‘Paper Tigers’ film screening gives Parkites an education | ParkRecord.com

‘Paper Tigers’ film screening gives Parkites an education

James Redford s film Paper Tigers examines an alternative high school in Washington that focuses on identifying the childhood traumas that cause its students behavioral issues. The film, which appeared in the Sundance Film Festival last year, was screened last week at Park City High School. (Bubba Brown/Park Record)

In "Paper Tigers," a documentary showcased in last year’s Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker James Redford explores what life is like for six troubled students at an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington.

The film shows what can happen when teachers and administrators take a deeper look at the children, searching for the underlying causes of their behavioral issues rather than focusing on the issues themselves. Among the six students profiled in the film, childhood traumas, such as neglect, sexual abuse or parents with drug problems, were at the root of their behavior problems.

In "Paper Tigers," that approach led to success. Several of the students in the film worked past their struggles to earn diplomas and even gain acceptance into colleges.

The film was screened Jan. 20 at Park City High School for a select group of students, educators and community members. In an interview with The Park Record following the screening, Redford said changing the way we think about misbehavior in children could be one way to solve some of society’s largest problems.

"I think we tend to think about problems with schools — graduation rates, testing rates, truancy, behavioral issues — as this nameless, faceless thing and that the kids who struggle are problem kids," he said. "It’s a little bit of a progressive thing, I suppose, but there’s always something underlying what looks to be something we can easily judge. There is a long-term impact of these core issues and unaddressed childhood stress. It helps cause so many of the issues we’re wrestling with, whether it’s overcrowding of our prisons, the drug abuse epidemic or the obesity epidemic. All these things that we consider big societal issues, if you were to go back down to the root of it and do some remediation during childhood, you’d see some pretty big results later on."

It’s one thing for an alternative high school in Washington to see positive results by dealing with its students’ childhood traumas, but what does that method have to do with Park City? Everything, according to Redford, who said the kind of neglect and mistreatment the students in the film experienced recognizes no socioeconomic barriers. It can affect children in every community in America.

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"This stuff happens far more frequently than we would like to think or talk about, and it has real repercussions," he said. "It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a mansion or in an apartment complex."

Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District, said many people have the tendency to think wealthy mountain resort towns like Park City are immune. Breaking that perception is one reason she wanted to have "Paper Tigers" screened at the high school.

Conley wanted the film to serve as an eye-opener that will rally the community to provide more support for students who are struggling with mental and emotional health while also acknowledging the district can do a better job of training its teachers how to identify those students and connect them with the proper resources.

"I personally feel like we need to look at what we provide for our mental health counseling with the community and ramp that up for the kids with the most need," she said. "It’s just something that we need more of."

But the screening was also a reminder of what the Park City School District does well. Evidence is presented in the film that a positive relationship with at least one adult can make a huge difference for children with troubled pasts. Conley said teachers and administrators in Park City are excellent at forging those kinds of relationships.

"Every student needs to have someone in school that checks on them and cares for them," she said. "That’s something that I think we do really well in Park City, as far as building relationships with students and helping them feel like they truly matter."

For Redford, the screening represented a chance to make a difference. He said he hopes it sparks an earnest and broad conversation in Park City about the issues the film explores.

"A community screening can be a very powerful way to ignite change because people are coming together and sharing ideas," he said. "And I think there are real chances to change the dialogue in a substantial way. As a filmmaker, it’s rewarding to sit around with a couple hundred people trying to meaningfully hash out these problems."