By Simone Barros
In the midst of furious political protests over teacher unions’ collective bargaining rights and the national debate of America’s lag in education especially in poor and minority communities, the 35th Cleveland International Film Festival presents the film, “Facing Forward” highlighting the solutions taking place right here in a Cleveland charter school.
“Facing Forward” explores the challenges of Entrepreneur Preparatory Junior High School, located within the heart of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District on East 36th and Superior Avenue. E Prep, as the school is more commonly referred, strives for increased academic achievement among poorer minority students by implementing alternative methods such as monetary compensation for passing grades, eight-hour school days, a ten-month school year and a relentless disciplinary code. Principle Marshall Emerson III not only personally relates to the students but gears E Prep teachers for the unique challenges presented by inner city poverty. Yet amid the impassioned school-wide campaign for heightened Ohio Achievement Assessment scores and out-performing surrounding public schools, the film profiles a very specific and conspicuously overlooked perspective of the American education gap, the student’s perspective.
“Facing Forward” centers on Tyree Stewart, a seventh grader new to E Prep who begins the school with low reading and math skills. Tyree stood out by the way he questioned the discipline methods of the school, “like a lawyer building a case,” explains the film’s acclaimed Cleveland Heights based producer and director, Laura Paglin. Paglin sought to profile a student, “on the edge” to examine a full scope of obstacles facing Cleveland students. Her instincts proved right on target with Tyree. His journey throughout the film is one of personal growth with triumphant milestones often eclipsed by crushing setbacks. As it happens with dedicated documentary filmmakers, Tyree’s setbacks become Paglin’s setbacks, when Tyree’s enrollment at E Prep hangs in the balance. Suddenly the completion of the film is tied to Tyree’s class completion and graduation. However Paglin resists the current trend in documentaries and journalism to turn a self-indulgent reflexive lens on her plight as the filmmaker. Rather, the film simply underscores the tenuousness of Tyree’s school completion and a potentially abrupt end to the film with a slow fade to black. The hopeful fade-in on a new day builds the anticipation of Tyree persevering through his hardships.
The camera ventures beyond the school grounds and into Tyree’s home, exploring the many factors jeopardizing Tyree’s academic success. Tyree shares the complex relationship with his mother vacillating between love and pain in an open and honest manner. Tyree’s straightforward and open nature may be somewhat rare as Paglin describes, “Other students were great in interviews but self conscious when followed by cameras throughout the school and vice versa.” Paglin discovered the story of her film by “constantly asking questions of the footage” and letting the story grow organically. After reviewing footage of a several students, Paglin focused on filming Tyree in the pendulum process of shooting and editing and shooting even more which is common with documentary filmmaking.
By concentrating on Tyree, Paglin relates a very human story at the core of the heated political foray currently swirling about education. With a similar attention, Paglin captured the people and lives of her award-winning documentary, “No Umbrella: Election Day in the City” about a gridlocked Cleveland inner city polling station during the 2004 election which kept the nation awake waiting upon Ohio’s outcome. “No Umbrella” also screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival as well as Sundance and received the Jury Award for Short Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival. Paglin approaches the political nature of her documentaries without imposing her personal political views, “I’m driven by the characters and interested in their stories.” Paglin finds inspiration for her films from the community surrounding her, “Cleveland is on the frontlines of many challenges facing the entire country.” In bringing Tyree’s story to the screen with “Facing Forward” Paglin brings Cleveland’s story to an international stage. By documenting solutions at work in Cleveland such as E Prep and students like Tyree, Clevelanders gain a deeper understanding of the people overcoming this city’s obstacles and stand to provide a beacon for other cities facing similar problems.
The 35th Cleveland International Film Festival certainly aims at bringing Clevelanders compelling stories from around the globe but hasn’t overlooked this unique opportunity to celebrate a distinguished Cleveland based filmmaker such as Laura Paglin who tells the stories of other Clevelanders in a way outside filmmakers may not. “Facing Forward” is certainly a film to catch at this year’s festival.