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Worlds apart, film dissects shared problems of challenged youth

Published 7:08 pm, Sunday, January 13, 2013

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  • The Adamson family, from left, Mariah, 16; mother Soncerai, and Malik, 16, still live in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y. "I keep them sheltered because it is bad out there,"  Soncerai Adamson said. Malik, 16, and his twin siste both appeared in a documentary called "Brownstones to Red Dirt," which chronicles a pen pal program between youth in Brooklyn and Sierra Leone.  WESTPORT NEWS, CT 1/11/13 Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed

    The Adamson family, from left, Mariah, 16; mother Soncerai, and Malik, 16, still live in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y. "I keep them sheltered because it is bad out there," Soncerai Adamson said. Malik, 16, and his twin siste both appeared in a documentary called "Brownstones to Red Dirt," which chronicles a pen pal program between youth in Brooklyn and Sierra Leone. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 1/11/13

    Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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"The film does most of the talking," said Dave LaMattina, co-producer of the documentary, "Brownstones to Red Dirt." But the film, screened Friday night at the Westport Arts Center, spoke volumes.

An audience of about 50 people, through the documentary, learned the story of a pen pal program that linked students from the gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., with youngsters in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The film, which wrapped up the center's related "Pen Pals and Dreams" art exhibit, documented the experiences of African war orphans, juxtaposing them with both the cold realities and poignant hopes of young people in America's inner-cities.

"If I could describe Bed-Stuy, I would say it needs a lot of work," said Malik Adamson, who was 11 when he was a principal in the documentary.

"Something just doesn't seem right," he said. "Everything seems different in a way ... People just like to drink beer or take, I don't know, weed, or grass, and they just go crazy."

Four years later, Malik, now 15, is still affected by having been part of the experience.

"It opened my eyes to a whole new world," said Malik, a burgeoning artist who attends the Brooklyn Community for Arts & Media. "The whole experience was enriching.

"Life has gotten considerably better," he said of the intervening four years.

Part of the reason may be the role played by his mother, Soncerai Adamson, who has worked to shield her children from the harsh realities of their neighborhood.

"I keep them sheltered because it is bad out there," she said. "I send them away for the summers."

She noted, however, that as they get older, it becomes harder to keep them away from potential trouble.

"He stole the show and we all know that," Malik's twin sister, Mariah, 16, said of his appearance in the documentary, in which he radiates charm and wit that earned considerable laughs from the audience.

"For him to be a part of that, and really care about it, it's something to brag about," she said.

"When we started this project in 2007 and we met the kids in Sierra Leone, all they said was they wanted their voices to be heard," said LaMattina, whose wife Elizabeth has taught at the School for the Urban Environment in Brooklyn for seven years and suggested he do a documentary on the Pen Pal program.

"I'm an English teacher, so I'm always looking for ways for students to see beyond their neighborhood," she said. "This seemed like a real unique opportunity to show them a part of the world that they'll probably never go to."

Using the film as a vehicle, LaMattina and his partner Chad Walker raised more than $50,000, which was used to build a new school building at the Children-in-Crisis orphanage in Sierra-Leone, where the film was shot.

Their fundraising efforts continue, including a silent auction at the center.

"Part of what we try to do at the arts center is we try to reach out to the community," said Executive Director Peter Van Heerden, "and extend that relationship out to a much broader and a much bigger vision."