Towering Humanity: Turk Pipkin’s Building Hope

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.

Building HopeDisabuse 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.

Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening
Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening

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?

9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building
9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building

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.

For screening and other information visit:

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.

In Celebration of Gilda Radner’s Birthday

Gilda Radner was born on this day, June 28th, in 1946 in Detroit, Michigan. Hooray for today and this amazing woman! As part of the original “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” Saturday Night Live cast on NBC from 1975 – 1980, this versatile performer was perhaps the most beloved woman in contemporary American popular culture. Let’s let the Canadian Mary Pickford keep the “America’s Sweetheart” tag and with all due respect to the great Carol Burnett, I’m saying that not since Lucille Ball had a comedienne so absolutely captivated and charmed a nation (and by “nation” I mean me but I don’t think the cheese stands alone here).

At the age of six, I had no idea what the word “zeitgeist” meant but as a seasoned SNL watcher by the age of seven I knew I wanted to marry Gilda Radner. I was vaguely aware there was an age difference and that there weren’t a host of seven-year-old grooms, but I wasn’t 100% cognizant that a bride-to-be had to agree, too, so I let the daydream linger. But gadzooks, how Gilda Radner and her indelible characters made me (and my family) laugh. She also kicked down a door I didn’t even realize was shut. I wasn’t that far removed from trying to look down Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman breastplate (although I was doubtful the physics were on my side, my older brother had assured me that that was why television was called the “boob tube”). And this was also the era of the Farrah poster (which my brother had) and I wouldn’t dispute her foxiness but Gilda Radner made Mrs. Fawcett-Majors seem shockingly two-dimensional to me. I realize it’s not in anyway heroic to recollect the moment when a boy realizes he prefers ladies with a sense of humor and personality. I cannot even say I had entirely stopped objectifying certain women (onscreen) or that this supposed fond remembrance of Gilda Radner hasn’t gone wildly off the tracks but let me put it this way: As a lad, I was naturally going to be piqued by the filmographies of Adrienne Barbeau and Sybil Danning but, at the age of seven, I fell in love with Gilda Radner. My forty-year-old self understands the gaffe of not saying “I love her work,” but the thing is, as messed-up as it is to say so about someone you’ve never met, I stand with my grade school sentiment. My heart hasn’t changed. I love Gilda Radner. And I miss her so incredibly much. But today is a day for celebration and smiles.

Gilda’s Club, a non-profit network of free wellness and cancer support communities, happily accepts gifts of every size.  For more information visit

Interview with John Waters about his new book Role Models

John Waters
John Waters photograph © Greg Gorman

How lucky we are that John Waters grew up with such a strong obsessive streak and that he has befriended his neuroses and harnessed the little buggers’ energy to shine a beacon of light on the margins, the misfits, the fringe, the forgotten, and on the seedy underbelly of contemporary culture and, invariably, shows us sweetness. The filmmaker, writer, and visual artist has espoused a desire to be considered a “filth elder.” To borrow his words about Tennessee Williams, John Waters is “a bad influence… in the best sense of the word.” Okay, that’s actually stealing but also leaving behind a handwritten IOU, nay, “We Owe You” thank you note for keeping us in touch with our inner juvenile delinquent.

For the last forty years he has worn his iconic pencil-thin moustache and for the last twenty he has been a disciple of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and dressed in a look he calls “disaster at the dry cleaners.” Through his many many artistic contributions (like being among the handful of filmmakers who can take credit for the theatrical “midnight movie” phenomenon and his imperfectly perfect films like Polyester, Hairspray, and Pecker) we have come to know his passion, charisma, and his distinctive firebrand sense of humor. I mistakenly presumed that the title Pecker character (played by Edward Furlong and who snapped his way into the New York art world) was a nod to Waters’ personal history. Yet in his DVD commentary, he noted that Pecker’s candy addict sister, Little Chrissy, was where Waters really showed his hand (he can’t keep confectionery at home). But I also couldn’t help wonder if John Waters is a man who plays his cards a little close to his chest. Well, they are now all on the table with the release of his new book Role Models [Farrar, Straus and Giroux].

John Waters Role Models Book Jacket
Jacket illustration by Eric Hanson

Role Models is a compendium of the people who’ve had a profound influence on John Waters, the person. As someone who has long viewed Mr. Waters as an American original and who has great regard for his keen insight, wit, storytelling, and iconoclasm, I must honestly say that I was unprepared for this book’s emotional largess, its naked sincerity, the tender eloquence, and the grand literary leap of Waters’ prose. Of course Role Models is fucking hilarious, but it is also, in turn, shocking, earnest, scary, and bizarrely wholesome as Waters weaves the reader through a tapestry of low and high culture, colorful characters, and cautionary tales. Waters is a massive bookworm and in praising a certain title he writes, “Sometimes when I want to feel smarter, I sneak up on this volume on my bookshelf and kiss it.” I may never get to first base with Role Models but a grateful, knowing wink is assured some day. I have not been able to shake this most incredible read.

