Inspiring People

Documentary Filmmaker, Roland Legiardi-Laura

Sarah McNally

Roland Legiardi-Laura's first documentary Azul won 9 international awards. He has received a host of fellowships and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts, The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, The Rockefeller Fund, and The Andy Warhol Foundation. Besides directing and producing films, Legiardi-Laura is a published poet and has taught in public schools, prisons and senior citizens homes for years.

He created from scratch the first traveling troupe of performance poets, Words To Go. He is one of the directors of a world-renowned arts institution, The Nuyorican Poet's Café, where he created a unique film development program called The Fifth Night, in which he produced 213 weekly screenplay readings. Forty of those scripts were produced as feature films. He is currently developing a documentary about the secret history of American schooling—entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction.

“Yes, I would like to create thousands of very astute revolutionaries”, says Roland Legiardi-Laura of the kids in The Bronx that he is privileged to teach. Roland believes that words are a powerful weapon when it comes to fighting social injustice and his work empowers his kids to find their voice and ultimately -

To Be Heard!

DR: Tell me about the film.

RLL: The film is called To Be Heard and it’s the story of three writers from The Bronx, kids who for various reasons find themselves in a very different kind of poetry class.

The poetry class is not about writing your grandma’s poetry. It’s not about writing the “roses are red” kind of poetry. It is about writing poetry that, the act of writing and the act of responding to it, is transformative. The goals that the three mentor/teacher/facilitators have had over the years is that the poetry not only leads to ways for these young people to change their own lives and to go beyond changing their own lives, but leads to ways for them to change the lives of people in their community and in the world around them.

DR: So ultimately it’s not about the kids becoming poets or about the kids learning good writing skills but more about self-discovery?

RLL: Yeah…

DR: What are your measures of success with regard to the program?

RLL: I think that the kids do become much better writers. They do become better thinkers as a direct and indirect by-product of the work that we do but we don’t set out to teach them to score better on tests or to do those kinds of things. We set out to give the kids a reason to want to do those things. If you motivate a kid well and the kid feels that what they are learning has real value and use in their lives, then the learning is invisible and instantaneous. You don’t have to beat it into them or teach it by rote. They will absorb it happily and easily.

I would say that the most important thing that we have done with the kids we’ve worked with is to create a kind of inter-generational family of young people who support one another.

We have given kids a sense that they can acquire tools or weapons that they can use in their lives that aren’t the weapons that they have been told that they have. In the film Anthony says, “They give you a gun or a basketball and expect you to shoot the ball or shoot each other”. That’s the only kind of option that a lot of the kids feel they have. Here we give them a third way, another way out of the oppressive environment that racks their lives.

By oppressive environment I mean the school environment, the social environment and I mean the family environment. All of those things are stressed beyond belief and aren’t really geared to giving to kids who live in a socially discarded community. Now I happen to think that the work we do will work for kids of any social strata, any culture or any ethic background. We have taught middle-class White kids and upper class White kids and they have their own set of issues that are oppressive too. They may have more money to mask the problems but they suffer from more or less the same things.

I think that what we are trying to do is create a format that honors all the things that young people deal with in our culture. It’s stuff that young people have been dealing with for 10,000 years of recorded human history and also stuff that has been foisted upon the kids of our culture specifically.

Our society wants kids to be consumers in training. I think that that’s really pretty much what they’re taught to do. They are taught to lust after that kind of reward, whatever that would be - the next Blackberry, the next cool sneaker, the next bragging right…It’s not much to grab onto if you want to become a person who really is a fully participating member of society. The consuming should be only a tiny part of it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with lusting after an iPhone but if that is what your whole life is about, it’s sort of bad news.

To Be Heard Trailer

To Be Heard: Trailer from Edwin Martinez on Vimeo.

To Be Heard is the story of three teens from the South Bronx whose struggle to change their lives begins when they start to write poetry. As writing and reciting become vehicles for their expressions of love, friendship, frustration, and hope, we watch these three youngsters emerge as accomplished self-aware artists, who use their creativity to alter their circumstances.

A verité film, intimately shot over four years, To Be Heard is the story of three friends and the love that develops between them as they evolve as artists. This “tripod,” as they call it, is bound by proximity, circumstance, and poetry. To Be Heard is also the story of how language links people. Pearl is the support and soul of the three; Karina is the passion and heart; and Anthony is the energy and physicality. In a community where friendships are kept tenuous for many reasons, these three build a bond based on language, respect, and the need to survive.

