Depot Docs’ To Be Heard: Writing Your Own Life Story

“not settle for normal”

By James O’Barr

When Joe Ubiles, one of the three remarkable teachers featured in To Be Heard, the Depot Docs film coming to the Philipstown Depot Theatre on Jan. 20, says that he wants his students to “not settle for normal,” it calls to mind the Bruce Cockburn song: “The trouble with normal is/it always gets worse.” For the three young people who are the subjects of this fine, highly praised and multiple award-winning documentary, the “normal” that Mr. Ubiles refers to is grim and unpromising. They live in a blighted neighborhood in the South Bronx, they are “of color,” they have known systemic racism and financial hardship all their lives, and they live in households in which drug use, physical abuse, and overburdened (single) parents are the rule. But these three share one other marker of marginality that the filmmakers hold out as their great hope: they are poets, very good ones, and they are students in a radical poetry workshop at University Heights High School in the Bronx called Power Writing.

The teachers, Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura, and Mr. Ubiles, are, among many other things, artists-in-the-schools, and have led the Power Writing program since 2002. They are also, along with Deborah Shaffer and Edwin Martinez, co-producers and co-directors of the film, which follows the lives of four Power Writing students, Karina Sanchez, Anthony Pittman, and Pearl Quick, aka “The Tripod,” over a four-year period. As we watch those lives unfold, each with its successes, setbacks, heartbreaks, and hard-won growth, we are also given a primer in teaching as an act of love, and as an expression of what George Dennison called “the natural authority of adults,” in which relationships, not “instruction,” promote real learning. In terms of the Power Writing ethos, real learning is summed up by Ms. Sultan: “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.”

The cinematography, by Edwin Martinez, is a wonder of gritty verité, capturing the feel and commotion and noise of the South Bronx streets and stoops and subways, as well as the drama and immediacy of life behind closed doors. We also follow our students into the larger world, as they participate in the Urban Word Poetry Slams, visit colleges, and make a doleful drive to a prison. Occasionally the raw is relieved by the perfectly cooked, in beautifully staged readings of their poems by the Tripod.

To Be Heard will be shown at the Philipstown Depot Theatre on Friday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m. There will be a Q&A and reception with co-producer/co-director Deborah Shaffer to follow the screening.

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