Documentary tells you how to get to ‘Sesame Street’ around the globe | ParkRecord.com
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Documentary tells you how to get to ‘Sesame Street’ around the globe

ANNA BLOOM, of the Record staff

This Thursday, as movie-goers take their seats for "The World According to Sesame Street," they will not spend a nickel, except if they choose to stop at the concession stand for refreshments.

According to Film Series director Frank Normile, nearly a third of The Park City Film Series’ entire scheduled programming this spring will be shown for the sake of showing film itself, and not a penny more.

While the usual Friday, Saturday and Sunday slots will come with a price, an Energy Film Festival at the end of April and two series the Reel Classics series every third Thursday of the month or the Sundance Institute’s documentary series every first Thursday of the month will be free of charge.

Normile says he is particularly pleased with the slate for the next few months. He’s especially pleased with his success at peering into his Oscar-worthy crystal ball. At least two of the films picked for this spring went home with Academy Awards this year. "The Queen," a film about the current Queen Elizabeth II shown last weekend, received an Oscar for best actress for Helen Mirren’s performance and Forest Whitaker won for best actor for his performance in "The Last King of Scotland," a film about a Ugandan dictator as told through the eyes of his doctor, which will be showing the weekend of March 24.

"This [lineup] is the cream of the crop and I’m just happy to say that we can put them all on one calendar and people can have a really enjoyable two months of quality film," he said.

Park City Film Series’ relationship with the Sundance Institute, now headquartered in Park City on Three Kings Drive, begins again this year starting with a 2006 Sundance Film Festival pick, "The World According to Sesame Street."

Each documentary concludes with a discussion after the film, and this week "Sesame" directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton (producer of "Whale Rider" and "Mumford") and Linda Hawkins Costigan (director/writer of "Inshallah: Diary of An Afghan Woman,") will fly in from Los Angeles to join the audience for a Q and A.

The documentarians decided to begin their journey into the various Sesame Street sets about the world after word spread in 2002 that a new Muppet began stirring up controversy. "Kami" a monster puppet (in Sesame jargon a puppet created without human-like features), a new neighbor on South Africa’s televised block, was going to be HIV-positive.

"After we heard that, we did a little more research and found out that Sesame Street was in Israel and Palestine and all over the world and that they had been doing this co-production for 30-plus years and we thought, ‘wow, this is pretty extraordinary,’" recalls Costigan.

Digging through files in a New York studio, traveling to South Africa, Bangladesh, and Kosovo, the two filmmakers managed to successfully pitch the idea to the Sesame Workshop, which was no small feat. The child educational program producers, tailored for 120 different nations around the world, never before opened its doors to a full-length documentary like theirs, according to Costigan, and they did not intend to be credulous fans in the least.

That said, Knowlton and Costigan unearthed next to zero in terms of scandal or "dirt." Don’t believe them? Just google Sesame Street nothing obscene pops up.

"There’s not a lot to hate with Sesame Street, which is probably why the American icon can go into places where Americans wouldn’t ordinarily be readily accepted," she says. "This is a show for children, and it’s local people on the ground teaching their own children [of their countries] it’s not some Grand Poobah in New York dictating what is to be taught and what isn’t."

The story behind Sesame Street, and the story behind the documentary, turns out to be more about politics, than anything else.

From the outset, the way Costigan explains it, the show’s creator Joan Ganz Cooney intended the show to be a social, educational and political experiment to help inner-city preschool kids learn enough to close the educational gap between various socio-economic backgrounds, before they entered the school system.

The first episode, launched in 1969, opens with Gordon, an African American man, escorting Sally, a small Caucasian girl, across the street to introduce her to her neighbors, she notes.

"There were public television stations at the time that refused to air Sesame Street because it was the first integrated show on television I mean you’re talking about a time of race riots and burned buildings. There was a lot of anger over race at the time," Costigan says. "[But while] there was resistance at first, kids went crazy for it."

A year later, Germany asked to put on a German version of the program. Instead of recreating the same characters, however, Sesame Street for Germany researched the culture and the politics of its country hiring a local production staff and cast and refined its show to suit the makeup of Germany, Costigan explains.

Nearly 37 years later, the show continues to work in this fashion, according to the documentarians. Before Bangladesh began airing their version of the show, Sesame Street commissioned creative people, educators and psychologists from the country to write papers based on the lives of the children and compile information. All of the Muppets throughout the world are manufactured in New York, but they are nearly all designed abroad by various countries. The Muppets have essentially become "international spokespeople," she observed.

"The cynical way of looking at Sesame Street is to see it as a franchise it has a model and tight guidelines," Costigan explained. "But whether it be in Egypt or South Africa, it basically follows what Sesame Street has researched over the past 30-plus years The Sesame Street Workshop is equal parts research, production and outreach."

"The World According to Sesame Street" will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Jim Santy Auditorium, located at The Park City Library at 1255 Park Avenue.

The new Recycle Utah’s Energy Film Festival April 21, an event that includes short films discussing energy conservation, is in celebration of Earth Day. The event will also be free and open to the public.


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