A new, locally made, feature-length documentary film will be making its premiere at the Tivoli Theatre next month, and the filmmakers hope it will inspire the citizens of Chattanooga to stand up for the future of the historic Howard School.
"Build Me a World: The Story of the Howard School" is an independent project written, produced and directed by the local production firm Fancy Rhino, documenting a year at the south Chattanooga high school.
The project was born after the production company received a grant in 2010 to do a short informational documentary on the struggling high school.
World premiere of the film: Thursday, Aug. 16, 7:30 p.m. at the Tivoli Theatre, free and open to the public
The Howard Summit: Saturday, Aug. 18, 10 a.m.
The Camp House: Wednesday, Aug. 22, time is TBA
Back Row Film Series: Saturday, Sept. 1, time and place are TBA
Check out more details on the film's website.
But after speaking with Howard Principal Paul Smith, they decided to reach well beyond their original goals for the production and really get involved with the students as a means to get inside the stories of the school.
"We heard rumors that the state was moving in, that the school might be shut down. We wanted to document. But we found we couldn’t observe without taking part," company leaders said on the film's new Kickstarter page.
Although the school is one of the oldest black public schools in the South, founded in 1865, that long history has been overshadowed, especially in recent years as it has became simply known as a "dropout factory."
More than 90 percent of the students who attend Howard live in poverty, school officials said. Six years ago, there was a 20 percent graduation rate, but today, officials boast that it has shot up to 88 percent.
"Despite this amazing turnaround, many of the students are marginalized, believing they have limited choices in this life," officials said.
To start the relationship and build trust with the students, Fancy Rhino began by offering a once-a-week film class to students participating in the Talented Tenth Leadership Program and started a Film Club over the course of the 2011-2012 school year. From there, they distributed cameras to some of the students to take home and start learning how to tell the truth about their own lives.
"The footage that they shot became a centerpiece to the film because we never would have gotten the whole story of a year in their lives," co-producer Isaiah Smallman said.
Alexis Walton was one of those students. She, along with two other graduating seniors, are the film's primary characters, along with Smith and Talented Tenth instructor Mason West III.
Walton, who will be attending Tennessee State University in the fall, majoring in civil engineering with a minor in mathematics, is the first in a generation to go to college in her family.
Walton said she knows it was her decision to focus on her education at Howard as a teenager that kept her from joining a gang, getting pregnant and picking up diseases.
Working on the documentary has also helped her take a closer look at who she is and what she stands for.
"When I was filming about my life and answering a series of questions, it opened my eyes to things from other people's perspectives. Right now, I should be in a gang in the projects and not going to college. It changed my mentality and view of life," Walton said.
The title of the film comes from a quote the students in Talented Tenth often repeat while giving presentations in pursuit of their goal to transform the school into a pre-K through 12th-grade, year-round, career-technical institution.
"Build us a school, and we'll build you a world" is their simple cry for help.
According to the film's website, incoming freshmen enter Howard at a third-grade reading level. Creating a K-12 school will help bridge this widening gap between elementary schools and high schools in the community, creators said.
Walton agrees, and as she steps out into the real world of college this fall, she still has an eye on the community she is leaving behind.
"We want the young children to start at the same pace as us and start early. We are here, and we know what we have to do to be successful. All we need is a school to educate our young people because they are our future," Walton said.
Co-producer Drew Belz said the aim of the film is to inspire more people in the city to stand up for Howard and to understand the school is becoming known for much more than its dropout rate.
"The Howard School was founded in 1865 and is not only a historic institution in Chattanooga, it has also become known as a place where students, teachers and administrators fight against environmental and cyclical failure within our public education system," Belz said.
The film's director, Bethany Mollenkof, said stories like Walton's represent many more that remain untold at the school.
"Each of our main characters represents a lot of other kids at the school. They have similar experiences," Mollenkof said.
Mollenkof said she hopes people well outside the circle of Howard will be able to see themselves in the stories and work to bridge the gap between what she calls "two Chattanoogas."
"If we decide to open ourselves up, we are a lot more similar than we think. I hope people will find ways to involve themselves. We live in two worlds in Chattanooga, and that is not good for growth, and it is not good for this town and the way we want to be," she said.
After the film premieres at the Tivoli on Aug. 16, a series of community dialogues and screening events are planned to open and continue the conversation from themes and challenges presented in the film.
Mollenkof said the company may consider entering the project into film festivals for wider exposure.
"This is a personal and specific documentary for this community. We want to show it to as many people here as possible and get that dialogue started. Our first priority is Chattanooga," she said.
Disclaimer: Nooga.com is affiliated with the Lamp Post Group, which has a business relationship with Fancy Rhino, but editorial decisions for this publication are made independent of the Lamp Post Group.