'Baraka': how children can be lifted up

Critics' Picks : New Dvds

June 04, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

THE BOYS OF BARAKA / / THINKFilm / / $29.95

The Boys of Baraka, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's extraordinary documentary about an innovative educational program, born of desperation, that sent 20 at-risk African-American boys from Baltimore to school in Kenya, is sobering and enlightening, thrilling and depressing. It may come across as pessimistic about the present, but finds plenty of hope for the future.

One thing's for sure: this is not the face of Baltimore that the visitors' bureau would like to present. The streets of Charm City prove anything but charming, and calling them mean might be understating the point. The picture it paints of the city public school system is even worse.

Baraka, however, is not about hopelessness, but about potential -- about how kids can rise to a challenge, provided someone is actually there to challenge them. And that's what the Baraka School, until unrest in Kenya forced its operators to shut it down, was all about. The kids there aren't coddled, aren't sheltered, aren't forgiven their limitations. They're told what needs to be done, and are expected to do it.

Ultimately, to the kids' surprise, they rise to the challenge. Not right away, and not always consciously, but inexorably.

The film concentrates on four boys, ages 12 and 13, charismatic but vulnerable, and watches as they encounter structure in their lives, perhaps for the first time. Savvy and street-smart, they think they know it all, but the filmmakers know better. One of the great strengths of Baraka is that it tells us hardly anything about these kids, opting instead to let us watch and learn about them for ourselves. The experience is not to be missed.

* Special features: Ewing and Grady's running commentary evinces how much these two women's lives were touched by the young men they encountered, as well as offering insight into some of the boys who appear in the film, but who are not among the four boys spotlighted. It also brings the film down to earth on occasion; when one of the young men tells another, who is looking to run away from the school and hop the first plane back to Baltimore, that he'll never make it past "the projects," one might assume he was speaking metaphorically. But he wasn't; the students, it seemed, referred to the mud huts of the nearby native villages as "the projects."

Also included are about 10 minutes of deleted scenes, six minutes of Bill Cosby talking about the film, and an update on the four featured pupils.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

MOMMIE DEAREST: HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY EDITION / / Paramount Home Video / / $14.95

Poor Joan Crawford. Once one of Hollywood's most beloved stars, her reputation was thoroughly trashed when her adopted daughter, Christina, wrote Mommie Dearest, a memoir that painted Joan as psychotic, controlling, cruel and absolutely intolerant of wire coat hangers.

As if that wasn't bad enough, then the movie came out in 1981, with Faye Dunaway portraying Joan as just one step removed from the spawn of Satan. Winner of the Razzie Award as the year's worst film, Mommie Dearest became a camp classic, a perfect example of a film that veers totally out of control. Watching it is like watching a train wreck happen right in front of you: Yes, the movie may be terrible, but I dare you to turn away.

And if all that doesn't persuade you to buy this DVD immediately, how's this?: The commentary track is by Baltimore's own defender of the tasteless, filmmaker John Waters. While Waters insists the movie isn't as bad as its reputation suggests, even he admits there are moments -- one involving an ax, as well as the bit with the coat hangers -- where the adjective "camp" doesn't do it justice.

[CHRIS KALTENBACH]

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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