If you turn on “Sesame Street” in Germany, you won’t see Big Bird, but a big, cuddly bear. Since the 1970s, the groundbreaking educational children’s show has been using the formula that proved successful in the United States to educate children from all around the world. “The World According to Sesame Street” examines the impact that this export has had on many of the world’s cultures in the sweet tone that you’d expect from such inspirational subject matter.
Rather than simply dub the series into many different languages, the global initiative hires producers from the respective countries to develop entirely new shows. They create new characters that reflect their cultural heritage, and choose whether the titular location is an urban or rural street, park, banyan tree or other communication center.
Directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan follow the new production teams in Bangladesh and Kosovo and also look at the South African show, which drew scorn from the right-wing media when it introduced a puppet who was HIV positive. The producers’ plan is to use the “Sesame Street” formula that has been tested and proven to work, and adapt it to each culture. I know this, because this basic principle is repeated several more times than necessary.
The documentary fluctuates between repetitive sentimentality and interesting depictions of the obstacles that stand in the way of the noble pursuit of providing children with pre-school education. In Bangladesh, the government-run BTV monopolizes the airwaves, and the apolitical show needs to secure a time slot without sacrificing its principals. In Kosovo, tensions between the Serbians and Albanians remain high as shows for each nationality are produced collaboratively. The most interesting footage in the film is of the joint meetings between producers of two nationalities who have learned to hate each other. They make an effort to collaborate, but clearly have not overcome years of hatred. The U.S. producers hope to inspire understanding among the next generation in Kosovo, so that one day there might be peace.
More engaging material about the creative process and less repeating of what the audience already figured out, and this documentary could have been great.