Are the 16-year-olds in the deep South capable of such a challenging, cumbersome construction task? Especially with the school year coming close to an end? Would even the most devoted kids be willing to keep toiling into the hot summer?
If You Build It, directed by Patrick Creadon. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Gerald Peary
In 2007, Matt Miller, an idealistic young architect, built a two-story house by his own hands, sawing and nailing, in a downtrodden area of Detroit, and handed it over to someone poor and unfortunate. The house was theirs, and all they had to do was pay $400 a month and insurance. Was it Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, who said, “A good deed never goes unpunished”? The new owner of the house paid not a cent in eight months, forcing an eviction. Today that house sits there, trashed and abandoned.
Matt Miller’s lesson? He would try again, this time with his equally utopian, tenacious girlfriend, Emily Pilloton, also an architect and designer. Patrick Creadon’s stirring, wonderful documentary, If You Build It, follows Matt and Emily as they drive to the deep South, Bertie County, North Carolina. They have been hired for the year 2010 by an innovative Superintendant of Schools, “Chip” Zullinger, to create and implement a Design and Building curriculum for a class of high school juniors.
Everything seems in place for something special. The couple are each being paid $40,000, and they have $150,000 in grant money for this special project, Studio H. “I believe design can change the world,” Emily enthuses, and Dr. Zullinger agrees. “Turn them loose,” he proclaims, excited at how this outsider couple might inspire his high school kids. Everyone agrees: Bertie County, a fairly impoverished rural area, is one dreadfully boring place. The kids are, by their own admission, apathetic and drifting about. As one mother describes her son, “He’s kind a’ smart but there’s nuthin’ to grab him.” You can only jump so many times into the ole swimmin’ hole.
But instantly, everything crashes. The school board fires Zullinger. They take away the promised salaries of Emily and Matt. The only way that Studio H is allowed by to function is because the skeptical school board is assured that all will be paid for by grants. It won’t cost Bertie County a cent. (About that school board. I had racially profiled them in my mind as a right-wing White Citizens Council cabal. Well, they turn out to be majority African-American. No race has a complete hold on bull-headed, conservative thinking.)
Their idealism was definitely challenged as they were employed now without compensation. Still, Emily and Matt opened Studio H for business. Much of If You Build It takes place inside the classroom, where the 16-year-old students – amiable, lumpy, pretty average Americans – are pushed to places they never possibly imagined. The kids had signed up, so they thought, for a kind of glorified “shop.” Instead, they are taught bold concepts of design, how to think abstractly, and how to actually build. They are shown slides of work by Buckminster Fuller. They are instructed in how to construct water filters out of clay and “cow poop.” Emily and Matt are fabulous teachers.
The projects increase in difficulty, and, mostly, the class responds. Many weeks are taken up with each student designing a chicken coop. The worst of the designs are prosaic but functional, the best avant-garde modernist, quite brilliant. And then the ultimate project: something to be built by the class as a whole to serve the local community. At this point of If You Build It, Matt and Emily must morph into Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as they go public, as art now means urban politics, outsiders negotiating with the suspicious local town of Windsor. In a breakthrough, the Mayor endorses their plan and provides them with city land. Studio H will build on that land, with the money squeezed from their grants, an ambitious, multi-leveled wooden construction to be the site of a weekly farmers’ market.
And now the drama inherent in cinema verité: are the 16-year-olds of Studio H capable of such a challenging, cumbersome task? Especially with the school year coming close to an end? Would even the most devoted kids be willing to keep toiling into the hot summer?
I’m not going to spoil everything. I will tease by saying that what happens is better than Buñuel would, cynically, have predicted, more than a bit like the famous bittersweet ending of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. And like a traditional western, certain weary characters ride out of town at the end, having made Windsor, in Bertie County, North Carolina, a slightly better place.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.