Educational 'Split' Helps Troubled Children of Divorce

Michael Fox September 2, 2008

There may be some disagreement whether an Oscar-winning social-issue tearjerker rates higher on the documentary food chain than a multimillion-dollar-grossing political satire. But there’s little question that so-called educational films with specific social-welfare goals don’t get much respect, as examples of craft or art. So what happens when a gifted filmmaker steps into the educational arena? We’ll find out when Ellen Bruno (Samsara) finishes Split, a half-hour film aimed at 6-12-year-olds with separated or divorced parents and the first piece in a planned trilogy, with the second targeted to teenagers and the third to parents.

"This is media where kids are talking about their experiences, opening conversations, really looking at the monsters under their bed," Bruno declares. "The need is enormous. I just spent four days with friends who are splitting up, talking to their 10-year-old daughter, and she needs to hear from other kids that she’s going to survive.

"Bruno asked children of divorced parents to describe on-camera what they think other kids need to hear. "It’s very much a collaboration," she says. "I guess that’s what we do as filmmakers—we give them a platform. We bring our technical skills or technology to them, right?" Bruno enlisted an old friend, star cinematographer Ellen Kuras, to film the interviews as invitingly as possible. "The kids in the film are cool, not yucky," Bruno says. "It’s very intimately shot, very close and very warm, so you feel like you’re sitting next to a friend. The kids are funny, they’re profound, there’s a whole range of emotion. It’s not a downer kind of film. It’s very alive."??

There’s less distance between this project and her portraits of Tibetan Buddhist nuns (Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy) and child prostitutes in Burma (Sacrifice) than it might appear at first blush, Bruno points out, because they all deal with survivors of traumatic events putting their lives back together after some trauma. When I wondered how her experiential, mood-drenched visual style would fit with Split, she had a prompt response.??"

Everybody goes to the idea of this clinical or ugly educational [film]. That would not work for me. I bring the same aesthetic, the same sensibilities to this project. There are children sitting there talking, but the way they are allowed to tell their stories and the other images I will be using are not literal images per se. It’s going to be the inner world of these children. There won’t be attention given to their external physical environment."

??To that end, the San Francisco filmmaker uses symbols of childhood shot impressionistically, and she’s considering animating some of the kids’ drawings. The music, meanwhile, is being composed by a 6-year-old.

??Bruno notes that half the children in the country have split-up parents, which gives you an idea of the potential market for Split—and the challenge. "I want to get into every courtroom in the country, every mediator, every family lawyer," Bruno says. "I want it on the shelf in Wal-Mart, at Amazon, so if people get freaked out they can go online and get it sent to them with a discussion guide. This is slated for use in the home, for kids to sit down and watch with an adult." To view a five-minute clip of the work-in-progress, go to