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Home Education Magazine

July-August 2000 - Articles

Filmaker Becomes Homeschooler - Fernanda Rossi

The Making of the Documentary "Inventing a Girl"

Five years ago I took a plane from my home, Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York. I was planning to stay just two months to take some post-graduate courses in film and fulfill a very ambitious cultural agenda. My best friend, Andy Grynberg, had put me in touch with her cousin, Paula Borenstein, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with her husband and two children. Though Andrea and Paula had met only once and cannot speak each other's native language, they are tightly linked through their common Polish Jewish ancestors.

After a brief phone conversation Paula generously agreed to give me a space to live and I told her I would call again once I had arrived at the airport. The preparations for the trip kept me busy enough that I had little time to think about what kind of family I would be living with. I packed the gifts and got on the plane.

But the long flight and a bad movie gave way to endless speculations. Two months is a long time to do anything, especially to share everyday life with a group of people you have never met. Would they resemble my childhood television memories of the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie or would they be more like The Simpsons? I was aware that both were stereotypes but I couldn't help thinking that The Simpsons was a more recent and, perhaps, critical portrayal. I sighed and tried to get used to the idea of a diet of hot-dogs and hamburgers eaten in front of a never-to-be turned-off TV set.

David Burd, Paula's husband, picked me up. He didn't strike me as a "Homer" nor did five-year-old Russell appear to be "Bart." We arrived at their house, a two-story frame structure in a neighborhood neither quaint prairie nor family suburb.

"We are so happy to have you here," said Paula as we embraced. Lily, seven years old then, came to greet me also. It was 8 PM and they had eaten already. In the kitchen there was a plate for me with bulgur, salad, soup, and no TV.

Paula went to the oven. Now come the hamburgers, I thought, but she handed me a warm piece of bread. "We are vegetarians."

"I'm kind of vegetarian, too," I said. Argentina is known to be a land of dedicated meat eaters, but I prefer to indulge in other national specialties like ice-cream, pastries, and chocolate. None of which I would find at the Borenstein-Burd home. As it turned out, not only didn't they fit the Simpsons stereotype, they also had a much better diet and way of living than mine.

This is Your Room

Later Paula showed me the attic, where they had arranged a cozy bedroom. "It's just the attic," she said apologetically. I was thrilled. As a child, my sister, cousins, and I would prop up mats and assemble cushions and chairs to create "attics," a feature lacking in Argentine houses but one that we knew from foreign movies and TV.

I went to sleep laughing at myself for my worries. I have traveled extensively and know that stereotypes hardly ever prove to be true. The sooner one leaves those preconceived ideas behind, the more open one can be to experiences. Somehow I always needed a reminder to enter my "travel mode" and keep an open mind.

The Open Mind

I exchanged my sociological worries for academic ones.

During my late breakfast the following day, Lily came into the kitchen. Her deep auburn waist-long hair was like nothing I had seen before. "So, Lily, you took the day off today?"

"No! I don't go to school".

My open mind went blank. In Latin America kids miss out of school because they don't have shoes, or live too far, or have to work... not because they "choose" not to go.

Paula could probably guess the avalanche of thoughts Lily had triggered with that simple sentence. "We homeschool," she said. "Actually, we are unschoolers."

That didn't explain much either. What struck me the most was the idea of not going by the rules, but by listening to one's voice.

My daily 25-minute commute to New York was filled with all kind of homeschooling readings provided to me by Paula. John Holt, John Gatto, Home Education Magazine, and newsletters. Once in the city, all the Van-Goghs, World Trade Centers, Central Parks, or courses in film in the world couldn't distract me from thoughts about this "other" way of learning.

I love reading so I would spend hours at bookstores. The shelves were bursting with reference and "how-to" books, offering solutions, predetermined ways, answers. Half an hour later, back at the family's house, I would find just the opposite. No structure, no rules, no marked path.

"Child-led learning," said David during dinner. Both worlds co-existed in my mind. And the more I knew about homeschooling, the more amazed I was by the paradox: two Americas going in opposite directions, both trying to find answers. One within, the other without.

As my conversations with Paula and David deepened, so did my relationship with the kids. Lily and I would spend hours playing, talking, reading. Russell preferred more physical activities. I had no clue about baseball or basketball, but I did my best.

