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Trust and the System: Andrew Cohn on Night School

Night 01

By Matthew Fullerton.

Night School, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, is the latest documentary from Emmy award-winning filmmaker Andrew Cohn (Medora 2013). It follows the challenges of three adults, Greg, Melissa and Shynika, as they pursue their high school diplomas from an adult learning centre in Indianapolis, a city with one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the United States.
Like Cohn’s previous effort, Medora, which captures the struggles of a high school basketball team and its players in the barely surviving Indiana town of Medora, Night School is an intimate portrait of regular, everyday people navigating the struggles of daily life and the roadblocks often confronted by low-income families. It is, ultimately, a film of hope in increasingly dark and discouraging days that gives an authentic voice to those who would otherwise not be heard, a theme that seems to course through Cohn’s filmmaking philosophy and style.

When I caught up with Andrew Cohn to discuss Night School, he was in New York City, where the film will be screened on June 9 at the IFC Center. In the following interview, the filmmaker speaks with the honesty and earnestness he so admires of the people in the Midwest, a region of the United States to which he is often drawn and inherently connected, about the idea for making Night School, his desire to shine a light on people trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, and how he struck the right balance and tone for his film.

You have made two documentaries set in Indiana. What has drawn you to the state?

I love telling stories that are based in the Midwest. The Indiana thing was just by chance. With my first film [Medora], I’d read an article in The New York Times, and that’s how I learned about the town of Medora, and with this one [Night School] I was watching PBS Newshour and they had a little one-minute segment about this guy that was going back to do his high school diploma in a school located in Indianapolis. So, the Indiana thing came by chance.

The Midwest thing, you know, I’ve always been drawn to that part of the country. It’s where I’m from [Ann Arbor, Michigan]. I think that there’s something special about that area and I like making films about everyday Americans, about people that are sort of living on the edges of society. So, for me the Midwest is like an earnestness, an honesty and an authenticity that you don’t find maybe so obvious in other parts of the country. The people that I’ve met in Indiana have just been so kind and so willing to open up their lives to me in such an intimate way. You find lots of people of really high character in the Midwest. I’ve always been attracted to those kinds of stories.

I really care about the subjects in my film and I really want audiences to fall in love with these people as much as I did. My goal is to instill my experience, and I also want to let these folks who are so often ignored to be able to tell their own stories and give them the platform to talk about their fears and their dreams and their hopes. And so I feel grateful. Especially in the lower income neighbourhoods, there’s a lot of people that are overcoming some amazing odds every day and they usually just don’t get the credit or very much light shining on them. I was just happy to shine a little bit of light on three regular people.

How did you come across the Excel Centre, the free training centre and public school for adults in which Greg, Melissa and Shynika were enrolled?

Night 02I had an idea that I wanted to do a film on adult education. I thought there was something interesting about the idea of people going back to get their high school diplomas and sort of facing these fears. And so I went out doing some research and visited some places and really couldn’t find anything very inspiring. So I sort of put it on the backburner and I was watching that PBS Newshour piece, and there was, like I said, this very short one-minute segment about this guy who was going back to get his high school diploma at this specialized technical high school in this really dangerous neighbourhood in Indianapolis. I went down and visited the school, showed them Medora, gave them an idea of what the process would be like and got the green light and I moved there.

I lived there for eight months. I lived in the neighbourhood where the school was, which was pretty challenging. I wanted to throw myself into that world and become part of that community. That was sort of how it started.

How did you meet Greg, Melissa and Shynika?

It was a long process. There are about three hundred students. Everyone there had great stories, a reason for going back, a motivation. I interviewed lots of people and eventually had to narrow it down to seven. I wanted a variety of stories, and I wanted to hit stories that fit into the themes that I was experiencing there. I sort of whittled it down and eventually settled on these three characters that I think sort of epitomize what my experience was at the school.

You capture some very intimate and emotionally gripping moments in the film subjects’ lives, including a very sad scene involving Greg at his brother’s hospital bedside after he’s fallen victim to gun violence. How did you build their trust?

Time. I think that’s the one thing about diving in and dedicating yourself to a project. This was my full focus. I wasn’t doing anything else. The fact that you’re there day after day, they soon realize that you’re not going anywhere, that you’re there for the long haul. That’s when you get those really intimate moments. Because, to be honest, there’s a lot of people who told me, “I can’t believe all those amazing moments you were able to capture on film.” Well, there’s also a lot of really boring stuff that we shot, too, being there all of the time and filming. You know, seven hundred hours of footage, filming every day.

But, that’s just sort of my process. I like to shoot a lot and I like to make the subjects comfortable with the camera and so they kind of forget you’re there and become your partner on the film, too. Greg called me that night because he wanted a ride to the hospital, but I think all of the subjects had the understanding that if something happened in their life, I wanted to be there to film it. And so they sort of become your partners in a way.

