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Silverdocs Reviews: “To Be Heard” and “The Learning”

Our critic’s take on films playing at this year’s Silverdocs festival

To Be Heard follows the lives of three South Bronx teenagers who find moments of refuge in a poetry workshop. Photograph courtesy of Silverdocs

To Be Heard
To Be Heard
accomplishes a difficult task for a documentary. It covers no single event, nor even a single person. Instead, it relies on themes to tell its tale, quintessential ideas of struggle, identity, and redemption. Three teens from the South Bronx face each of these against the backdrop of a blighted neighborhood and abandoned dreams. And as the camera documents them, they document themselves through the one thing they have left to rely on: poetry.

The central characters, Anthony, Karina, and Pearl, have come together in a poetry workshop called Power Writing. The classroom is quickly established as a sanctuary, a respite where the three can stand and speak and rhyme and cry. A common saying echoed by a trio of the workshop’s mentors encapsulates the adversity our main characters have been born into: If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.

And write they do. Filmed over the course of four years by as many directors (Amy Sultan, Deborah Shaffer, Roland Legiardi-Laura, and Edwin Martinez), the documentary’s sheer scale enables an intimate look into the teens’ troubled lives. We see the poster Pearl has made in her home of all the things holding her back, with “fear” the most difficult to overcome. We watch the consequences of parental abuse in Karina’s life in the form of bruises and black eyes. And we are forced to witness Anthony, whose teachers call his ability “genius-level,” spiral helplessly downward into an all-too-familiar oblivion.

All the while, their poetry moves from the classroom to the stage. They become adults in front of the camera, from prom to graduation to college tours. There are as many triumphs as there are tragedies. But the guiding thread is their words, performed with such talent and vitality it’s no surprise the filmmakers chose to follow their lives, to help them write their own story.

To Be Heard screens at AFI Silver 2 at 12:45 PM on Friday, June 24, and at 10:30 PM on Saturday, June 25. Individual tickets and festival passes (prices vary) available at the Silverdocs Web site.


In Ramona Diaz’s The Learning, four Filipino educators leave their homes and families to teach students in Baltimore’s public school system. Photograph courtesy of Silverdocs

The Learning
Setting plays the biggest role in filmmaker Ramona Diaz’s The Learning, as the camera travels from the vibrant and colorful cracked roads of the Philippines to the solemn and snowy streets of Charm City. The journey from one end of the world to the other is made by the documentary’s four main characters, Filipino teachers recruited by Baltimore’s struggling public school system.

It’s a painful change for each, as they leave behind husbands, children, and homes to spend a school year in a strange and foreign land. But they have no option­; teachers in the Philippines earn wages below the poverty line, while in America they have a chance to make enough to send some back to their families.

The film alternates between the teachers’ hectic classroom hours and their languid nights at home, counting the days until they can see their loved ones again. Each of the four teachers has a unique story to tell, a reason the distance between home and work is so daunting, and watching each slowly unfold is the documentary’s greatest strength. The narratives are punctuated by the camera’s pan across the landscape. One teacher calls her Baltimore window “a painting,” motionless and plain compared to the constant buzz of activity back home.

Baltimore’s public school system is the fifth major character. So desperate for math, science, and special education instructors, each year they thrust hundreds of Filipino teachers into an unfamiliar and frequently unforgiving environment. This is especially true in the case of Dorothea, who, at the beginning of the documentary, is surrounded by adoring Filipino students. Once she gets to Baltimore, she faces a raucous, unruly group that leaves her fighting back tears after the bell rings. Yet like her fellow transplanted teachers, Dorothea goes home at the end of the day knowing a phone call home is the best reminder of why they’re there.

The Learning screens at AFI Silver 2 at 10:15 AM on Friday, June 24, and at 4:15 PM on Sunday, June 26. Individual tickets and festival passes (prices vary) available at the Silverdocs Web site.

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Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.