Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction. And I am not the cheese here. This entirely true story of Turk Pipkin and the Nobelity Project’s tenacious creation of Kenya’s Mahiga Hope High School won the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival Lone Star States Audience Award. It’s not important exactly how I know that you cannot jam that ballot box— the point is that Building Hope is a bona fide “feel good” movie (which is normally just marketing parlance for a trite and predictably happy ending). Also, insipid rom coms are not actually great date movies. Building Hope is (unlikely as that may sound at first blush). But really now, did the latest Kate Hudson vehicle (to pick a name) put you in touch with the energizing wonder of human existence and possibility? When the lights came up, my spectacles were quite literally spotted from teardrops (mostly from the joy of my heart melting but also from moments of it breaking).
Building Hope is populated with a gallery of inspirational and selfless folks, not the least of which are the students of Mahiga (whose smiles, especially on class picture day, are indelible). Amongst these folks are Greg Elsner, the volunteer on-site “hippie architect from Minnesota,” local educator and point man Joseph Mutongu, executive producer and international non-profit darling Christy Pipkin, and the three young Austin siblings who raised $10,000 for substantial kitchen improvements. A vital construction component is the RainWater Court, which collects and stores drinking water with solar powered purification for the drought prone rural area and also serves as a full basketball court. Mr. Pipkin introduces the sport to the community for the very first time. From demonstrating the concept of dribbling, to the initially carnival midway-esque and comically under-sized homemade rim, and to the students eventual mastery of the game is one of the exemplary narrative arcs of concrete progress that will make you marvel.
All proceeds from the forty-four screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema June 3rd – 9th, 2011, will benefit the Nobelity Project’s Kenya Schools Fund.
The following is a transcript of the impromptu visit I had with director Turk Pipkin right after the June 1st Crown Violet screening.
Steve Birmingham: I was struck by the statistic that it would cost 11 billion dollars a year to educate every child in the world through Grade 8 and, for Americans, 11 billion is less than our military spends in one week.
Turk Pipkin: You’ve zeroed in on something that’s fairly imprecise. That’s a quote that actually comes from Queen Rania [of Jordan] that was actually in One Peace at a Time [Pipkin’s previous film]. I talked to her about it at Clinton Global Initiative a couple of years ago after she had spoken there [See Pipkin’s Sept. 13, 2009 “One Peace at a Time – The Right to an Education”]. Later in the film I talk about the idea of universal secondary education and then we’re talking about much larger numbers. Free, universal secondary education is one of the Millennium Development goals. But when they started in 2000, there wasn’t even universal primary education. What happened in Kenya is in the early ‘90s the World Bank advised Kenya to quit paying for primary school (“Let parents pay for it”) because they weren’t paying back their debt to the International Monetary Community. So they suspended free primary school on the assumption that parents could pay a few bucks a month. And half the country no longer went to school. Which, in my belief, is one of the reasons that country was primed to have post-election violence a few years ago because there’s a big generation of young people that didn’t get educated and they don’t have any opportunity, they’re living in slums, and there’s political unrest. They’re easily swayed to go one-way or the other and, actually, they’re for hire (which is a lot of what happened in that political unrest they had for the contested election). So, in ’03 they reinstated free primary education but now we’re eight years later and what’s really happened is all those kids have come up and (just like there was in the first five or six years with the primary school) there’s not enough places for them to go to secondary school. But it’s not just in Kenya; it’s all across Africa. Worse there than other parts of the developing world but it’s ridiculous to think that the developing world is going to change in substantive ways if kids don’t get a high school education. What do you do with an 8th Grade, y’know?
SB: Exactly. And yet, again, that figure was approximately one week of the U.S. military budget?
TP: Yeah, less than a week. I think the new budget just passes in the 700 billion range but that doesn’t include the money we’re spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which is special appropriations, so we’re more in like the trillion a year— not counting covert money that we don’t hear about. So, what would it cost everywhere? It’s hard to say. But, in this community, which is really what I was going at, we ending up spending… probably not all in but with the new preschool, with all the high school and with everything else, and with rebuilding the primary school, we really built a functional facility for 800 kids from age four to eighteen for about $300,000.
