To Be Heard: Giving young people a voice through poetry ☆

“Power writing is about taking control of your life in this world. It’s about using the power you have that people absolutely do not want you to use.”

This quote from To Be Heard director, producer, and teacher Roland Legiardi-Laura sums up the essence of why he and his fellow power writing teachers place so much emphasis on arming their students with the weapon of the written word.

Like the rhythmic ebb and flow of the poetry performances woven into the fabric of the film, To Be Heard winds its way through the lives of three high school students struggling to find their identity as they come of age in the Bronx. The film depicts the stark reality of life in the ghetto for these young people, who cope with clashes of family, race, and class every day.

Sobering camera shots hold the austere Bronx landscape for just long enough to let the setting sink in, establishing the tone of the film before stepping into the homes of the three main characters. Pearl, Karina, and Anthony are best friends, a self-proclaimed “tripod.” Because they have “everything in common,” they are able to understand one another in a way that no one else can. We hear from their single mothers, see them caring for younger siblings, and walk with them through their neighborhood. We see how conflicts with family, poverty, and violence pervade their lives, and yet they express hope for the future.

The source of that hope shines through the fog of strife these young people face in the form of a pen and paper. A radical poetry class offered at their high school, University Heights Secondary School on the Bronx Community College campus, offers them a means of escape through self-expression.

In an introductory session, Legiardi-Laura speaks to his students about the importance of language:

“What happens if you don’t understand language? The ideas go past you. When you don’t understand a word and you let it go, you’re erecting one of those prison bars right in front of your face. These are weapons. These are stones. These are rocks. You have to know how to use them, and you have to know how to defend yourself when people try to use them against you.”

The students come alive in this creative environment in which the need for an emotional outlet is validated and their ability to express themselves through poetry is cultivated. The class provides a safe space, a setting in which they can let go of everything that’s bottled up inside, and receive positive feedback from their teachers and peers.

Joe Ubiles, another power writing teacher, describes his hope for his students. “My real goal is to have my students pass the test of life, have them survive America at a very special level far beyond mere subsistence.” His goal is to produce literate, ethical, politically motivated students. The film shows how he does so by listening, and by gently shaping their poetic form and guiding the way they analyze their own writing.

“The object is not to have them become great writers. Not everyone’s going to be a great poet, but everyone can become a fuller human being with more confidence,” says Amy Sultan, director, producer, and power writing teacher. It is quite evident in the film that she and the other teachers share a common passion for literacy and firmly believe in the importance of equipping students with the tools they need to stay sane in a crazy world. Their communication styles are searingly candid, developing a rapport with their students that is genuine and heart-warming.

Each of the teachers featured in To Be Heard display an extraordinary commitment to their students and seem to have a calling to impart a love of literacy. They continually impress upon their students the idea that controlling language is a route to freedom. Legiardi-Laura stresses this idea when he states, “If you don’t control language in this world, you go to jail. Whether it’s a physical jail or a mental jail doesn’t really matter.”

As “the tripod” continues to grow and flourish in their poetry, even experiencing the thrill of participating in a citywide teen poetry slam competition which one of them wins, it seems that everything will turn out just fine. But more challenges await them on the horizon, and their commitment to poetry and to one another is tested. The audience rejoices and cries along with the characters, and is ever inspired by their consistent reliance on poetry for survival.

The film will be screened at the IFC Center’s DocuWeeks: Theatrical Showcase August 19-25, and at the Rooftop Films: Summer Screenings in Chelsea on August 13th and East Harlem on August 16th.

Check out the website for more details on tickets and show times, and to see clips of Pearl, Anthony, and Karina performing their original poetry, as well as the full trailer.