What will happen to these three kids? Will they find a way to articulate their dreams? Will that articulation manifest meaningful change? Does language contain the power to transform? Perhaps this film is simply about the lives of three kids from the ghetto and their struggle to survive. Perhaps it is also about the poet in all young people, the struggling artist in all of us, seeking to emerge. Embedded in the story of these three teens is the tale of their path as writers and a look at the source of their inspiration. That seed of inspiration comes in the form of a radical poetry class, called Power Writing, taught by a trio of outsider teachers. Early on we meet Joe, Amy and Roland. Given the heightened volume of the educational debate these days, their message and approach merits close attention. Not a part of any school faculty or formal curriculum, these three come bearing a simple gift in the form of a motto—If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you. There are very few secrets to their teaching methods, very few tricks. Their style of committed pedagogy is less about instruction and more about empowerment—simply stated, they are there to listen closely, if the writer wants to be heard.

Click here to learn more at the website:

DR: Having watched the film it’s clear to me that the overall objective is not to teach the kids how to write as a way out of their circumstances. It’s also clear that kids are given permission to speak out as a way to access their own voices and they are given an opportunity to develop skills around trusting people. You also offer exposure to what is out there beyond their immediate world.

Can you talk about Anthony, for instance, and about some of the challenges that he confronted in the film? How do you think that he might have fared differently had he not had the benefit of working with you guys?

RLL: That is a really good question. We have a lot of kids who have gone through our process who have the more classic Hollywood ending to their stories. Like Ramon, who is featured briefly in the film, is at Brandeis University. A bunch of our kids have done that. We could have made a whole movie about those kids but we chose to make a movie about the much tougher challenges because I think the Hollywood ending stories would have given the audience an excuse to say “Oh it’s so great what you guys do and so wonderful how straight forward it is. You come in there and you teach them to write poetry and they end up with a full scholarship to Brandeis”.

DR: It was definitely interesting to have to deal the fact that Pearl, after everything she went through, did not get accepted to Sarah Lawrence…

RLL: Ramon came from more or less the same socio economic background so it’s not just a function of money. It’s a function of the psychic strength you are given as a young person and Ramon, for whatever reason, got a few more tools or a few more arrows in his quiver that allowed him to do what he is doing now which is working with kids like him and getting them into college.

Anthony has more or less said that if he didn’t do this he might be dead or a gang member. That is where he would be. So, is it the last victory I want in Anthony’s life, that he is just alive? No. Is the last victory I want for him that he has managed to get his life together enough so that he is not in a revolving door that goes from prison to the street and back to prison and back to the street again? No. Hopefully, his story is many more chapters that will be profoundly rewarding. But I don’t know. I don’t know whether or not what we do has the ability to break all of the chains that have been locked around Anthony’s soul. I think we have broken some of them.

The same thing for Karina and Pearl. Karina? Her model for mothering was pretty destructive. Her mom was a crack addict who failed at rehab three times in succession…

DR: Was that happening during the filming?

RLL: No. It was before.

Her dad is locked away in jail somewhere. Her mom is pregnant with her eighth child now. I don’t know that Karina would have had the insight to really shift how she is going to be as a mother. She has a little baby now. I think that might be one of the chains we were able to loosen with her…

DR: The thing that was compelling to me about her is that she was able to distinguish that she was not responsible for the things that were happening in her family and with her mother. I am sure that a lot of kids would somehow take ownership of the abusive behavior. She seemed to have a very mature and healthy perspective.

RLL: Her writing helped her.

DR: Is that because the poetry itself is really about the kids, their own lives and delving into their feelings about their own lives?

RLL: Yes. And that is what we want them to do as a start. It’s not the end. I want to make kids who do that, and get past that, and then go out and make change in the world. I want them to take it to the level of social activism.

DR: Is that your ultimate hope or goal?

RLL: Yes. Hopefully. I would like to create thousands of very astute revolutionaries. But, if I create thousands of kids who feel better about their own lives, that’s not so bad either. If they just start to see things differently, that’s pretty good too. I want them to feel like they are in control. The catch phrase here is “Empowered Literacy”. You can empower yourself in many different ways. As our motto says:

“You can empower yourself to start to write the chapters of your own life story or you can empower others to write the bigger chapters of their life story”.

If you are looking at Anthony from a Hollywood point of view you may have wanted him to end up with a recording contract and to get his PhD in something. Well, he may yet do that but for me, getting him off the track of spending fifteen years in jail like his dad, might be a good first step.

There’s a limit to what we can do even if we were full time with these kids. I think that our society owes it to itself. If we don’t do it, all of this stuff about the “Black White education” and the scoring gap, all of that is irrelevant and would disappear in a week if we addressed the deeper underlying issues.

You can teach a kid to read if they are ready to read and fairly quickly if they are not ashamed and if it hasn’t been hammered into them that they are stupid (which happens to a lot of these kids). I think that’s why we chose Anthony, Karina and Pearl.

I have never met a stupid kid. Usually within a couple of weeks of meeting a kid and getting to know him, I am privileged to witness one, if not more, acts of pure genius. Every kid I have ever met does something that is just purely brilliant. To me that is the way the learning process should be shaped. It should not be about punishing kids or making them feel stupid. It should be about helping them to discover their gift.

