Formerly known as “Studio H,” before screenings at the Hamptons International Film Festival and AFI Docs under its current moniker, it’s easy to see why director Patrick Creadon was attracted to the film’s subject. He likes challenges, or at least peeling away their skin to reveal the inner workings, and maybe providing a solution. He explored the world of crossword puzzles with the quirky “Wordplay” way back in 2005 and tackled (or at least tried to) the national debt in the unwieldy “I.O.U.S.A.,” a limited 2008 release that foreshadowed the financial meltdown. His third directorial effort arrives in theaters early in 2014 for you to see what he’s tackling now.
“If You Build It” (no relation to the soft-spoken whisper from “Field of Dreams“) follows a year-long journey made by two extraordinary individuals and life/business partners—Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton. Their destination? Windsor, Bertie County, North Carolina, a rural and economically disadvantaged area in danger of geographic evaporation as its infrastructure collapses from too many vacancies and too few job opportunities, and where its youngsters reckon that life after high school means departing for better-off communities.
Their expectations? That as designer-activists (funded by the school district—initially, at least, before the school board reneges on paying them salaries—foundation grants and a lot of chutzpah) they can fix a broken system and work with 10 local high school students and change the minds of a conservative school board with a vocational “design/build” curriculum. Their mentor is Chip Zullinger–affectionally called “Dr. Z” by locals—a renegade school superintendent who convinces Matt and Emily the settle down for the long haul with their Studio H philosophy (humanity, habitats, health, happiness). Think of it as shop class re-imagined for today’s generation. Zullinger’s belief in this creative classroom concept unfortunately suffers an early casualty, when he’s booted out of his job.
Creadon (and his producers Christine O’Malley and Neal Baer) introduce the students, juniors all, who will be the guinea pigs in this experiment. For most, any initial concern (day one thrusts them into a hands-on project involving cow manure) as they start design boot camp classes in Fall 2010 is eventually quashed by Matt and Emily’s exuberance and creative, almost game-like approach in developing the kids’ skill sets. Locals chirp in with various talking heads, which thankfully does not encroach on the film’s straight shooting approach.
The students’ minds, hands, and ultimately their souls get chicken-soup exercise with various project assignments, sometimes sidetracked by petty politics or occasional area flooding. On the up-side, it’s fascinating to see these teenagers so excited about designing and building a chicken coop. Or erecting the class’s ultimate project—a farmers market, built as a summer project. Long, trying work days that will cause frayed nerves and decisions that don’t come easy.
“If You Build It” works successfully as a human interest story, albeit one with a bittersweet ending that condemns the stingy, misguided minds running at least one of our country’s school boards. Maybe in 5 or 10 years these students will fix that broken structure with their broader ideals, stronger bodies, and wiser intellects, all grown under Matt and Emily’s guidance. Until then, we have to be thankful that Studio H made its little mark on the back roads of America and that, courtesy of Creadon, O’Mallet, and Baer, you’ll be able to learn about two incredible superheroes in modern education.
For more information on Studio H, visit www.projecthdesign.org.