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Communications and Marketing

Crain’s covers new college documentary

Crain’s Chicago Business covered a new documentary chronicling two students’ journey through college, including Robert Henderson ’14.

September 01, 2016
BUSINESS OF LIFE

See these kids and start thinking doctor, teacher—not just athlete

For many Americans, attending college is just another wholly expected step on life’s path. But for two teens from Englewood, it was more complicated. “All the Difference,” a new documentary by local filmmaker Tod Lending, chronicles their journey.

In 2009, as he was just beginning his senior year in high school, Urban Prep student Krishaun Branch entertained an unusual proposal: Chicago filmmaker Tod Lending wanted him to appear in a documentary. “The conversation was very interesting,” Branch recalls, a slight smile hinting at his understatement. “You know, he’s asking to film my life, and at that time, I was doing some very unlawful things. Any cameras I’d seen in the ‘hood were not good cameras.” 

An Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentarian, Lending had asked officials at Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, the country’s first all-boys public charter high school, if he could interview some of their seniors. “I was looking for several young men who were articulate, who came from very tough neighborhoods or broken homes and who were not exceptional students,” Lending says. “The whole purpose of this was to look at young men who were not exceptionally academically oriented but who would hopefully get the various supports they need along the way.”

The film is Lending’s most time-intensive work. He interviewed 45 students and followed four of them, all for a shoot he’d initially intended to wrap up with Urban Prep’s first graduation ceremony. But by the time the caps and gowns appeared, Lending had brainstormed a much more ambitious film. “All the Difference” follows two Englewood teenagers—Branch, a self-styled “gangbanger,” and Robert Henderson, who was raised by his grandmother after his father killed his mother—over 5½ years as they become the first members of their families to attend college. The story of the pair’s struggles and triumphs airs Sept. 12 on the PBS series “P.O.V.”If the focus sounds vaguely reminiscent of “Hoop Dreams,” the acclaimed 1994 set-in-Chicago documentary, well—it is, and it isn’t. Though both follow their poor African-American subjects for more than five years, this new film has none of the thrill of high school basketball, much less pie-in-the-sky hopes for big-league contracts. In “All the Difference,” Henderson grapples instead with whether he should strive to continue his pre-med program or switch to a history major. (He switched.) Branch majored in psychology.

“As good a film as it is, ‘Hoop Dreams’ reinforces the idea that football or basketball is how they’re going to make it,” says Lending, who adds that he believes education is the key to building a better, safer future. “Sports is such a pipe dream. We’ve got to start looking at these kids and thinking ‘doctor, teacher.’ ” 

Ironically, the 57-year-old director never earned his own bachelor’s degree after attending University of Wisconsin-Madison and Columbia College Chicago. “I was paying my own way in school, and I was ready to start working,” he says. So after three years of college, he headed first to New York and then to Los Angeles, where he edited feature films. He returned to Chicago in 1992 and founded Nomadic Pictures, his production company, to focus on documentaries. 

With more than a dozen long-form projects under his belt by the time of the Urban Prep shoot, Lending knew what he was up against when he decided to pursue two students through their college careers. On one hand, he needed to raise more funds to afford additional years of filming. Ultimately, the total budget for making “All the Difference” reached $900,000, most of which came from two large grants: about $500,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and $300,000 from the MacArthur Foundation.But there was also the subject matter to contend with. “Sometimes the documentary gods are with you, and sometimes they’re not,” Lending says. “To be really honest, this film was the toughest I’ve ever done. 

The reason is not a lot of action unfolded on camera. The majority of the drama and the tension to the story is internal,” like the pressures the young men faced around retaining scholarship money and succeeding for their families and community. 

Then, near the end of the film’s chronology, a tragedy intrudes: Branch’s younger brother is killed in a drive-by shooting. It was a turning point for Branch, whose early life path taught him just one response: retaliation. “I was torn,” he says. “I didn’t know: Should I continue going on this new route, making everybody proud? Or should I do what I used to do, and go and find the person who killed my brother?” 

