Brownstones to Red Dirt is a 2010 documentary about children living in a violent part of Brooklyn NYC, whose middle school teacher initiated a pen pal program with children in civil war torn Sierra Leone.
The unique aspect of this documentary is that there is no voice over, intoning and opining. No narrator and no narrative. The movie features the voice of the children (and parents and teachers) exclusively. The kids are the ones telling the story.
And what a story it is. The movie blurb at SnagFilms.com summarizes:
A sweet and lyrical documentary about a simple pen pal program, BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT captures the growth of sixth graders from housing projects in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and war orphans from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Though the kids know nothing about one another when they write their first letters, they learn that while their environments are vastly different, the struggles they face make them more alike than they realized. This revelation brings them closer together and teaches us all inspirational lessons about friendship, love and humanity.
The Brooklyn Film Festival blurb has more details:
Brownstones To Red Dirt follows four pairs of pen pals from housing projects in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and the slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone. These two “lost” groups help one another find their way as they are confronted by remarkably similar issues despite the vast differences of their environments. Through endearing glimpses into the lives of these children, the film highlights the failure of governments and societies to protect their youth.
Each pair of pen pals highlights a major issue faced by kids across the world: Isaiah’s father left him as a baby; Abdul was first taken, then abandoned by the rebel commander that killed his parents. Malik and Balla each use art, not vengeance, to heal. Augusta’s peaceful definition of friendship reaches Destiny in Bed-Stuy, where loyalty is often proven with violence, not love. Fred and Emmanuel, both cast aside by a world that expects little from an inner-city black teen or a third world orphan, are defiant in their quest to better themselves. As the school year progresses, the children use their experiences to unknowingly teach one another simple lessons that will last them a lifetime.
Though this film is not a Christian film, anyone who has a biblical worldview will no doubt see Godly principles expressed through the children. Their initiative, trust, and generosity is a major theme throughout. Their child-like faith is remarkable. In one scene, a desperately impoverished girl in Sierra Leone writes in closing to her pen pal in Brooklyn, ‘No matter what happens I want you to know you have a Godly friend.’ One is reminded of Bible verses which focus on children and their child like faith, trust, and willingness to share sacrificially.
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:15-16)
The civil war in Sierra Leone took its toll on an entire generation of children. Wikipedia explains the basics of this devastating event:
The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991–2002) began on 23 March 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with support from the special forces of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The resulting civil war lasted 11 years, enveloped the country, and left over 50,000 dead.
Adults were slaughtered by the tens of thousands, often in front of the children. Later, children under the age of 15 were recruited for the cause. When the war ended, tens of thousands of lost and abandoned children littered the landscape, starving, dying, and ripe for further exploitation.
In one heartbreaking scene, a Sierra Leonian child had been asked what he thought America was like. He said “I want to go there. They have their own mommies and daddies.”
In one scene a boy said his parents were killed in front of him and the rebel commander took him ‘for his own.’ After several years of forced servitude in a rebel army, the commander was surrounded by opposing forces and he abandoned the boy. ‘I can’t keep you any more’ he said. When the battle concluded, orphaned and separated from his sister whom he did not know was alive or dead, the boy didn’t know what to do or where to go. “So I just sat down in the road,” he said.
Though life in Bed-Stuy is not as dire as it is in Sierra Leone, with starvation, exploitation, and pervasive hopelessness, life is still not easy. Violent gangs are rampant. At one point during the height of the violent era in NY, one mom said her children playing in the apartment courtyard and bullets were flying over their heads. Every time a child stepped outside there was a chance they would either be recruited by a gang or killed as a bystander in gang warfare. One piece of graffiti art depicts chalk outline of a man on a wall, his body filled with names of the killed.
The children realize they share common goals despite the vast chasm in their geography and differences in culture and circumstance. They realize they have the same desires. They want education, a fulfilling career, safety, and to love those around them. They have drive, initiative, all for making their part of the world a better place. Despite their surroundings which might defeat an adult’s outlook, these children are optimistic.
It’s a wonder to see kids like this. One begins to understand the soft place Jesus has for children. They truly are an inspiration.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)
Watch on Hulu or free on Snagfilms.com