August 13, 2011

300 Words About: Stevie

As Steve James' excellent The Interrupters made its way around theaters this summer, I caught up recently with Stevie, his deeply personal documentary from 2002 (and only his second documentary at the time, the first being of course Hoop Dreams). Stevie is the worst possible testimonial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America youth mentoring program that you might ever see. It's also a perfect example of why programs like it are so important.

Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding in the mid-1980's. At the time, little Stevie was an awkward preteen living with his grandparents in rural Southern Illinois - he was a little odd and had a troubled family history, but was generally harmless. James had a relatively normal mentor-mentee relationship with Stevie for a few years, and then returned in the mid-90's (perhaps encouraged by the recent success of Hoop Dreams) to see what Stevie was up to as an adult. What he found was troubling: Stevie was well on his way down a self-destructive path, with an extensive criminal record and no clear direction in his life. Devastated by Stevie's situation and perhaps feeling guilty for not keeping closer tabs on his "little brother", James recommitted himself to helping Stevie at least stay out of legal trouble, if not actually become a contributing member of society.

And this is where Stevie lays bare the profound challenge facing mentors in a program like Big Brother Big Sisters, or for that matter parents, teachers, or any adult nobly attempting to better a young person's life. I felt pangs of guilt for past students that I had "let go" during my teaching years, or for that matter anyone in my life with whom I've had a mentoring-type relationship. Were there too many other opposing factors and influences to outweigh my efforts? Did I do as much as I could to make a difference? Did it even matter?

Stevie is not meant to be an examination of guilt or regret, and, refreshingly, James does not frame it as a naive "agenda" documentary or bookend it with tidy steps that can be followed to make the world a better place. He instead asks raw, honest, heartbreaking questions - and doesn't provide any easy answers - about what happens when the best intentions are left unrealized. And the horror doesn't end on the screen, either, as Stevie's current situation is as disturbing as anything from the film's footage, which is now more than a decade old.

They say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and critics of mentoring programs for troubled youth could use Stevie as Exhibit A in their case against program efficacy. But to watch Stevie is to understand a different reason why these programs exist: not to "save lives", but to connect lives that wouldn't otherwise be connected. To strip away the social barriers that keep us apart and put us (the privileged) face-to-face with the experience of the marginalized majority around us. The reason I appreciate James so much as a filmmaker is because he doesn't wield his camera as a weapon of scrutiny and all-knowing judgment. Instead he uses it as a mirror, reflecting back on us images of ourselves that we can't or don't want to see. What happens after that is for us to figure out.

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