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Green Chimneys

Constance Marks' "Green Chimneys" is a heart-wrenching cinema verite documentary about a working farm in Brewster, N.Y., where social workers try to nurture abused or abandoned inner-city children. Pic is a natural for fest and television venues, but also deserves at least limited theatrical showcasing. Founded in 1947, Green Chimneys has attracted international attention by promoting the therapeutic bond between children and animals. The facility serves as home and school for over 100 children, mostly boys between 6 and 21, who have failed to assimilate in conventional foster homes. Many of them have been hospitalized for depression, aggression or suicidal tendencies. At Green Chimneys, each resident is given the responsibility of caring for an animal. By doing so, a troubled or withdrawn child is encouraged to once again risk human connections as well.

Filmed over a one-year period, “Green Chimneys” focuses on three at-risk youngsters. Eddie, a physically abused 12-year-old, is one of seven children born to homeless, drug-addicted parents. (He has been in protective custody since he was 3, according to a Green Chimneys counselor.) Anthony is a violent-tempered 13-year-old who has not yet come to terms with his mother’s death. Mike is an 11-year-old boy who was abandoned by his mother when he was 2, and has been bounced around the foster-care system ever since.

Pic follows the boys through therapy sessions, classroom work, family visits and day-to-day dorm life. Surprisingly enough, there is relatively little attention paid to the bonds that form between children and animals. But a few images linger long in the mind. Particularly moving is a long glimpse of Eddie on visiting day. Alone and forlorn, he silently strokes his pet rabbit and tries hard not to cry.

At moments like this, “Green Chimneys” achieves a profoundly powerful intimacy with its subjects. Pic has many other unsettling scenes, including a few with parents who insist that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they are ready to reassume responsibility for their children.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the documentary is an interview with a father who complains that his children “want to come home, but they don’t want to do the right thing.” Even so, he claims that he’s learned his lesson: This time, he won’t beat the children. Instead, he’ll let his wife hit them.

If you have tears left to shed, “Green Chimneys” will wring them from you. Even if you can remain dry-eyed while Anthony finally visits his mother’s grave, you’ll find it hard not to react to Mike’s account of how his mother was raped at age 14. He was the result of that rape, he says. “I think she would have forgotten all about it,” Mike tells a counselor, “if I wasn’t alive.”

One scene says it all. A child, convulsed with sobs during a therapy session, blurts out, “It’s not fair!” No, it isn’t. And “Green Chimneys” is most affecting as it demonstrates just how unfair it is. But the pic also has some welcome moments of humor and hope. When one of the boys manages to begin a new life in the outside world, his small triumph is hugely satisfying.

Tech credits are OK, considering the inherent difficulties of trying to remain inconspicuous while recording such volatile human drama.

Green Chimneys

Production: A Constance Marks Prods. presentation. Produced by Constance Marks. Executive producer, Neil P. Parent. Directed by Constance Marks.

Crew: Camera (color), James Miller; editor/co-director, Bob Eisenhardt; music, Joel Goodman; sound, Rick Dior. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 19, 1997. Running time: 98 MIN.

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