Candid kids

Through the use of hand-held cameras, a 7-year-old Baltimore boy and other children give public view to their private lives_and thoughts

February 21, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

When 7-year-old Joshua Bynum was issued a video camera last April, he vowed to document real life, no matter the consequences. Rather than filming his mother modeling her pretty church clothes, he waited until she collapsed on the couch to eat doughnuts. He ambushed his grandmother when she was barely out of bed.

His female relatives protested that their hair wasn't movie-ready 24/7, but Joshua didn't falter: He knew his footage of a West Baltimore boyhood was destined for The Learning Channel, which had commissioned it for part of a new documentary series, My Life as a Child, which airs the next six Mondays at 7 p.m.

For the millions who will end up watching, Joshua wanted to record his experience from every possible angle -- from the windows of his mother's home, for example, where he shot between venetian blinds to capture shady characters hanging out on the basketball court, and strange cars pulling up to the curb. He even wanted to include the view from on top of a camel he rode at the zoo, although his grandmother quickly vetoed that idea.

"No," Jan Brooks, 51, told him then, "you got to hold on, baby."

Ultimately, though, Joshua did something even more daring: He turned his camera on himself. Every night, he propped it up on a tripod in his bedroom and spent a long, long time explaining things.

"We had no idea what he was saying in there," says his mother, 30-year-old Nicole Bynum.

"Lots of stuff," says Joshua, now 8 and a third-grader at Scotts Branch Elementary School.

More than four months of his homemade footage have been boiled down to about 15 intense minutes of television, in which the young documentarian reveals his fear of his tough Irvington neighborhood, his disappointment in his absentee father and his growing respect for the strong women in his life.

"I'm a deep boy," Joshua says.

It's true. No one was surprised last spring when Joshua -- who aspires to be either an actor/comedian or the president -- started pestering family members about auditioning for the new show, which he'd heard about in school. He wanted the opportunity to showcase his "acting skills," not to mention his cartwheel.

But after he was selected, and trained on the digital camera that would become an extra appendage for the next several months, Jan Brooks was shocked at how devoted her grandson was to his craft. In a given week, it wasn't uncommon for him to mail away four or five full tapes to the show's editors, full of shots of his baby sister racing around in her diapers, or glimpses of his grandmother cooking breakfast.

Joshua also seemed intent upon the task of introspection, sometimes prompted by a list of film editors' questions, and sometimes asking his own.

"Who am I?" he muses in one scene. "That's sort of a complicated question."

The finished product includes plenty of comedy, of course -- there are classic shots of Joshua in a cowboy hat, riding a bucking broomstick -- and lots of grins (one of the film's great pleasures is watching his gigantic front tooth grow in). But there are tears, too -- they flow when he has to leave his mother for his grandmother's house in Pimlico, where he lived during much of the filming in order to attend a better school, and also when he talks about his desire to see his dad, who doesn't call.

Ultimately, the camera doesn't just introduce Joshua to strangers -- it offers a way for his family to know him better, too.

"He was really talking about how he felt," says his mother, who has since moved her family to Pikesville. "There were feelings that we never knew he had."

And Joshua learned about himself, as well. When his family saw the finished product for the first time recently, more tears spilled down the boy's cheeks.

"There were things that I just sort of found out about myself," he says. "Sad things. Things that I really didn't want to find out."

But "I also feel good about it," he says. "A lot of people watch TLC. They are going to have their mouths hanging down."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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