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By Mark Bell | November 27, 2008

With rampant financial discord across the globe, ages-long conflicts still ongoing and a planet riding the quick train to environmental decay, sometimes it can feel like the world is doomed; hopeless. I’ll admit to my own cynicism and be honest that, on a day-to-day basis, the negative issues in the various corners of the globe feel too huge for anybody to have an honest impact. And that’s why we need a film like “The World We Want” to combat this feeling of insignificant human incompetance.

Focusing on the international scholastic “Project Citizen” program, Patrick Davidson’s documentary follows 8 teams of 11-16 year olds from around the globe as they identify one major problem in their community, resolve to research the best course of action to begin solving said problem and then follow through with said best course of action. In the end the 8 teams, along with the remaining teams (over 30 from around the world) meet up in Washington, DC for the first “Project Citizen International Showcase,” where one team will be awarded a top prize for their efforts.

The 8 teams followed are sufficiently varied in culture and in their choice of problems: The U.S. team from Vancouver, Washington has chosen to eliminate trans fats from the school district menu, in an attempt to curb childhood obesity. The team from Brcko, Bosnia-Herzegovina works towards ending the separation of special needs students from the regular classrooms, in the hopes of sufficient education for all. The New Delhi, India team focuses on restoring neglected monuments in the community, in the hopes that the step towards a pride in their history and community will also help people elevate their lives. The team for Samara, Russia focuses on regulations to help end teenage gambling, as casinos are rampant throughout Russia and do little more than offer false hope while robbing people of their livelihoods. The kids form Al Karak, Jordan take on school violence in all incarnations, from teacher to student, student to student and even student to teacher. The group from Alejandria, Colombia works towards adopting a local constitution to address the many social problems in town. The team from Yogyakarta, Indonesia works towards changing the taxation rate on silversmiths, which has done little for the silver trade except eliminate profits for the silversmiths and run the trade out of competition with the rest of the world. The final group profiled, Ross Bethio, Senegal, decides to task themselves with the goal of getting clean water in their town, as all water for bathing, drinking, cooking and waste comes from the same muddy waters.

As I said, the problems are as varied as the cultures, and it’s very easy to fall into the mode of comparing the different problem-solving choices and trying to prioritize which team is actually making the most difference. And, in a way, that’s precisely what the idea of awarding one team a prize at the end of the project is all about, but the importance isn’t in deciding which causes the most impact, but in getting young people to look at their communities with a critical eye, discovering flaws in their system and then making the necessary choices and moves to solve those problems, one step at a time.

And that’s where the inspiration from the film lies. Out of all 8 groups profiled, none of them fail to make real progress in their efforts, and therefore all wind up changing the world. Where the cynic in me screams that nothing can be done, these kids are going around proving me wrong (though the cynic would follow-up by asking what happens when all these kids get older and either stop banging heads with the system, or just accept it as so many of the rest of us are guilty of doing). But shrugging aside that negative bastard in my head, there is no denying that change is not only possible, but that anyone with a simple enough goal and the single-mindedness to follow through no matter what cost CAN affect change (and believe me, it is a blast watching some of the kids give their local government the proper inquisition regarding problems that, in a case like Senegal’s for example, is so basic it’s amazing that there’s no clean water around).

All that said, my criticisms of the film are technical ones, because I didn’t find any fault in the choices of teams to follow, the situations presented or the tone. For me, the structure of the film was just too by-the-numbers and rigid, and while I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing in general, it didn’t offer up much in the sense of drive for the film; you know there are 8 teams, and as the film’s template becomes apparent, watching the teams can become like a checklist of sound bytes and emotions to work through. For example, each team gets profiled in the same way: we get a brief introduction to the different communities, we see the students in their classrooms coming up with a problem to solve, watch the kids research said problem, then follow through with educating their community and approaching their local governments, coming up with an action plan and moving forward, then getting chosen to go to Washington, DC amid praise from family and community alike. This is the template, and the film does not stray except to intercut scenes between profiles of all the different kids meeting each other in Washington, DC before ending with the award ceremony.

On top of that, the musical score is just overpowering and… well, if this film doesn’t continue on the festival circuit, it has a good shot at being shown in schools throughout the world (the music had that real upbeat classroom sing-song feel to it that I remember making fun of when I was the class clown in the back row). And while I don’t think that’s a bad thing either (promotion of “Project Citizen” and the change it inspires should be happening all over the place, all the time, in any way possible), it was too assaulting on my fragile sonic sensibilities, or perhaps was just too on-the-nose.

Again, however, these technical complaints don’t change the fact that these kids are making real impacts in their communities, that change is possible, that we’re not completely powerless out there and that “The World We Want” is worth seeing.

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