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on Sep 29, 2010

One of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2005, the documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have gained notice in the past five years for a string of socially conscious theatrical features and television projects developed at their jointly founded company, Loki Films. The Boys of Baraka (2005) followed a group of at-risk inner-city Baltimore school kids on their journey to an experimental boarding school in rural Kenya to see whether a change of environment could inspire and motivate these youths coping with an array of problems (violence, drug addiction, absent parents) at home and in the classroom, where discipline is nonexistent. Originally aired on POV, the film won the NAACP Image Award and numerous festival prizes (SXSW, Atlanta, Chicago), and was released by ThinkFilm. The duo won even wider acclaim a year later for their Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, a revelatory look at a summer camp in North Dakota where Evangelical children are instructed in faith-based civic consciousness and Pentecostal-style devotion. 12th and Delaware, produced for HBO Documentary Films and screened in competition at Sundance this year, jumped headlong into the culture wars, visiting a street corner in Florida where an abortion clinic sits crosswise from a pro-life “pregnancy care center,” a perfect bricks-and-mortar metaphor for the virulent, and occasionally violent, debate over Roe v. Wade.

Immersing themselves fully in the lives of their subjects is something Ewing and Grady excel at; allowing kids or Christian ministers to speak for themselves, especially when their viewpoints contravene mainstream liberal sentiment or simply the status quo, is what makes their films valuable to our ongoing national conversation about education, family planning, the role of religion in politics, or any other issues they decide to tackle.

For their contribution to the new omnibus film Freakonomics, based on the mega-bestseller by economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times scribe Stephen J. Dubner (featuring a who’s who of documentary filmmakers), Ewing and Grady decided to track an experiment that Levitt and his colleagues at the University of Chicago were still in the process of conducting, rather than adapt a chapter from the book. The idea was simple: Can kids be bribed to work harder in school? Would financial incentives spur academic achievement? As we see in their segment, underperforming students at a high school in Chicago Heights are told they will be paid $50 at the end of every month for maintaining a C average. Those who meet the standard are also entered into a lottery and given the chance to win $500. Ewing and Grady track the progress of two male students, Kevin and Urail, over six months and arrive at a less-than-predictable outcome.

Filmmaker spoke to the award-winning duo about teens, shooting for the small screen, and why two heads are better than one. Magnolia Pictures opens Freakonomics on Friday.

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Filmmaker: With The Boys of Baraka and Jesus Camp, environment was presumed to be the conditioning factor for how young minds are shaped, either in terms of academic performance or inculcating a sense of civic and religious duty. Here, the scope of the experiment is about stripping away things like race and class, family issues, and ideology, and really focusing on the bald fact of whether paying students incentivizes them to do better.

Ewing: Well, we were doing a short film, so it was kind of nice to have a parameter in which to work and a small event to track. I don’t think you can ever discount environment and parenting, but it was interesting to look through this narrow lens and see what incentivizes kids to do their homework. There was something beautiful about the simplicity of what we were doing. We don’t really do short form, so it was kind of fun for us to give it a crack, although of course we shot over several months. But yeah, I think it was interesting to look at that age group through a totally different prism.

Filmmaker: The book was such a phenomenon. Since you don’t tend to work in short form, and have several projects in the works at Loki Films, what was the appeal of devoting several months to tracking Levitt’s experiment?

Grady: It was an amazing opportunity to do a verité, observational piece about something that would have a beginning, middle, and end within six months. Which is unusual for us to get. And it has a clear narrative arc for us to experiment with. It was a great opportunity to incorporate the concept of the book. The book does not lend itself to the kind of filmmaking that we do, it actually lends itself perfectly to the style that Eugene [Jarecki] and Alex [Gibney] use. We were kind of curious how Morgan [Spurlock] would do it. But for us it was a real challenge. If you don’t have good characters, it doesn’t matter what the context is for watching and observing people.

Filmmaker: Do you determine from the outset that the scope of the project is going to lend itself more to theatrical than television?

Ewing: I think that you can tell pretty early on if a project can stand up to a theatrical release. Not that one’s better than the other, but we try to make all of our films the way we want to make them. 12th and Delaware was made for HBO, but we never thought about the small screen. We never framed anything for television. We made it for an enjoyable, theatrical experience, imagining it with hundreds of people watching. Even if you know something’s going to TV, we don’t alter our style or approach very much. We did something for MTV last year about Saudi teenagers, and we only had a month to film it, so for that one we found miniature arcs. We look for strong, real arcs that happen over a longer period of time, but when you don’t have that freedom, you truncate your approach. So in that case, we compressed our style and goals a bit.

Filmmaker: How did you first find out about the University of Chicago experiment?

