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Every Child is Born a Poet

Experimental docu on the celebrated Puerto Rican writer Piri Thomas both profits and suffers from the overflowing energy of the 72-year-old bard: Hyperactive film constantly reinvents itself, much like its subject, but with more uneven results. Succinct 58-minute running time could prove irresistible for PBS or indie cable.

Experimental docu on the celebrated Puerto Rican writer Piri Thomas (“Down These Mean Streets”) both profits and suffers from the overflowing energy of the 72-year-old bard: Hyperactive film constantly reinvents itself, much like its subject, but with more uneven results. Wildly disparate interpretive recreations of his poems alternate with more straightforwardly photo-archived biographical passages. Thomas’ awe-inspiring example makes this venture a must-see educational experience (if not an especially rewarding cinematic one), particularly in Latino venues, and succinct 58-minute running time could prove irresistible for PBS or indie cable.

Thomas’ journey from drug-addicted criminal to writer, educator and activist is an oft-told tale, and brings with it a wealth of pre-existent imagery, including TV appearances in the late ’60s and clips from an earlier black-and-white documentary, titled “World of Piri Thomas,” that highlights his work with juvenile offenders.

Thomas’ experiences have been worked into vivid verbal imagery for which helmer Robinson ambitiously attempts to find compelling visual correlatives. Sometimes this process assumes very traditional forms, as Thomas’ evocative descriptions of his old neighborhood are read over archival footage of East Harlem in the ’30s and ’40s.

Social realist issues get socially realistic treatment: A staged re-enactment with young actors dramatizes an argument between Thomas and his brother about whether they are black and Puerto Rican.

Other readings take on more abstract affects, as jarringly high-contrast black-and-white urban backdrops are set to jazz accompaniment. But by far the most disconcerting “number” comes when Thomas plays himself as a little kid (as well as making cameo appearances as his mother and his father) in a brightly colored cartoony painted set with oversize cutout props.

In these whimsical excursions into poetical recreation, the image routinely pales before the power of the word. Perhaps the most interesting stretch of Robinson’s docu chronicles Thomas’ work with the inmates of a San Francisco correctional facility for violent juvenile offenders. Here Thomas’ exhortations and verse and are matched by the unleashed pain and power of the inmates’ own poetspeak.

Tech credits are fine.

Every Child is Born a Poet

Docu

  • Production: An Independent TV Service presentation in association with Latino Public Broadcasting of a When in Doubt production. Produced, directed by Jonathan Meyer Robinson.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, 16mm, DV), Adam Beckman, Alex Layton, Kev Robertson; editor, Robinson, Sabine Hoffman. Reviewed at New York Latino Film Festival, July 25, 2003. (Also in Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 58 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Piri Thomas.