Documentary tells story of that one special teacher |

Documentary tells story of that one special teacher

Stina Sieg
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Courtesy still

ASPEN, Colorado ” Don’t we all have memories of one great teacher, that real force of nature who brought out the best in us? Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker hope so. Their documentary, “Pressure Cooker,” chronicles a school year in the life of one such lady ” the fiery, no-nonsense, but loving Wilma Stephenson ” and her dedicated group of high school culinary students. This first collaboration between Becker (editor of “Lost Boys of Sudan” and editor and director of several other documentaries) and Grausman (a feature film producer), is also Grausman’s first foray into the world of documentary film.

The result feels inspiring, sweet and emotionally honest.

At first this teacher is so intense and she’s so tough-love. At the end of the filming, what did you think about her? Grausman: “We have a great relationship now. We talk all the time. But she knows she sort of put me and Mark and the rest of our crew through hell a lot of the time. Because there were days she didn’t want us there, for sure. She had sort of a mixed relationship with the camera and us being there. She’s fully admitted in public that she’s given us a really hard time, but she’s glad we stuck it through, because she’s really glad with the finished film.”

Becker: “She’s a woman that, her teaching method is one that, like, knows no boundaries with the kids. She’s critical of them in their classwork and in the kitchen and how they conduct their personal lives, and she’s arranging their prom dates. And this same woman who treats the kids that way doesn’t turn that off when she’s dealing with other grownups, like us. So, definitely when we were in production, we often felt like kids who were navigating this role that she played in the classroom, and we were trying not to get in trouble.”

Some of these stories the kids have aren’t pretty. How did it feel to be let into this really hardscrabble kind of existence? Becker: “I so often during the process of making the film felt like we were privy to something that we just don’t see, which is that the lives of these so-called city kids, who are growing up in middle class homes with one parent or dysfunctional families or whatever it is, are so much more full than we ever see represented. These kids are so ambitious. They’ve decided, volunteered, to be in this boot camp, run by this woman who’s crazy and frightening as a teacher ” volunteered to do it because they want so much out of life. And that they maintain their ambition and their inspiration, that they’re able to juggle work ” whatever it is, flipping burgers ” and school with having whatever difficulties they’re having at home and maintain a degree of humor and a social life and somehow weather it with a smile on their faces ” they were like an inspiration to me. …They’re not struggling to stay off drugs or stay off the street. They’re actually struggling to avoid mediocrity, avoid flipping burgers, working at Wal-Mart for the rest of their lives. They’re struggling to avoid what’s offered to them on the level of opportunity. And this struggle against mediocrity was, we felt like, a window into a world that you just don’t see represented.”

What do you want people to walk away from this film feeling? What’s the message you want to give people? Becker: “During the process, on almost any film, but especially one where we’re given the privilege to be in somebody’s life, I aspire to a level of honesty. And there’s all these sorts of manipulations in filmmaking, where you’re sort of cutting and you’re changing things and you’re asking certain questions and all that. But Jen and I felt the same way. If we could approach what they were giving us, naturally, without manipulation, in the medium of making this documentary, then we would have achieved something. Viewers can have this process that we had, of sort of the revelation of having access to the lives of kids who are struggling against all these forces that want them to not do much with their lives. And they’re struggling hard in an inspiring way.”

Grausman: “Their ambition and their choice of goals are able to succeed in a way that’s not necessarily the norm for their high school or their neighborhood or their families. Also, I think it’s important, in terms of Wilma, as a teacher, the sort of energy she gives her kids, and she’s there at five in the morning, and she’s there ’til 10 at night. And what, you know, one person can do. It’s almost cliched, but she talked about if one teacher in every public school would mentor three or five kids, look what can happen. … Just sort of the effort and passion and time that a teacher can give can change people’s lives.”

Why do you think the world needs documentaries? Grausman: “I think it’s a way of showing people worlds they might not otherwise get to see.”

Becker: “I don’t know the answer to that question. What I know is that’s what I have to do. It may not seem it to the world, but I think of it as a form of personal expression. I love doing the work. I love connecting to people. I love trying with picture and sound to do right by people who are doing ordinary and extraordinary things in the world.”

Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111

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