Brownstones to Red Dirt

On Maya’s advice I attended the SIFF screening of Brownstones to Red Dirt, a film about a group of Bed-Stuy 11-year-olds who enter into a penpal program with a class of Sierra Leonean orphans.  Maya had attended a prior screening where the director and other producers were present and answered questions; apparently the film was shot over a five-year period (although watching the film I didn’t see clear evidence of this … I am wondering if a lot of pre-production and conceptualizing was included in this figure).

From a technical standpoint, the film was shot on prosumer DV cameras, from what I can tell.  The camerawork was fine, and editing was also fine but not outstanding.  I think the story could be tightened up considerably by cutting around 25% of the material, but overall it was still a very enjoyable film.  The viewer really gets to know the kids from Bed-Stuy, many of whom defy one’s preconceptions about such kids; as well as the viewer gets to know the Sierra Leonean kids, although not quite as well, but still to a significant depth.

One must read this review understanding that I went to see this film with the knowledge that I would be shooting a similar film soon.  I am coming to my conclusions from not only the point of a professional filmmaker (someone who is already critically viewing film works) but one who will be shooting a similar story.  That said, I see several areas the film could be improved.

As I said already, I think the editing could use another pass.  There were many kids on the American side whose parents we didn’t get to know, and I feel that knowing them better would have highlighted the lack of parents on the Sierran side.  Editing could also be further used to accentuate this.  (Warning: spoilers ahead).

Lastly, for me, the film begins to fall apart about 10 to 15 minutes before the end.  The quality of the footage changes, exposing that the video the viewer is now seeing was shot on a much cheaper camera, probably by someone native to Africa, not by the filmmakers themselves.  The students in Bed-Stuy raised $1000 for their orphan penpals, a significant sum that could no doubt make a huge difference in those kids’ lives.  However, the footage purported to be showing the difference it made is of low quality, suggesting no one independent was there to record how it was used, and the narration then suggests (but never exactly specifies) it went to buy beds, build a dormitory, and several other things.  Money goes a long way in Africa, but not that long of a way.  I would have left the theater with a more warm and fuzzy feeling had the filmmakers been more forthright and less ambitious about portraying the impact it made; simply saying “this went to buy $1,000 worth of rice” would still have made for a heartwarming film — as the story is currently told it left me confused entirely as to where the money went (if anywhere, a problem endemic to the aid process, somewhat covered in my Joan Baxter review).  So as not to end this on a bad note, let me say that I did enjoy the film, and that anything I’ve said that appears to be critical is simply meant to highlight how Brownstones to Red Dirt could be an even more moving film; if you get a chance to see it I would not hesitate to do so.

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