SB: I was really taken with how positive the students are despite their economic station in life and the community also seems so wonderfully jovial. I’m just curious from all your travels…
TP: You know, it’s interesting, people say “Why Kenya?” And one of the reasons for Kenya was just luck. I’ve worked in a lot of countries in the developing world and Wangari [Maathai of the Green Belt Movement] got me there and Joseph [Mutongu of Mahiga] got me there, and so it was really kind of a series of luck. It is easier for me because Kenya is an English speaking country— more Swahili than English every year. This really is a great community, it really is. But truthfully, I think that the perception that we get in America of the rest of the world and of the despair in Africa and how messed up everything in the world generally is— I think most of that is horseshit and that wherever you go, the people are actually just like that. People are exactly like people are here if they were living in dire circumstances. They’re just parents and kids and they all want their kids to have a better opportunity. The kids are not spending their time going, “Oh, why don’t I have a Porsche?” The kids are spending their time with their friends and their family and they’re enjoying life. And school is one of the things they enjoy in life.
SB: Because education is not something they take for granted… there was the sixteen-year-old young lady who said that her favorite class was physics and that she wanted to be a journalist. I wonder how many other American sixteen-year-olds would say that physics was their favorite class?
TP: Yeah, and that girl is an orphan who’s had other family loss since this film was made. And she still perseveres. I dunno. They are a very special bunch of kids. It’s not like there’s no problems, y’know, but they deal with them. Every once in a while the school committee or Jane Wainaina, the new principal who’s great, will call us up or send us an email and say, “Oh we had a problem with something and what do you think we should do?” And we say, “Whatever you think, it’s your school” [laughs]. And they’re, “Oh, we were just checking to see if you had any input?” “Yeah, we do. Whatever you think.” So the autonomy that comes with that and I think it’s the same thing for the kids— the kids realize, “No it’s not about [The Pipkins].” It’s actually about them. They like it when we come over and I’ll be over in a few weeks but it doesn’t really change the school situation. We still have teachers that are probably not quite as qualified as the teachers in Nairobi. We’re still going to have challenges on the KCSE [an exam for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] when you finish high school. We’ll only have our first senior classes next January, so we’re a year and a half away from trying to send our first kids to college. It’s going to be a challenge with the rural area and getting these kids accepted into college, but they’re trying!
SB: It was quite moving to learn that the students hadn’t visited these incredible nature preserves that are so frequented by tourists but are just a few miles from their homes. What was that like for you to see them witnessing this wildlife and having them being introduced to the idea that they are to be the stewards?
TP: It was great. And we were developing a mentor program for the school. So one of the mentors, Joseph, he’s a guy who was just lucky to get someone to sponsor him and go to high school and they he earned a scholarship to go to England and study to be a naturalist in a special program and he went right back to his community. He’s really quite a brilliant naturalist. But the preserves are there and they have to be there. You talk about the encroachment; Joseph talks about the elephant migratory route between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, which is gone now. And he’s one of the many people trying to restore that route but it’s not likely to actually ever happen. It’s just become too over-settled. The Aberdare National Forest has the rhino fence. It was just completed last year. Heck, we have a new school project that’s right next to the rhino fence. But, it’s the longest game fence in the world. It’s 400 kilometers of super high voltage electric wire— strong enough to hold elephants in. Although, elephants are so smart that they can work in concert. They can go up to five or six concrete pylons in a row, and in unison put one tusk against the concrete pylon and push the whole fence over and hold it down while others step over to go raid farmers’ fields when their corn is ready. They go to Joseph’s house where his wife hand tills an acre field of corn every year and the elephants come in and raid it right before they’re going to pick it— three years in a row. What are you going to do? So the fences are there for good reason and the preservation of these forests and of these animals is absolutely essential but it costs money to go inside. For tourists, it costs sixty bucks a day. For the locals, it costs like less than a buck but you got to get there and you got to be in a vehicle and they don’t have a buck and they don’t have a vehicle. So, taking them there is really cool and that’s something we’re going to continue to do.
SB: With any construction project, there are always delays and expenditure overages but yet you’re doing it in Africa where things like roads, basic materials, and equipment are a real challenge. You had the rains and the RainWater Court project manager just disappeared. What was the biggest logistical challenge? But it didn’t seem that it was ever radically off-track compared to people who just build here in remote areas.
