The other day I went to see an interesting film at the Film Forum. I'm pretty sure I didn't actually learn anything I didn't already know from Boys of Baraka, but maybe I didn't entirely understand what I knew. If you get the chance, I'd recommend taking a look at this film. Boys of Baraka is about a few African-American boys who attend middle and high schools in Baltimore, MD, and are selected to attend a sort of 2 year-long retreat/boarding school in Africa. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue.
The footage makes the conditions in Baltimore public schools a lot more visceral than just hearing someone tell you that things there are bad, and demonstrates a great deal of hope as well. There is no shortage of memorable, light moments along the way, and the movie is filled with engaging characters. It's also shot pretty well. Probably just on DV, but by folks that knew what they were doing
In documentary films, often times there's a tricky section at the beginning, where the characters are introduced...and introduced...and introduced...(see: Spellbound). Boys of Baraka manages to avoid this by just getting started with the story after we meet the first character or two, and then introducing new ones as they come in to the story, rather than all at once.
But I think rather than any particular brilliance of editing or filming - though both are very good - the direction is really what hit home to me about this doc. It sucks you in quickly, isn't gimmicky, and tells an important story without being preachy. Though we are seeing a bit of a renaissance of general interest documentary right now, much of the work still consists of putting sunlight where there isn't any; so managing to both illuminate and not make the viewer feel as though they're in school is the challenge.
(If by some random chance, someone reading this doesn't know me personally, I spent a great deal of time editing the orientation film for a museum in Baltimore, the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History, so I learned quite a bit about African American history in Maryland. Boys of Baraka still managed to be surprising on some details.)