I was offered a job in Manhattan and had to move there. Still I spent weekends with them. During a birthday party I told Paula and David that I had - without realizing - researched the subject of homeschooling so much that I could make a documentary about it. I had a Masters in Film Production from Buenos Aires University, had directed a few short films - fiction and documentary - but ended up working as a film editor.

Inventing a Girl

For two years Lily and I ventured in discovering homeschooling. New friends and co-workers would rarely have the puzzled reaction I once had when announcing what the documentary was about. "Home-what?" I thought I was mispronouncing it. I tried to say the words slowly and distinctly: "home... schooling." "Ah! They are Fundamentalist?" "How do they socialize?" (I'm sure you've heard this one.) I was bombarded with questions that were curious, skeptical, and sometimes hostile.

As I followed Lily and Russell with the camera I was having flashbacks of my own school days, from kindergarten to college. While Lily meandered carefreely through the aisle of books at the library, I recounted the hours I spent underlining with blue pen, the long cold hallways I traversed to enter a class in silence. More underlining with blue pen. Class reprimands for the misbehavior of one or two students. Booing with my classmates when the teacher assigned a book to read when in reality I was wishing she had asked for more.

College was more attuned with my personality but I was still trying to follow "the rules" of filmmaking. And I was still trying to follow the rules as I began this documentary. I began with a list of "experts" I should interview. Documentaries should have experts. They should be objective and show many examples. Should I move in with another family? Or maybe two or three other families?

Inventing a Filmmaker

Lily was showing me the answers. Like me she had a passion for storytelling. She liked scripting her own musicals. Every action of hers was a lesson in spontaneity, discovery, and trust. Trust the process. Homeschooling was not about "experts." "We" are the experts. Many families? Well, there are as many ways of homeschooling as there are families. This is one way, one family. And if this was "child-led learning" the documentary would be "child-led filming." I told Lily she would do the interviews, she would find out by herself why she was being homeschooled and what exactly this meant. She made a list of questions that she would ask her parents.

We celebrated the Jewish holidays, went to the museums, libraries, conferences, and seminars. There were also classes - ballet, theatre, sculpture, drawing, and softball. And always the voices of the ones who didn't know much but had lots of opinions: "Homeschooling? That must be so suffocating! At home all day long!"

"Actually we are in the car all day. It should be called 'car-schooling.'"

After two years I felt I had been "homeschooled" enough and Lily had done her share of "filming." It was time to start editing. A complex process and a good opportunity to reflect and think with someone. So despite my six years experience as a film editor I decided to seek someone else's input.

Lily and Russell loved the "Avid," the computer used to edit. The rough cut screenings for friends brought new waves of questions - or should I say "questioning." "Shouldn't you test them, so we know that they know?" "I learned a lot about homeschooling, but I couldn't do it." Some were surprised homeschooling was so different from what they had imagined and wanted to know more.

Looking for a Distributor

For me it seemed obvious that if there was no other independent film on homeschooling and there were one million homeschoolers and many others curious about it, the film would reach its audience in no time. Wrong. Film festivals, even the progressive ones, were saying no. One TV documentary series also rejected it. Paula said, "Homeschooling still makes a lot of people uneasy. I'm telling you, you won't find an audience through the conventional venues." I was once again trying to go by the rules. How it was written in the book. Homeschooling had touched a delicate nerve in American society. I now knew why my film had received such a cool response. Luckily, I did receive some help along the way. Composer Michael Levine, a homeschooling parent himself, deferred payment. Others loaned equipment and services. The Blue Hills Homeschooling Cooperative organized a fundraising party. There were also the supportive letters from HEM managing editor Helen Hegener, founder of the American Homeschool Association, and Nancy Plent, from the New Jersey Unschoolers Network.

Quite contrary to people's perception of homeschoolers - not the Simpsons nor the Ingalls, but instead reclusive children studying in the kitchens of their own homes - I came across a vast community of self-starters and motivated seekers, ready to embark upon challenging endeavors. So it became clear to me that until I find a kindred spirit in the distribution world, I'm doing it like the homeschooler I have become - on my own and with the support of the homeschooling community.

"Inventing a Girl: An Experience in Homeschooling" and filmmaker, Fernanda Rossi, are available now for screenings and personal appearances. To book for a conference or independent screening, contact magafilms, magafilms@usa.net, www.inventingagirl.com

2000, Fernanda Rossi

July-August 2000 Issue

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