program and the freedom to be normal teenage boys, these brave kids began the daunting journey towards putting their lives on a fresh path.

"Extraordinary boys from the inner city escape to Africa."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
Heidi: First time in Austin at all, actually. Our documentary short “Dissident” has made the festival rounds including Tribeca, Woodstock, Amnesty International and a bunch of others too.

Rachel: First time in Austin, which I hear is kicking.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
Heidi: Secretary General of the United Nations. I was happily delusional at 14.

Rachel: A journalist. I’ve always loved non-fiction storytelling and when I discovered that I could tell those same true stories through the medium of film, I was hooked.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
Heidi: In 1995 I was living in California and my neighbor had just located his long lost mother in Vietnam. We thought it would be an incredible documentary so we started figuring out together how the hell to make a film. We didn’t know anything about the process.

Rachel: See above.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
Heidi: It made the whole thing real. We’ve been sitting in an edit room for 11 months and now we get to show it to whoever wants to see it! It’s been in the making for over 3 years now and it’s a thrill to let it out of the box.

Rachel: We’ll see, it’s a World Premiere.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
Heidi: We knew the film would have a festival life, we just weren’t sure the best place to launch it. It became clear that sxsw really does embrace independent cinema and takes on tough subject matter. It sounded up our alley.

Rachel: No festivals per se in mind but I definitely knew I wanted as many people as possible to meet the kids in the movie and share their incredible stories. The kids are real survivors, and everyone will learn something from them.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
Heidi: It took us one full year to get access to the school and the subjects. Once we got the green light we asked our DP friends to shoot for free till we got the money together, which thankfully, they did. It took another year or so to get ITVS funding, shooting all the while, including 3 times in Africa. We ended up with over 300 hours of material so the edit was a bear – so many great scenes came out. Like most other documentary filmmakers we figured out the structure by trial and error, and the most important story we needed to tell finally became clear to us.

Rachel: Once we got access to the school (which took a whole year) we followed a single class of 7th graders for 3 years. It was easy to be motivated (even with no funding initially) because the kids are fascinating, tragic and also crack us up.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
Heidi: Kids are brutally honest; they make the best subjects for documentary film.

Rachel: People can surprise you in the most wonderful ways. Don’t underestimate anyone.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
Heidi: We both watched the great documentary Streetwise again for its expert handling of child subjects.

Rachel: I’m a real dork and love to watch as many documentaries as I can. I always watch movies (fiction and non fiction) when I'm learning about a new topic.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
Heidi: I usually am sorely disappointed with remakes so I’d want to take on something new and original.

Rachel: A Face in the Crowd

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
Heidi: Since I don’t work with actors I couldn’t say. But there are a few real people on the world stage I’d love to have unfettered access to, like Kim Jong-il or Laurent Kabila. It would be fascinating o see what’s really going on in their heads. [From our film,] I think Devon Brown will be the Mayor of Baltimore one of these days.

Rachel: I like working with real people, preferably outsiders. I love Marlon Brando because he ached with humanity.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
Heidi: I think the best festivals are smallish, and carefully curated. It's hard to focus when there are 800 movies on display.

Rachel: Just started.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
Heidi: I don’t think so, but I’ll let you know when it happens!

Rachel: Currently working on “making it.”

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
Heidi: We did use that credit in our film. I think our particular vision and point of view comes strongly in this movie. At the same time, there is no doubt this – and every other - film has been collaboration with the kids in the film and our tiny crew - Enat Sidi, (editor) Tony Hardmon, and Marco Franzoni. (Cinematography). We are so grateful to them.

Rachel: I did use this credit in the film. I’m defenseless in my intentions. I must be sick in the head.


The Boys of Baraka, directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official The Boys of Baraka website!.

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originally posted: 02/21/05 19:35:46
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