The world of public schools has been portrayed many times in motion pictures, but usually the school setting is used to either tell a sentimental story or a bleak dramatic story about the challenges faced by teachers. A lighter and somewhat more realistic view is provided in a new film about teachers called, appropriately, "Chalk." This film, which was shot entirely in Austin, Texas, in a pseudo-documentary style often referred to as "mockumentary," was the brainchild of two former teachers. VOA's Greg Flakus spoke with them and filed this report from Austin.
The teachers' world came to life in an actual Austin high school with students playing the roles of students and even a few teachers and administrators mixing in with the actors playing teachers.
Two former Austin high school teachers, actor Chris Mass and director Mike Akel came up with the idea for the film and developed the characters together.
The film begins with the statement that 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within three years, which is the issue Mike Akel wanted to explore. "Chris and I had always heard, 'If you can make it past your third year, you might have a chance.' You know, veteran teachers would tell us that," he said.
The film shows the challenges that confront teachers, but it does so with a subtle and wry humor. "It is painful and funny. As an artist, I think that is what we are called to do is expose truth in a loving way," he said.
"Chalk" was shot in documentary style with actors improvising most of their lines.
Akel says this style of acting required the crew to improvise as well. "We wanted it to feel like a documentary. True documentarians don't try to interrupt the process of the subject. They are at the mercy of the subject as far as the boom operators and camera operators. So that is what we wanted. We wanted to keep everyone on edge," he said.
Chris Mass, who plays history teacher Mr. Stroope in "Chalk," says real life school administrators who have roles in the film worked well with the improvisation. "Both of those assistant principal and principal are real and you just kind of tell them, 'Here is what we are going to do in this scene' and 'just play yourself and do what you do.," he said.
In coming up with the characters and storyline, Mass and Akel drew on their own experiences as teachers and they both have strong feelings about the profession and definite opinions on why the job has become so hard.
Mass says part of the problem is that teachers today have to compete with a huge world of mass media and movies for the attention of students. "They want to be entertained all the time and I would tell them, 'look, I love movies, I make them on the side, but you are not here for MTV world.' There is so much media and fluff that it makes it hard for a teacher to try to get science across to them," he said.
Both Mass and Akel also see lack of discipline at home and a lack of parent interest as a problem in many big city public schools. Akel says teachers often feel parents have abandoned their children at school. "Chris had a teacher night, a back-to-school night, and out of 150 kids, ... five -- five -- parents came," he said.
Teachers who have seen the film have provided the filmmakers with positive feedback and Chris Mass says it is especially gratifying to hear positive comments from beginning teachers who can identify strongly with the film's characters. "I think just to be understood as a new teacher, to watch "Chalk," and say 'They really capture (the teaching world), it does not fix what I deal with day in and day out, but they really capture what I face.' Empathy is powerful," he said.
"Chalk" has won several awards on the film festival circuit, has played in theaters throughout the country and is now set to be released internationally on DVD on September 25.