How did you strike the balance of capturing the struggles of school and the struggles your three subjects faced outside of school?

That was one of the big challenges of the film. I knew that the school was just an opening. It was just an entry point into people’s lives. I knew people didn’t want to sit through two hours of watching people take math. That was tough, trying to find ways to connect the inside world and the world outside of the school, trying to find ways to connect them and finding the balance. I think we did a good job early on of figuring out that most of the students there, the roadblocks that are holding them back from graduating, [are] almost all exclusively outside of school, and so there is this natural interaction between the outside world and their lives in school. And so as much as we could, we tried to capture that. But, you know, it was a challenge.

The three express a desire to get out of the traps that impede them from getting their lives together – depression and loneliness in the case of Melissa, the pull of family and a criminal past for Greg, and a low-paying, but essential, job for Shynika. How did you feel knowing they were putting so much hope, energy and faith into a system – high school education – that doesn’t always guarantee success in an increasingly competitive world?

Night 03I know exactly what you mean and I thought about that, too. You know, like “Is this really going to make a difference?” So, what I wanted to do was try to build up the personal stakes. You know, why it meant so much to Melissa, why it meant so much to Shynika, and I think that while the film does try and find hope in a very dark place, and I think my films are generally looking for hopeful stories, I don’t think that when they graduated there’s a feeling that everything is going to be okay.

I hope that there’s a bit of bittersweetness in my work and a bit of earnestness and honesty that yes, while things did turn out great and they accomplished this goal, it’s still a very stark look at life in inner city. I don’t try to candy-coat it, but I also want to find a balance where there’s some hope, there’s some optimism. I think that the last scene, when they’re graduating, you’re happy, but you’re also a little bittersweet because you can see how much these systems have failed them. I’m thinking of the shot of Melissa when she’s sitting there watching people walk across the stage. This woman has just never had a break and the system has failed her. Trying to find people that can overcome that, yet also bring honesty to the struggle, I think was what I was trying to accomplish.

There is a certain refusal to depict the subjects as victims. How did you achieve this tone of not depicting them as victims, despite all their hardships?

Naturally they’re being proactive about their life. From a storytelling standpoint, there is something active that they’re going after, the goal that they are trying to achieve. So there is something active in their stories which makes it easier. I think part of that is giving them their own voice throughout the film. There’s no story about the teachers, or this person who’s the saviour. They’re really the ones who are creating their own destiny, they’re the ones that are making the sacrifices, they’re the ones that are getting up in the morning.

Hopefully, there’s some sort of balance where you can see that the system has failed them and that they are very much victims of the system, but they’re also not going to sit back and just take it. They’re going to fight for their future, they’re going to fight for their families and they’re going to fight for their children. I think that there’s a huge amount of courage that that takes. I think that the fact they are actively trying to pursue this goal makes people understand that the whole idea for the film was to show how hard it is to pull oneself out of poverty, just how many barriers there are. While they are victims in a lot of circumstances, they don’t view themselves as victims and I didn’t want audiences to view them as victims.

What do you hope people who have never been where Greg, Melissa and Shynika have been, take away from Night School?

I hope they get the sense of what the total experience of living in inner city in a Midwest city is like. I hope they understand, like I said before, that there’s a lot of people that are dealing with a lot of stuff that don’t get the credit they deserve. I hope they start to understand how all these different barriers intersect.

I try to find themes that are universal. Everyone has felt lonely like Melissa. Everyone has felt overwhelmed like Greg does, and everyone has felt like their voice isn’t being heard, like Shynika. I don’t love social issue documentaries. I hope people just connect with them on a human level and feel how they feel. I go to movies not because I want information but because I want to feel something. I hope people just emotionally connect with the people and feel how it feels to walk in their shoes for ninety minutes.

What can you tell us about your future filmmaking plans?

I’m going to keep making small intimate films about regular people because they’re the films that I really care about. I just hope to keep telling stories of everyday people and hopefully leave people with a sense of how I saw the world.

I think right now we are in a country that is fascinating. I think that there are millions of great stories out there and so I just want to keep giving a voice to people who would otherwise not have a voice. That’s sort of my motto.

Night School will be available for purchase June 23. To learn more about the film and view the trailer, go to nightschoolfilm.com.

Matthew Fullerton (MA, BEd, BA) has a particular interest in the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming a French and History Educator in Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4 (2015). This is his fourth interview for Film International.

1 Comment for “Trust and the System: Andrew Cohn on Night School

  1. Thanks for the excellent review. As an adult ed instructor I know first hand how folks coming back to school as adults struggle to stay motivated, how they get sidelined by life outside of school. Inner city Indianapolis presents an extreme case, but many of the challenges are similar for marginalized people everywhere. It would be great to organize a screening in my town of this film.

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