I spoke to Mr. Waters on June 1st, the day Role Models was published. Unbeknownst to me, the phone number I had was for the front desk at the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia. For a split-second I was surprised that an assistant or handler didn’t pick-up and then I wondered if Mr. Waters was prone to using cheeky pseudonyms. “Could I have Mr. Water’s room?” I asked flatly. And the woman on the other end replied, “Let me connect you.” After a mental high-five and two rings there was that voice, “Hello?” I pre-apologized about the likelihood of mispronouncing some names and Mr. Waters chimed, “Oh believe me, I know that. I had to read the whole book for the audio version and I realized I couldn’t pronounce some of them.” And with that we were under way.

Continue reading “Interview with John Waters about his new book Role Models”

Interview with Paul F. Tompkins

Or: How PFT Learned To Stop Playing The Comedy Clubs.

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins. Photo by Liezl Estipona

Paul F. Tompkins performs in Austin on Saturday, June 5th at 8pm & 10pm, at the United States Art Authority, 2906 Fruth Street. For information visit

Paul F. Tompkins: You Should Have Told Me world premieres on Comedy Central on Friday, June 11 at 10pm CST.

Everyone has heard the old showbiz saw, “The show must go on!” But why exactly? As Rita Rudner once explained, “Otherwise the comedian doesn’t get paid.” Party hearty comedy club audiences who are ready to laugh and leave the real world behind for a brief while may not give pause to the travails working comedians must endure. Yet this is not a sob story, hardly. For many comics (particularly younger males), “the road” can be rather romantic with all the traveling, ratty hotels, comedy condos, drink tickets, drugs, hook-ups, and road food. However, anyone who is half-way serious about becoming an original artist and crafting his or her unique comedic voice is generally disabused of any would-be Dean Moriaritis after one winter’s week at the Westward Ho in Grand Forks, North Dakota— where rose-colored glasses get fogged up fast.

For many headlining performers, there are inherent flaws with the comedy club model that even the better rooms cannot avoid: drunken hecklers, the constant selling of things, the settling of tabs during the comic’s set, and having a chunk of the audience who are radio prize whores or rowdy bachelorette parties. In the Aughts (most notably with David Cross and then the “Comedians of Comedy” tour spearheaded by Patton Oswalt), there was a migration of taking stand-up to rock clubs so artists at least knew they would be playing for their fans or like-minded folks. Forty-one year old Paul F. Tompkins has been doing stand-up for nearly twenty-four years (this is not to mention his impressive film, TV, CD, and writing credits). He tried the rock club route but prefers “civilized places where people can sit down like human beings instead of standing around like veal.”

Tompkins, a newlywed and Philadelphia native, has been based in Los Angeles since 1994. He continues to be one of the most talented, unfailingly funny, and most respected American stand-up comedians. He is the consummate “comic’s comic,” even though the few who are tagged with that label will roll their eyes and do their best to dodge such a notion. The fact that Paul F. Tompkins isn’t a household name, yet, has no bearing on the scope of his brilliance. He is a gifted raconteur whose facial expressions and body language organically further the words along. He shares the effortlessness and core decency and joviality of Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart. However, Tompkins’ onstage persona is uniquely his: a mix of charismatic smarty-pants sarcasm, quick wit, and absurdity.

As evidenced on his CD Freak Wharf (released in December of 2009 on ASPECIALTHING Records), Tompkins is moving towards more spontaneous, conversational, and intimate material than the observational style which had long been his stock in trade. And therein lies the conflict of being an artist operating on his own terms and venues that sell Jell-O shots. Enter the “Tompkins 300” social media campaign. As his web site succinctly puts it: “A man! A plan! Several Facebook groups! Panama? Maybe eventually!”

I recently spoke to Mr. Paul F. Tompkins by phone at his home in Los Angeles prior to his two shows at The United States Art Authority on June 5th.  And I would like to briefly comment to you, gentle reader, about the use of [Laughs] in this transcript. I usually avoid this device to indicate laughter because I think it can be annoying and more so, it is grossly one-sided. I was doing the lion’s share of laughing but there isn’t really the means to demonstrate that. I’ve elected to include the instances where there was more than a passing guffaw since “print” strips away the context from the tone and inflection of Tompkins’ voice. Something can read as being rather stern when that was not in fact the case. Thank you. Happy reading. Continue reading “Interview with Paul F. Tompkins”