Film Festival Doc Profiles Politics of Philly School Funding

Filed under: Arts and Entertainment,Education,Featured News,South Philadelphia |

FORMER S. Phila. HighSchool Principal Otis Hackney is prominently featured in this film-festival documentary about school funding.

FORMER S. Phila. HighSchool Principal Otis Hackney is prominently featured in this film-festival documentary about school funding.

by Nathan Lerner
Now celebrating its quarter century milestone, this year’s Philadelphia Film has programmed 110 titles originating from 23 different countries. Despite its international flavor, the festival also provides a platform for Backpack Full of Cash, a documentary with a decidedly local focus.

Directed by Sarah Mondale, Backpack Full of Cash, revolves around the issue of the drastic decrease in state funding for public schools. Mondale is a former school teacher, who witnessed first-hand the consequences of these cutbacks.

As depicted in Backpack Full of Cash, during Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, there was a statewide cutback in funds for public schools by a massive $1 billion. The budget for Philadelphia’s public school system was slashed by $300 million. As a consequence, 4,100 jobs were eliminated from the Philadelphia school system. Many political pundits consider these actions by Governor Corbett as contributory to the plummeting of his approval rating and being voted out of office.

At the epicenter of Backpack Full of Cash is South Philadelphia High School. The student body hails from families with an estimated 90% poverty rate. At the time that the film was shot, Otis Hackney served as principal of the school. The 44-year old Philadelphia native had to deal with the fall-out from the loss of school funding. Since the film was completed, Hackney was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney to serve as the Chief Education Officer for the city of Philadelphia.

Hackney was an ideal person for the filmmakers of Backpack Full of Cash to interview. He appears extensively in the film.

Q: What section of Philadelphia did you grow up in?

A: I grew up in West Philly.

Q: Where did you attend high school?

A: West Philadelphia High School.

Q: Growing up, did you always want to be involved with education?

A: My mother is a retired educator and education was something that I became particularly passionate about during my college years. I am particularly passionate about the generational impact that education can provide.

Q: Where did you go to college?

A: I began my college career at Hampton University, took a few years off and then returned to Community College and graduated from Temple University.

Q: What would you tell anyone who is wavering about seeing this film to convince them to see it?

A: It is important to see the film to understand that adequate and fair funding is imperative for all schools.

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MALIKA JAMISON was the location scout for the documentary.

MALIKA JAMISON was the location scout for the documentary.

Another local resident, Malika Jamison, also played a key role with the film. The 37-year-old Philadelphia native served as the chief location scout for scenes shot in Philadelphia.

Q: Growing up, what did you aspire to be?

A: I always knew I would be working in film and television somehow. I just wasn’t sure in which capacity.

Q: Where did you go to college?

A: I went to American University in Washington, D.C. I majored in visual media. Film and television production has always been a passion of mine.

Q: What other films have you been involved with?

A: I worked as an associate producer on another local documentary called Crescendo! The Power of Music. It takes an in-depth look at three kids as they participate in music-inspired programs. Most of the film was shot in West Philadelphia.

I also did some acting on How to Get Away with Murder. They shot the pilot here in Philadelphia in 2014. I would love to see more films and major television shows film in our area. Our neighborhoods have great aesthetics and can capture various moods.

Q: What was your professional and personal interactions with the other members of the crew? Did you know any of them before you became involved with the film? What is your current relationship with them? Are you still in touch with any of them?

A: We worked with a relatively small production crew. They are a great group of professionals who are committed to the project. The film community in Philadelphia is pretty small. So you get to know each other pretty well. Some of us even work on other projects together.

Q: What locations did you use for this film? Why inspired you to pick these particular locations?

A: Most of the shooting for the film took place in and around Center City and South Philadelphia. A large amount of the interviews and meetings were filmed at the School District of Philadelphia Education Center.

Q: Do you think local residents will recognize the locations that you have used? To what extent was their recognizability a factor in your decision to use these locations?

A: Absolutely. Philadelphia is a city comprised of distinct neighborhoods. Locals will definitely be able to recognize the various sections of the city where we filmed. It is important that the audience recognize these locations so they can have a better connection with the characters and subject matter.

Q: What was the most-rewarding aspect of doing this film?

A: Knowing that it will have an impact on people’s ideas and thoughts about education. Hopefully, it will spark a greater dialogue regarding how we can improve America’s public education system.

Q: What would you tell anyone who is wavering about seeing the film to see it?

A: I would tell people that this is a must-see documentary which is largely homegrown. It addresses important school-reform issues that are taking place in our very own backyard. For people who think that the privatization of public schools doesn’t affect them, I would suggest they would take a second look through the lens of this documentary.

Backpack Full of Cash will be shown at the Prince Theater on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 4:10 p.m. The filmmakers and subjects are scheduled to be in attendance.

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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