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Q & A: Filmmaker Discusses Documentary on Music Magnet School

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Jeret Engle, a New York City-based documentary filmmaker and former book editor, recently won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for her first film, a documentary that tells the story of a Roman Catholic magnet school in New York that uses music instruction to foster academic excellence.

The prestigious festival, which has launched the careers of a number of aspiring filmmakers, was founded by the actor and director Robert Redford and is held annually at a Utah ski resort.

The film, "Something Within Me,'' which Ms. Engle wrote and produced, recounts a year in the life of several students at the St. Augustine School of the Arts in the South Bronx.

The 55-minute film is available to schools, libraries, and other nontheatrical users through Direct Cinema Ltd., a Santa Monica, Calif.,-based distributor. Ms. Engle is also negotiating with the Public Broadcasting Service to give her work a wider audience.

She discussed the film, and the difficulties of producing such a documentary, with Staff Writer Peter West.

Q. What is the message of "Something Within Me?''

A. The basic message was twofold.

First, to try to make a case for the arts in education and in our lives.

And the use of music was, I felt, a pretty effective metaphor for that, since we tend to understand music as an art that requires discipline.

And by that I mean "enlightened discipline,'' discipline as a means to an end, and not as a repressive thing; ... as something which gives a shape and form which our lives can then follow.

It is an element that is often missing in our lives, especially children's lives.

And the secondary goal, I think, was an attempt to make these kids real to people and to take us into this community and to understand the people working there.

And [to make clearer] the enormous potential for kids who are "average.''

Q. Can you describe the school and how you came to choose it as a subject?

A. I actually heard a story on the nightly news in New York and it just struck a chord with me on a couple levels.

I myself had gone to a one-room country school and had been exposed to a very self-motivation-oriented regime of schooling.

And there was something about the way the [news story was presented] that made me think, "I wonder if this is similar?''

So I tracked the school down and I went up to the Bronx and visited it.

And once I was in the school, I really was hooked, because it's very magical.

It's in a very, very poor and depressed neighborhood. But it's really this wonderful little oasis of hope, and fun, and happy children who like to go to school.

I hope that maybe with the film we can replicate this experience.

Q. Were you surprised by the reception the film received at Sundance?

A. I'd showed at the Virginia Film Festival and people were really responding to the children and to the film.

But the Sundance [festival] is one where the sheer novelty of the screening is not enough to turn people on.

There's so much going on. There are movie stars and there are big projects with press agents and all of this excitement going on. So I was a bit braced for us to be a much smaller deal there.

But the people from Los Angeles were really interested. I think, perhaps, coming off of the riots last year, the story really touched a nerve. People were very interested and concerned and wanted to talk about it.

Obviously, I was gratified by that response, but I wasn't really expecting an award. Maybe it's a little bit of a signal that people do want to take notice [of the problems of education].

Q. I understand that there's a "story behind the story'' of how the film was made.

A. I think with every documentary, there's "a story behind.''

It's not a very cost-effective career. It took me from the time I first visited the school and decided that, yes, I really wanted to do this film--and frankly I also thought, well, it would be very easy to raise money for it--it took me five years to get to the point I'm at today. And three of those were pretty much full-fledged fund-raising.

I finally joined forces with a woman named Margaret Frances Mercer, who is a minister in the American Baptist Church, and involved in many different fund-raising activities.

Q. What approach does the film take in telling the students' stories?

A. We spent about six weeks ... going to class, and we visited every single class in the school, to try to get a sense of whom we wanted to focus on.

One of the kids who struck [us] was a kid in the 6th grade who constantly raised his hand, but ... never had the right answer, but always raised his hand again.

We ended up focusing on him as a kid who does have a bit of a learning disability, but, because of the alternative ways of learning and getting reinforcement from the music, ... his spirit isn't broken.

We were looking for kids like that.

We were further challenged by the fact that we wanted to tell their stories ... in a way that they themselves could be proud of [them] and to become part of the telling. And not to stereotype them as part of a social problem. [But] it's not all cheerful, successful, wonderful news.

The program really works because people are able to confront honestly the problems and to deal with them forthrightly.

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