The four-parter from Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street,” is the organization’s first docuseries. Each episode captures the lives of kids who experience some of the most challenging issues facing families today: homelessness, climate displacement, incarceration and having a veteran parent whose caregiver is their other parent.
“He’s like, ‘Just because my mom did a bad thing doesn’t make her a bad person,’” Sesame Workshop executive VP creative and production Kay Wilson Stallings tells Variety, recalling a remark by Nnadji, a boy in the “Apart” episode.
“To focus on what it was exactly that these parents did to find themselves incarcerated is not what’s important,” she adds. “What’s important is to show how these children and families are living and dealing with this separation of their parent.”
Over the last five years, Sesame Workshop has expanded its production output to eight series across PBS, HBO Max and Apple TV Plus, with more to come, Stallings assures. With “Through Our Eyes,” the organization saw the opportunity to expand into non-scripted content while staying within their expertise.
“We really strive to tackle the most pressing needs of children. Presenting non-scripted content from a child’s point of view is something that’s rarely seen,” Stallings says. “I think that we know that kids are so much more sophisticated than when I was 9 years old and 10 years old and they know what’s going on and they watch the news with their parents, they listen to news on the radio, they’re aware of the challenges that people are facing.”
“Through Our Eyes” is designed as a co-viewing experience for parents and their kids aged 9 and older and serves as a learning tool for empathy and advocating for those in crisis. Each episode unveils the complex reality of childhood, perhaps setting up some young viewers with their first understanding of privilege or their first time feeling seen on television. It reminds us that there is no one single way to define the childhood experience.
“We wanted to help kids and families who are impacted by these issues directly to see that it’s important for them to know that they’re not alone and that there’s support and resources that are available to them,” Stallings says.
Each episode has its own set of filmmakers led by a number of Emmy and Academy-nominated directors. Wilson says they vetted a number of filmmakers for the project. It was imperative that the candidates had the right experience, but their passion was even more important.
“We really wanted to make sure that they understood that we wanted to present this through the lens of the child and really share with our audience what it is that these children and families are facing,” she says.
Making participants comfortable enough to be vulnerable on camera takes time and usually involves building a good rapport in-person, which became even more important with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“By necessity, we shifted the way we filmed intimate verité scenes and had to come up with creative ways of gaining their trust for sharing their stories and caring for their well-being,” “Apart” directors Geeta Gandbhir and Rudy Valdez jointly tell Variety, noting the need to wear PPE on set.
“Shelter” director Smriti Mundhra says the production team “relied a lot on old-fashioned phone calls” to build intimacy with their subjects, while Talleah Bridges McMahon relied on the self-shot videos and Zoom sessions during the casting process for “Uprooted.”
The end result is delicate storytelling that forwards Sesame Workshop’s mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
“It was a delicate balance to show the innocence and simple joys of youth while still being honest about the hardships our young participants were going through,” Mundhra says. “But, we found, like all children, there are moments in which kids just want to be kids — even in the most dire circumstances, kids will find a way to play — and moments where they want to open up and be vulnerable.
“We tried not to force the latter, and instead let those moments emerge organically once they felt comfortable with us. Ultimately, kids are incredibly honest and wear their emotions on their sleeves, and we knew they’d open up to us as long as we could make them feel safe.”
“Through Our Eyes” will begin streaming July 22 on HBO Max.