The street that runs through many countries
Given how very American it seems, it’s almost odd how global a phenomenon “Sesame Street” is -- no “CSI: Miami,” perhaps, though I would trade a truckload of David Carusos for a single Grover. It runs in more than 120 countries, mostly in dubbed versions of the original, but in more and more places -- beginning as far back as 1972, after an inquiry from Germany -- it is being produced locally, retooled for the native audience, with new characters and settings reflecting native culture and concerns.
“The World According to Sesame Street,” which begins a new season of the documentary series “Independent Lens” tonight on KCET, documents three of the more recent local productions, each in a country defined by crisis: South Africa, where AIDS runs rampant and has left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned and often infected; Kosovo, where tension between Serbians and Albanians continues to run high, beneath a blanket of NATO forces; and Bangladesh, where many are kept down by old notions of class and gender, and where poverty sends children to work at an age when, in this country, they would be starting kindergarten. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton (who produced the New Zealand film “Whale Rider”) and Linda Hawkins, it is, like any story of hope, set against a desperate background and is at once deeply inspiring and devastatingly sad.
“Sesame Street” came into the world in 1969, a sort of Head Start of the air, quite specifically developed to give poorer children skills to match their more advantaged peers, or as Rolf the Dog says in an archival “pitch” film seen here, to teach “little preschool kids some stuff that will be useful to them in school.” It was purposely urban, multiethnic and inclusive, and very quickly became the gold standard of children’s programming, a position it still firmly holds. It is a show made to give its viewers a sense of possibility, rather than merely to turn them into junior consumers or inculcate them with a creed.
Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman behind the creation of “Sesame Street,” characterizes the Sesame Workshop, in its global outreach, as something of a missionary business, spreading not religion but “learning and tolerance and love.” This is not an uncontroversial position, however, the world being divided into the tolerant and the intolerant; those who would level the playing field and those who prefer it tipped; and those who wish to mire their children in history and those who wish to free them from it.
In Kosovo, the Workshop helps mount a sort of double-barreled series, “Rruga Sesam” (in Albanian) and “Ulica Sezam” (in Serbian), each taking material from the American series and adding to it live action designed to promote cross-ethnic understanding. In South Africa, where the show is called “Takalani Sesame,” the producers add a character named Kami, a 5-year-old HIV-positive Muppet, orphaned by AIDS, in order to address a problem familiar to many of its viewers and to help fight the stigma of infection.
It’s the Bangladesh series, called “Sisimpur,” that gets most of the attention here and gives the documentary a dramatic shape. We see the process from beginning to end -- and there is some suspense as to what that end will be, as the production company is associated with a political party in opposition to the ruling party, which controls the nation’s sole broadcaster. It’s not a simple process: There are ministers to court, a flood to weather, terrorism in the streets, understandings to reach.
Whether “Sesame Street” can indeed reform the world, I don’t know. There may be studies on how well it improves later academic performance, or social skills, or bigness of heart, but none of them are cited here. Being old enough to remember a world before “Sesame Street,” I do believe that we have grown more tolerant during its run and that younger generations especially seem less impressed by color lines considered all but impenetrable not that long ago. But whether this is down to Bert and Ernie or would have happened anyway is impossible to tell. The show has gone around the world, and the world is, as of this writing, still a mess.
Still, it is moving and lovely to watch this process at work, this meeting of believers and artists and craftsmen, coming together to produce something beautifully useful, and usefully beautiful for the sake of the newest generations -- and what better care could anyone have?
‘Independent Lens: The World According to Sesame Street’
When: 9 to 10:30 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)