It doesn’t have to be words but it helps to have language.

DR: Tell me about the campaign that follows the film.

RLL: It’s not enough to make a film anymore. You have to figure out a way to create a movement around the film. There is a classic path that socially engaged documentaries can travel now. If you make a film, you want to get your film into communities that have community screenings that cause discussions and debates and get people thinking. We are going to do that with our film. I thought we had an opportunity with our kids to do something that was special and to do something “where they live”.

I started noticing something…

When we started nine years ago we would give every one of our kids a beautiful leather bound journal. The journal was something they would write in all of the time and when they filled t up, we would give them another one. It was a way that they would feel that their work was important to them and respected by other people.

About three years ago the journals started to disappear even though we were still giving them out. Instead of writing in their journals they were using their cell phones. They would compose on their cell phones, store the poetry on their cell phones, share and recite on their phones, which you and I know is difficult to do on those tiny devices. It was like a full service box that they could work from. Rather than fight that I thought “Brilliant. Now, what could we do that would take that even further”?

We are creating the world’s first mobile, online poetry community and it’s called Power Poetry. The idea is that you can start with a very low barrier to entry by texting. Seventy five percent of kids have cell phones and seventy two percent of those kids type a minimum of fifty times a day. They are so good at it. They can text one handed blind under the table. I am more then impressed with that and I’m not afraid that the technology is corrupting if it’s used in the right way.

Imagine if these kids get engaged and start interacting with other kids on a national level. And what happens if they start to notice, when they write, that there is something larger than their own stories, that there are themes that are universal and that there are hundreds of these themes? And what if we were to start to link up all of the NGOs out there that are desperate to find young members of society?

Imagine that Karina writes a poem one day about missing her dad who is in prison and she posts it and it’s popped over to one of our partners, an organization called No New And imagine that they love it and post it on their website. But more than that, they decide that Karina is such an interesting writer that they want to have her work as an intern, maybe a paid intern to help them put together their next campaign geared toward youth to help make them aware of these issues about incarceration. All of a sudden we have created a revenue stream for Karina and a place for her voice to be heard in a way that she is participating in changing the consciousness. That is sort of the essence of our idea.

I think that for young people to have an opportunity to go viral with their voices is great. And, what happens if we use smart phones to add music and text and pictures and video? All of a sudden you are creating these wonderful pieces and you can share those…To be able to use your creativity to transform the world is pretty exciting.

“Put a revolution in your pocket” or “Transform Social Networking to Social Activism”.

If I can help in doing that, I will die happy. My goal is to set it up and to pass it off to kids as quickly as possible. They will find ways to do things that I cannot possibly imagine.

DR: What is your ultimate hope for the film?

RLL: Well I’ve started drafting my Academy Award acceptance speech...

My ultimate hope is that we get out there in as good a way as possible and make as much trouble as we can with this. The real audience is kids. It’s very gratifying to see the kids in the audience respond the way they do. The fact that your daughter, who didn’t know anything about us, got something out of the film is more important to me than the edu-policy makers because frankly, I don’t think they want to make real policy changes. I do think there are a lot of really open, dedicated people who are teachers and I think if we can reach some of them and let them take from whatever we have that they can use, that would be great.

A film like this, its path is fairly prescribed. Given what happens to documentaries we will go to a whole bunch of other festivals, we will be on TV…We have a production agreement with PBS so at some point we will be a part of the PBS world…

I hope we can make versions of our film that would be more attune to helping teachers or teachers in training. Our film could be part of some curriculum, perhaps. I’d also like the film to help us get funding because we can’t really do what we do without funding.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

RLL: Being a really good comedian?

A good sense of humor would be nice. If I could keep smiling through all of this disaster that would be pretty good, right?

Someone once told me that you want to leave the world a little bit better than when you came into it. I’d like the self-satisfaction of knowing that some thing I did helped people a little bit. Frankly that’s really all. I don’t have a secret mission to be a great cellist or a great poet. I am more of a generalist. I love making films. I love writing poetry. I could see myself doing all kinds of stuff. It’s really great to feel that the kids I’ve touched take whatever they absorb from the work that we do. I have no idea what to expect but where they end up is always interesting. And, I am certainly not egocentric enough to think that my touching a kid is the only transformative experience that they will have. It’s a giant mélange of different things that will impact their lives.

I’d like to be around 100 Years from now and actually see what happens but I don’t think medical science is going to permit that.

Thanks Roland!

To Be Heard Upcoming Screenings

June 9, 11
Seattle, WA Seattle International Film Festival
Thursday 6/9 @ 7p
Saturday 6/11 @ 11a
Buy tickets NOW!

Visit to learn more.

Head back to the top.