Spoiler alert: Partly fueled by the confidence in a new future he gained at college, Branch does not seek eye-for-an-eye justice. Today, the college graduate, 24 works in Urban Prep’s admissions and recruitment department. At the film’s end, Henderson, now 25, was embarking on a stint with AmeriCorps.

“Tod and I had many conversations while the film was in production where he was worried that Robert or Krishaun might drop out,” says Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association and former executive producer at “P.O.V.” “There were all these moments where Tod didn’t know where this was going to end up.”

The result is a slow-burn character study anchored by young men on a journey. The general audience of PBS viewers will find multiple points of human connection, despite any demographic distances between them and the protagonists. It’s easy to admire Henderson’s love for his sharp-eyed, careworn grandmother, or to be impressed by Branch’s bravery to discuss his scholastic shortcomings on camera with a psychology professor. “Robert and Krishaun’s experiences are by no means unique,” Kilmurry says, “but they are not the stories that generally get told about young men of color, and that is what good documentary films can do: tell those hidden stories.”  

For four years, Lending spent a good chunk of time traveling between Lake Forest College, the largely white institution Henderson attended about 30 miles north of the Loop, and Nashville, Tenn.’s Fisk University, the historically black school where Branch enrolled. Lending did all the shooting, then handed over 350 hours of footage to his editor. (It became an 83-minute film.)

That’s the greatest amount of filming he’s done in a career specializing in longitudinal-study documentaries. Lending’s Oscar-nominated “Legacy”—a five-year-long portrait of three generations of the Collins family, who lived in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes—grew out of 150 to 200 hours of raw footage, he estimates. His Emmy-nominated “Omar and Pete,” which follows two parolees in Baltimore as they grapple with the effects of incarceration and addiction, took three years to complete. 

Lending’s passion for social justice issues took root early. He grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in south Evanston on the second floor of a three-flat. The landlord was African-American. “I grew up seeing my dad pay rent to a black man, so I just naturally grew up thinking, ‘We are equal. We are the same.’ ” 

Growing up in a Jewish family, which provided Lending a cultural if not strictly religious identity, also informed his worldview: “You’re aware, at least to a certain degree, that you’re an outsider. Being an outsider, I definitely identified with my black peers.”

That piece of his identity influenced his choice for his next big project, “Saul and Ruby: Life Is a Cabaret,” about two men—Saul Dreier, 91, and Reuwen “Ruby” Sosnowicz, 88—who formed the Holocaust Survivor Band in Florida. “I’m extremely passionate about it,” Lending says. “The film is about their lust for life and how to live life to the end, fully and completely.” In early August, Lending followed the men on a pilgrimage to Poland, where their klezmer band toured with concerts of peace and remembrance; some of their venues included the sites of former concentration camps. Lending is raising funds for the movie and hopes to complete it next August.Meanwhile, “All the Difference” rolls out and with it an outreach program. Lending’s hope is that high schools across the country screen it; he wants it to inspire young men of color, who have the lowest graduation rate of any demographic. He’s already getting emails from high school educators who have heard about the film. That’s likely thanks to outreach from “P.O.V.”—Kilmurry says he attended a recent screening in Los Angeles for a group of young African-American men in their late teens and early 20s. 

“One of them stood up and said, ‘This is my story. I’m trying to get through school, and I’ve not seen my story reflected on screen before,’ ” Kilmurry says. “Robert and Krishaun were there, and the Q&A was incredibly emotional—particularly for Krishaun, who said, ‘I wanted my little brother to be able to say this to me.’ ”

For his part, Branch says attending Urban Prep and being part of “All the Difference” was “a godsend.” It added pressure to his life, yes, he says. “But it wasn’t bad pressure. It was pressure to actually keep me focused and keep me moving. I’m very proud of it.”