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Into the Light

Santa Fean Kurt Shaw helps Latin America’s most overlooked children step out of the shadows

September 29, 2010, 1:00 am

Shaw would find few organizations that embodied a strengths-based approach as well as Taller de Vida, so when the Duques invited him back in 2005 to create a documentary about the experiences of three displaced children, he jumped at the chance. 

“I had no idea how to make movies, so I just set up the camera on the table and was letting it run while I interviewed one of the girls,” he recalls. “Then this other kid, who was looking in, asks, ‘Do you mind if I film?’”

Shaw said sure. The kid picked up the camera, filmed the entire interview and asked if he could do more. Following his instincts, Shaw stepped back, showed the kids a few tips on filming and editing, and let them finish the documentary on their own. 

When the resulting film, School Out of Place, began to be distributed—including to every public school in Bogotá—Shaw noticed a significant shift in the teenagers who had made it. Not only did they express more confidence about who they were and where they came from, but they also took great pride that they had created a documentary that would be viewed by thousands and help urban teachers appreciate the talents and knowledge of the rural children streaming into their classrooms.

“From that point on,” Shaw says, “it became clear that the point was not that Shine a Light or I would make movies, but we would teach kids how to make movies. We would help them present their perspective of what their experience was.”

Shaw took his new approach to La Luciérnaga, a street newspaper NGO in Córdoba, Argentina, where three street-kids-turned-journalists transformed their success stories into documentaries, including Alejandro Ledezma’s powerful 13 minute El Túnel, selected to close the 2006 Argentine National Film Festival.

He took it to the isolated plains of the Colombian-Brazilian border, where he and da Silva helped 45 indigenous Sáliva children create a series of films (now part of the high school curriculum) that captured the tribe’s history and traditions, from interviews with elders to tutorials on manioc cultivation.

Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva teaches kindergarten students how to use the camera in a favela of Rio de Janeiro.
Credits: Kurt Shaw

And they took their approach to Recife, Brazil, where children from a group called Pé no Chao (Feet on the Ground) documented local musical traditions on film. The project evolved and, soon, the kids had created their own hip-hop album, which won the prestigious Freedom to Create prize in 2008. The CD release party, held in front of 5,000 people on an open-air stage in the city center, was, for Shaw, “one of the proudest moments” of his life. 

“You’ve got these kids who spent most of their time performing at stoplights,” he explains, “trying to pick up some spare change for their families, and suddenly they’re showing their stuff on one of the most prestigious stages in the city, surrounded by classical government buildings and historical churches. Astounding.” 

To date, Shaw and da Silva have helped youth create nearly a dozen “by kids” films, albums and comic books since the 2005 School Out of Place project. In every case, they’ve found the young people eager to take up the cameras and mics, and share their experiences with the world. After years of being snubbed at stoplights and shooed out of shops, the kids embrace the opportunity to tell their stories every time—that is, almost every time. 

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