Review: ‘The World According to Sesame Street’

The intentions are more laudable than the execution in "The World According to Sesame Street," an ambitious but finally frustrating behind-the-scenes look at efforts to export the popular U.S. children's program to other nations. Docu feels best suited to cable and public-broadcast slots in light of its TV-friendly subject matter.

The intentions are more laudable than the execution in “The World According to Sesame Street,” a measured, ambitious but finally frustrating behind-the-scenes look at efforts to export the popular U.S. children’s program to other nations. Absorbing when it explores the creative process, pedantic and repetitive when it slips into lectures about Third World oppression, docu feels best suited to cable and public-broadcast slots in light of its TV-friendly subject matter.

A veritable institution since its 1969 launch on PBS, “Sesame Street” has always concerned itself with more than just teaching kids the alphabet, according to those interviewed (including creator Joan Ganz Cooney). Proceeding from the idea that “children are taught to hate,” the show promotes tolerance and basic human dignity as it unfolds in a fully integrated urban neighborhood where literacy and education are accessible to all.

Rather than simply dub the American program in different languages, Sesame Workshop innovators set out to develop unique international “Sesame” satellites, each one culturally indigenous to its region. Helmers-producers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan present a trio of case studies from Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa; in all three instances, the programmers see their role as that of a missionary, spreading a gospel of hope for poor and underprivileged children.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, producer Nadine Zylstra works with native Nayantara Prods. to create “Sisimpur” — a program that incorporates elements of Bangladeshi culture, including their rich tradition of music and hand puppets — while struggling to obtain a contract with government-run broadcaster BTV.

Kosovo chapter tackles the strained relations between Albanians and Serbians, including news coverage of the 1999 U.S.-ordered bombings of Kosovo. A series of revealing child interviews show how seeds of racial hatred and violent inclinations are sown early on, while the “Sesame” crew members themselves end up coping with racial tensions in their midst.

The most fascinating and provocative segment is also the shortest, as the team behind South Africa’s “Takalani Sesame” attempts to address the millions of children in the region living with HIV and AIDS. The decision in 2002 to introduce Kami, a 5-year-old muppet who is HIV-positive, provoked a huge public outcry in the U.S. that pic documents to absorbing effect, thanks in part to interviews with lively, impassioned producer Naila Farouky.

Nothing if not comprehensive, docu falls apart structurally and loses crucial momentum when it returns to the Bangladeshi episode and spends too much time hashing out the nation’s political and religious ills. Against this distressing and frankly overwhelming material, the struggles of the crew to get “Sisimpur” on the air can’t help but feel comparatively trite and even whiny.

Pic is on more solid ground when it focuses on the creative issues behind developing a distinct version of “Sesame Street” — i.e., should Bangladeshi puppets have the same bulging white eyes as their American counterparts, or whether Big Bird represents a form of cultural imperialism.

Live footage is clean and sharp, and Christine Burrill’s handheld camerawork often finds the liveliest way into a scene, providing a visual respite from the steady stream of talking heads.

The World According to Sesame Street

Production

A Participant Prods. production. Produced by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan. Executive producer, Jeff Skoll. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan.

Crew

Camera (color), Christine Burrill, Nelson Hume; editor, Kate Amend; music, Nathan Wang; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Brown; line producer, Patricia Bischetti; associate producer, Zanna Williams; assistant director, Katie Flint. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2006. Running time: 110 MIN.

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