For the boys of Baraka, the wilds of Kenya have nothing on the wilds of inner-city Baltimore.
In Baltimore, 76 percent of African-American males don't graduate from high school. The city is one of the most dangerous in the country, with a 2004 homicide rate five times that of New York City. But at the Baraka School, an experimental two-year program in Kenya, the same Baltimore boys who might become gang members chase lizards, hike in the woods, and play outside. In the words of its headmaster, the program "lets these boys be boys."
The Boys of Baraka follows the journey of several adolescents as they make the decision to leave their families in Baltimore and enroll in the Baraka School. The film -- a heartbreaking portrayal of what it means to be young, African-American, and poor -- captures their moment of hope. One mother marvels at her son's passport because she's never seen one before. In a video to his family, one boy shows off a tiny hedgehog, saying, "I found something better than a cat." It is a simple mix of joy and sadness, the reality of what is and the promise of what could be.
The filmmakers are unobtrusive to the point of invisibility, only adding sparse written commentary to the film. Combined with the boys' brutal honesty about their lives and their situation, the effect is a transparency that holds nothing back. Baraka is truly the boys' film in a way that other, recent documentaries centered on children -- Mad Hot Ballroom, Spellbound, and Born in Brothels -- are not.
When the boys return home for summer vacation -- after excelling at their classes and climbing to the top of Mt. Kenya -- they are different. Thirteen-year-old Richard tells the camera morosely that it wasn't his summer. He spent much of it at home because the boys on his block aren't his friends, they're "troublemakers."
When the school is closed abruptly because the United States has shuttered the embassy in Nairobi, it is a devastating blow both to the boys and their families.
One parent says of Baltimore, "This is a war zone. They're more likely to get killed on the corner than in Africa."
In a burned-out playground, Richard and his brother Romesh -- now an honor-roll student -- try to understand. "They only taught us one year. That's not enough," says Romesh. "I think all our lives gonna be bad now."
The boys might not have been killed on the streets of Baltimore, but their spirits were.