Ewing: The producer called us up and they wanted us to do a chapter of the book. And after reading it, Rachel and I said, well, nothing in this book really suits our style, which is cinema verité, and it was hard for us to conceive a film that was based on data that had already been collected. The premise of the book is that they take mounds of data that’s usually not generated by the economists themselves and they look at it another way. But for the kinds of films we make, we like for the audience and participants to not know how it’s going to end. So we called Steven Levitt and said what have you got going on that we could follow ourselves? We thought that it was a weird and interesting experiment, and we knew it was being done on a different level in New York, with cell phones and stuff like that. And this was a very Freakonomics-style experiment, because it’s all about incentives and going against the conventional wisdom. So that’s how we found our segment. It’s hard to make economics sexy, so thank god we had the kids!

Filmmaker: Did it go against the grain of your own thinking about human behavior and educational achievement?

Grady: I wasn’t surprised at the outcome, although I was hopeful that there would be some sort of uptick because it is an industry that Heidi and I are very interested in and have filmed before. The Boys of Baraka was about an experiment as well. That’s a really challenging age, you know? I think that social acceptance is the king at that age. Basically you’re talking about changing the social stigma of being an achiever. Fifty bucks doesn’t hold a candle to peer acceptance for a 15-year-old boy.

Ewing: The similarity with The Boys of Baraka is that at that age, it’s too late in the game to alter somebody’s habits. I think the program founders learned that seventh and eighth grade was “too late” to turn someone around in a dramatic way. And that’s definitely what the economists determined. They were talking about starting in kindergarten by the end of the film. So they reached that conclusion in common.

Filmmaker: Did everyone work independently or did you have discussions with [producer] Chad Troutwine or Steven Levitt about how each of these anthology segments were going to fit together?

Grady: No, none at all. We didn’t see what any of the other filmmakers had done until we saw the film at Tribeca.

Filmmaker: There’s been a spate of recent films about charter schools in the past year or so, like The Lottery and The Cartel, and now Waiting for Superman, that all come at the problem of educational reform from a different place from Levitt’s experiment, which is that the incentivizing needs to happen around teachers and school leaders. That’s an entirely different strain of thinking.

Ewing: Incentivizing teachers is [important] but you can’t produce an excellent student without the parents involved. There’s a commonality between lack of parent involvement and low performance. How do you fix that? However, with the parents not around, we know that teachers can step in and become an important role model in a child’s life, and every other person you meet has a story [about that]. So empowering teachers and making them feel their job is the most important in the world and compensating them for performing well and improving morale would definitely improve our educational system. I think Davis [Guggenheim] touches on all of those points in his movie. It’s an area I’m very interested in, so I’m proud of him for pulling it off.

Filmmaker: What strengths do you derive from working as a duo, do you think, that supersede what you’re able to achieve working independently?

Grady: If you have two self-scrutinizing, tough audience members, looking at each other’s material, the best stuff is going to be selected. So there’s an elimination process before we even start cutting that Heidi and I have really streamlined. Usually, what we do is talk and come up with potential storylines which are open to change and potential narrative beats that may or may not happen. Then we go into the filed separately. We watch all of our material before we cut it, which sometimes can be 200-300 hours of footage. I usually watch stuff that she shot, and she watches what I’ve shot. And I think it’s incredibly helpful. Storylines twist and turn and sometimes you have to go into material you didn’t think you would ever use.

Ewing: When you put us together, we ask a lot of questions, we’re in constant conversation and that exchange of ideas makes the films have a breadth and scope. You want a film to be memorable or that’s some kind of document of a moment of time. I guess gravity is the word I’m looking for. You want to make a mark. And if you’re going to spend months and years of your life living amongst people of different backgroudns and perspectives—if you’re going to make that sacrifice, you better be making a comment that matters. We share that in common. I think it would be hard for us to do without the other person there. Because we go into some difficult situations. I don’t know how Laura Poitras does it, for example, alone with her camera. That’d be tough. I really admire filmmakers who just go out on their own and do it. But I think [working together] allows us to be more prolific.

Filmmaker: Why do you think you have focused repeatedly on young people?

Ewing: They’re truth tellers, man! They’re totally candid and transparent, and not as self-conscious as adults, they don’t have all the baggage. They hold up a mirror to the rest of us. There’s something very alluring about that. As a filmmaker, you’re always looking to chip away at artifice and bullshit—not that they don’t have their own level of bullshit, but it’s easier to sift through than [with] adults.

Filmmaker: It seems to me that you and Rachel are making films with a social conscience, if I can put it that way.

Ewing: Thank you! I hope that doesn’t translate into “boring.” [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Do you see yourselves as having a civic mission as documentary filmmakers?

Grady: Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much that film has to offer. There’s definitely a range of impacts from entertaining to beautiful, emotional to intellectual, to putting a fire under someone’s ass. Hopefully, you hit all of those at one point or another during the experience. I think they all have an important purpose. We want our audience to feel compelled to think. We want them to think about certain things, of course, but if they think about something else, that’s okay too.

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