One of the films short-listed for this year's documentary Oscar nominations, "Baraka" grips us because it's true to its title: it spends so much intense time — nearly three years — with a group of young boys from the nastiest of Baltimore's dead-end streets that we can't help but care enormously about where they end up.
As recruiter Mavis Jackson tells a group of middle school boys, Baraka is not a boot camp nor a jail. It is a rural two-year boarding school 20 miles from the nearest town. Its goal is to educate and change the attitudes of at-risk boys from Baltimore. The idea is to see if focused teaching and removal from drug-riddled streets can make a difference, can get the boys motivated enough to get into good high schools back home.
Twenty students make up each two-year Baraka class, but the film focuses on three 12- and 13-year-old boys, individuals so winningly intense, candid and sincere that it's no surprise the filmmakers stuck with them.
Richard, the first we meet, seems as thoughtful as he is troubled, furious at the drug use he sees everywhere and determined to escape the neighborhood. The film follows him on a visit to his incarcerated father, where he says poignantly, "I want to grow up and be somebody; I don't want to be in a place like this, where I couldn't see my kids."
Devon, raised by his grandmother because his mother's drug habit has her in and out of prison, has been interested in the church since he was a toddler. A boy preacher, he has all the pulpit cadences and moves of a man several times his age.
Last of the group is Montrey, the classic difficult kid, suspended eight times in one year, a person who has trouble controlling his anger and always wants to have the last word.
At the most basic level, what going to Kenya does for these boys is allow them to be boys, to capture frogs and play in the rain. But they also remain wary kids from the neighborhood, testing limits, facing off against each other, getting used to a kind of discipline, academic and otherwise, they have never experienced before. This is far from an easy process, and one that has no assurance of success.
It is also, as all documentary filmmakers discover, a real-world process during which things happen that no one could have anticipated. As the Baraka students make use of their time in Kenya and back home on summer break in Baltimore, the pressures and problems of the real world can't help but intrude on their lives.
Though co-directors Ewing and Grady are experienced documentarians, they've left a few too many questions unanswered. "Boys" tells us almost nothing about the Baraka School, leaving us in the dark about its history, the nature of its funding, where its faculty comes from and why the teachers are there. On the other hand, the filmmakers have gotten a remarkable degree of cooperation from the students and their families.
"The Boys of Baraka's" greatest service is in shining a light on a problem many people don't want to talk about: our willingness to throw away the lives of kids who grow up in dangerous neighborhoods far from quality schools. The enormous potential of these children, how eagerly they respond to the kinds of educational opportunities more fortunate young people take for granted, should make us wonder how society let things get this bad. "If I don't get my education," one of the boys says with more truth than grammar, "I don't get nowhere."
'The Boys of Baraka'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A ThinkFilm release. Directors Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady. Editor Enat Sidi. Cinematographers Marco Franzoni, Tony Hardmon. Music J.J. McGeehan. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. In selected theaters.