by director Patrick Creadon
This Old House meets The Breakfast Club. That's a movie I'd watch.
It's always been important to us to feel deeply connected to the stories we tell. Long before we made our first film Wordplay, my wife Christine and I were avid New York Times crossword puzzle fans. Growing up in Chicago, several of my friends and family members worked in the bond room at the Chicago Board of Trade, so a story about America's national debt felt very personal, too (I.O.U.S.A.). Our latest documentary film, If You Build It, feels as close to us as anything we've done before.
The film takes place in Bertie County, NC, the poorest county in the state. In it, we spend a year in the life of one of America's most innovative classrooms. Designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller were invited to teach ten high school students the basics of design and architecture, and then together with this young band of builders, they were asked to go out and design and build something the community had always wanted. The results of the year-long educational experiment were remarkable, and provided a sharp contrast to the short-sightedness and stingy reluctance of the local school board to support the efforts of the teachers and their students.
I'd never been to Bertie County before, and I'd certainly never studied design or architecture. In fact, much of the story felt quite foreign to me. But the key components of the film—two great teachers and a fresh idea for public schools—were ideas I wanted to dig deeper into. I was fortunate to have great teachers growing up Chicago. Two in particular—Roger Finnell of Fenwick High School, and Dan Lapsley at the University of Notre Dame—were hugely influential. I experienced the life-changing influence a great teacher can have on a young person, and the impact they can have on someone who hasn't quite figured out who they want to be when they grow up. Seeing Emily and Matt inspire their students throughout the film is a moving reminder for me of how lucky I was to cross paths with my mentors.
As for the fresh idea in public schools, that was even more intriguing to Christine and me. Our three daughters attend public schools here in Los Angeles, and they are lucky to attend schools that value new ideas and fresh ways to get kids excited about learning. My oldest daughter Fiona has been to several film festivals with us, and she came up with the idea of starting a kids film festival at her elementary school. In the first year, the students created sixteen short films that we screened in the school auditorium. Filmmaker badges were made by the kids with crayons, flowers were handed out to the young participants, and many tears were shed by parents who had not yet realized the talents their children had for storytelling. The fundamental course load of any young person's education—math, science, history, language skills—are important building blocks, but it's the project-based learning experiences that provide meaning and context to their daily studies.
Throughout the film, the students take an incredible journey over the course of one school year. They grow from being disinterested, unruly sixteen-year-olds to becoming the most ardent defenders of their teachers and their own education. As I watch the film, the story of these kids I never met before, in a town I'd never heard of, studying a curriculum that was new to me, feels incredibly personal to me. Because getting these high school kids excited, making them invested in their own education, and in improving their own circumstances—that's exactly what I want for my kids as a parent.
A roomful of young kids with drafting equipment and power tools, designing and re-designing their community—as well as their own lives—is what we captured in If You Build It. It's a moving and inspiring story that seems to be rubbing off on those who have seen the film. And so, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should warn those of you who go see our film in Landmark Theaters this spring—the energy and enthusiasm the kids show throughout the film is highly contagious. You just might find yourself stopping off at your local hardware store on your way home from the movie theater.
Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley are raising their three children in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. Their first two films Wordplay (2006) and I.O.U.S.A. (2008) both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and were both nominated for the Critic's Choice Awards for "Best Documentary of the Year."