Three talented high-school students from the Bronx find their voices through a poetry-writing course in “To Be Heard,” a topnotch testimonial to the transformative power of the pen. Reminiscent of the years-spanning intimacy of “Love and Diane” or “Hoop Dreams,” the docu plays like a three-pronged, true-life version of “Precious,” but studded with pithy, evocative verse and without that film’s ingrained sense of otherness. Preeming at the Doc NYC fest, where it topped its competition section and won the audience award, this well-crafted docu, skedded for PBS broadcast next year, merits a theatrical run in the interim.
More than five years in the making, “Heard” profits greatly from its status as an inhouse project. Two of the pic’s four producer-directors (Roland Legiardi-Laura, Amy Sultan) taught the poetry class in question, interacting with the “Tripod” (as teen bards Karina Sanchez, Pearl Quick and Anthony Pittman dub themselves) both behind and in front of the camera. A third helmer (Edwin Martinez, also lenser and editor) was the son of the school’s guidance counselor and had a brother in the class, Adrian Martinez, who acted as the docu’s sound man. The only “outsider,” award-winning vet documentarian Deborah Shaffer, was sufficiently attracted to the project to sign on for the long term.
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The admonition, “If you don’t learn to write your life story, someone else will write it for you,” serves as the class’s inspiration. Not the least of the docu’s accomplishments is the way it penetrates the students’ extracurricular environment, the camera capturing their overhead subway-crossed streets and cramped rooms in vivid, resonant compositions. Viewers can readily feel the pull of forces arrayed against self-definition and clearly see what a story written by others might have spelled out.
Although all three kids attend the same school, live in the same Bronx neighborhood and form a tight support group, attending each other’s readings and even performing together, their circumstances, aspirations and language vary greatly. Sanchez, who cares for her younger siblings and is trapped in a physically abusive relationship with her mother, finds the means of articulating her own needs through visceral, emotional verse. Quick, whose fierce desire to attend a prestigious college and become a writer is constantly thwarted by her commitment to help support her family and by the system’s built-in academic biases, favors more thoughtful, politically sophisticated expression. Pittman, whose proximity to the streets and jailed drug-dealer father put him constantly at risk, is a born performer, intoxicated by participation in poetry slams, where his angry, dramatically inflected verse often snags prizes.
What could have been a by-the-numbers inspirational lesson is transformed by the brilliance of collaborative filmmaking, the weight of time, the vitality of the kids and the power of their poetry into an exemplary work.