Building a future in Bertie County
Of all the films being screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opening today in downtown Durham, just one shines light on an education initiative tried in Bertie County that may brighten the futures of high school students across the country.
“If You Build It” follows more than a year of the hands-on design curriculum, called Studio H, led by Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller.
“If You Build It” follows a class of juniors in the rural eastern North Carolina county as they design and build a corn-hole game, a chicken coop and then a farmers’ market that the town of Windsor still uses today. The film reveals a class that’s much more than just a class.
Pilloton, who is now teaching Studio H in Berkeley, Calif., is excited to see the students again, as several will attend the Full Frame screening. She and other filmmakers will participate in a post-screening discussion Saturday night.
“It’s always weird and wonderful to see your own story told back to you,” she said, adding that filmmakers also saw the students’ lives beyond the classroom. “They [the filmmakers] did a beautiful job. They were there to document the story and also helped us craft it. They were our therapists, archivists and drinking buddies some days.”
The filming came together through producer Neal Baer, who met with Pilloton over lunch one day and looked for a way to work together on a project. Just as she was setting up to start Studio H in Bertie County in the summer of 2010, he connected her with filmmakers. Patrick Creadon directs and Christine O’Malley is also a producer. Creadon and O’Malley were looking to do a film on public education.
“The thing about documentaries is they’re kind of a leap of faith, opposite of a narrative [film],” O’Malley said. “You go out there in search of a story and sometimes go off in a different direction.”
The film portrays an uncooperative school board that didn’t fund Studio H, so after two years of cobbled funding and no salaries, Pilloton and Miller left. The film also shows their personal relationship.
“Being there was a tough time for me personally, but I wouldn’t change anything,” Pilloton said. “I see it as a great moment for us and for these students.”
“If You Build It” was screened at the Sundance film festival in September under its working title, “Studio H,” and edited since then. More than anything, Pilloton wants audiences to walk away from the film and think that anything is possible. Schools are terrible at showing students they can reach for the tools to do something different, she said.
“Students can act to the world, not just react,” Pilloton said.
One of her former students, Erick Bowen, is now a sophomore at N.C. Central University. He graduated from Bertie Early College High School in 2012 and entered NCCU this semester for computer information systems, but is looking to transfer to another state university now that his major is being phased out.
Bowen goes back home regularly for training to become a firefighter. He said about half of the 13 students from his Studio H class are in college, and the other half went right to work after graduation. He said the Bertie County school system isn’t the best, but he loves his county. Bowen said he has learned how much politics is involved running the school system.
“It’s amazing we got through the program before it was shut down,” he said. Bowen said Pilloton and Miller are amazing teachers, instructors and friends.
“They’re some of the best people I’ve met in my entire life. Every day, walking into class we were always doing something hands-on. We would walk in and do something to contribute to the world, and always leave feeling accomplished,” Bowen said.
When Studio H and then the filmmakers came to Bertie County, he thought they’d just be lab rats and then it would be over.
“Anything in Bertie County is news,” he said. Then they “found out this is going to be epic.” Bowen is really excited and a little nervous to see the film.
O’Malley said what was so inspiring to her and Creadon about Pilloton and Miller’s work is the problem-solving.
“We have the resources to solve our own problems,” O’Malley said. Even if what they come up with first is wrong, it is still worth the effort to try, she said. Design is another way to talk about problem-solving, she said, and being open minded.
“It’s such a refreshing approach to education right now,” O’Malley said.