TP: No, it wasn’t. Well, if you look at Madonna trying to build her girls school in Malawi— where she took the opposite approach. Rather than partnering with the local community, she said, “I’m going to go take charge of an area. I’m going to buy land. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to do everything.” Y’know, the way an American or foreigner would envision that this would be done. We could’ve built almost twenty Mahiga Hope High Schools for what she spent before she abandoned and fired everybody and never even bought a piece of land. And she’s about six million dollars into it. She still says she’s going to build it and I hope that she will but I think the lesson is if you have the community as a partner and you’re not pretending that you’re the person that knows the best thing in the world about how to operate a school in another culture, you know. They have a great education system in Kenya; they just don’t have enough funding to run it. Actually, the Kenyan government spends a higher percentage of their tax revenue on education than any country in the world. They’re number one— twenty-seven percent of their federal tax revenue. If you look per capita, they’re 125th. They just don’t have enough tax revenue. The biggest challenge… I don’t know. The classroom building turned into a money challenge and we found the money. We had a lot of people and support here. We just continued to raise money here, longer. But the vision of the school grew a lot. We built a full soccer pitch on that sloping field which had eight feet of incline and the first bids to build that soccer pitch were about twenty-five grand. I basically turned the school committee loose on it and [Austin’s] Westlake High’s soccer team raised a thousand dollars and a couple of other people donated about $500 and we built a twenty-five thousand dollar soccer field for about two thousand bucks. So, there were a lot of places where we went way under and were able to do a lot more. Just from a personal point of view, Christy fighting cancer was by far the hardest part of it. And it’s also very hard to build a school and do a project and make a film at the same time. We don’t have a lot of the coverage that we would have because when I’m in meetings I’m not shooting. And there’s no crew. I mean it’s just me and George [laughs] [George Abraham, a student on a journalism scholarship shot footage of the RainWater Court’s stormy raising]. And it turned out Greg couldn’t shoot. I don’t know. Greg was not a good shooter. He’s a better architect than a shooter. It’s absolutely crazy. Look at the credits— they’re tiny. It’s really crazy that this little core of people [made] this movie. I’m not foolish enough to edit the movie; I did have Molly [Conway] and Matt [Naylor]. Mostly, it was just a lot of eighteen-hour days for about two years straight.
SB: Just a small aside. What kind of travel time is it to fly?
TP: It’s about twenty-four hours… in the back of the bus.
SB: And not to be “poor Turk” but does the accumulation of that much back and forth traveling get taxing?
TP: Yeah, I guess it is but you get to the point because of the time and the money involved… I fly back of the bus. The cheapest ticket you possibly can. The B.A. flight from London, there’s four classes. So you really are with the chickens back there. In the second cabin I think they cook the chicken but back there, they’re in boxes. You know, we hit the ground running over there. We get to the hotel at midnight and the next morning we’re at the bookstore when they open at 8 o’clock in the morning, shopping for the library. We’re at the computer store at 9 o’clock. We’re on the road at 10 o’clock and we work straight through until you leave the country. There’s no jet lag allowed in international development. Malaria medicine? Forget it. You don’t take antimalarials. You don’t rest for a day when you get there or when you get back. You just say, “This is it, I’m not taking anything else for an answer.”
SB: Now that this film is being released and getting out there, what is your sincere hope that audiences take away?
TP: Well, I’d really like for people to spread the word because we don’t actually have distribution on the film and we’re just taking it one day at a time. But from the issue point of view, I think that I’ve gotten more out of this film than Joseph Mutongu got out of it and my kids, in the long run, may get more out of having built this school than his kids will get out of going to it. And the love that you take really is equal to the love that you make. Bhagavad Gita and the Beatles had it right all along. I would like people to see the opportunity to become engaged with other people. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be in East Austin. We live in an increasingly isolated world. I think it’s just a symptom of our times in that the more crowded the world is the more you tend to live in an isolated circle. People coming to this movie probably will know more than most people but most Americans don’t know much about the world other than what they see on TV about a war or a natural disaster. What do we see from Africa? The Sudan? What’s the last thing anybody knew about Kenya? That Barack Obama wasn’t born there, you know, and there was election violence and that there was an al-Qaeda bombing of the embassy there— that’s it. And more people learned about the Kenyan Olympic gold medal runner [Sammy Wanjiru] when he killed himself than when he actually won the gold medal. What does that say about our knowledge of the world? So… for people to engage. Whatever it is— across the street or across the world. It’s for your own good. What do you put here on Earth? The idea of universal secondary education, to me it’s as big of an idea as the Girl Effect (the idea of changing the world through empowering girls), and as clean water (which has made amazing things happen all over the world and continues to). It’s the next logical step but right now unfortunately it’s coming at a time where the world doesn’t seem to have a lot of resources to focus on it.
There’s a reception with the filmmakers in the lobby every evening at 8 pm. If you attend the 7pm screening, they’ll be waiting for you when the film ends. If you attend the 9 pm, the reception will help warm you up for the movie. And the Violet Crown is offering happy hour specials every night.