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The Trip

African-American teens travel to Africa in search of a sense of self

Sylvia Makes a Friend in Black to Our Roots

Black to Our Roots

Director:Ras Tre Subira
Release Date:2009

7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/25/2009

Sylvia is a documentary filmmaker's dream. The precociously confident 17-year-old young woman from a housing project in Atlanta's rough Thomasville Heights neighborhood knows the world is a much bigger place than what she's seen of it so far. She's self-aware enough to admit that she's not sure who she is yet, but is brave enough to try and figure that out. And she, somehow, hasn't been hardened by life so much that she's reluctant to share her thoughts and life with an inquisitive camera crew, casually talking about being a young African-American in today's America, when sometimes neither the "African" nor the "American" part of that demographic description feels accurate. And as one of the nine high-school students who embark on an educational journey to Africa, Sylvia and the documentary Black to Our Roots explores the physical, emotional, and psychological distances involved when exploring cultural and personal identity.

Black to Our Roots follows Sylvia--who appears to live in a tiny white cinder-block apartment with her mother, who doesn't quite understand why her daughter wants to go to Africa--Kweku, another Atlanta teen who grew up in a more traditionally African household, and seven other teens on this adventure. They've joined up with Cashawn Myers' HABESHA--an acronym that stands for "helping Africa by establishing schools at home and abroad"--an Atlanta-based youth outreach program. It's Black to Our Roots program enlists students for an educational, fundraising, and community service school-year endeavor that culminates in a three-week trip to Ghana in West Africa.

Roots, the documentary, focuses almost exclusively on the students, particularly Sylvia and Kweku, as they first join HABESHA and work as a group to raise the money for their trip. In interviews, they talk about their preconceived notions and misconceptions about Africa and what they hope to learn. The camera follows the students on a visit to a Yoruba village among the Gullah in South Carolina, where one of the HABESHA men articulates the movie's central idea: African-Americans in America don't know what they've lost and Africans in Africa don't know what they have.

About 20 minutes into this 53 minute documentary, the group heads to Ghana, where for the following three weeks the group visits a Tutu village, the Trinity Home Foundation Orphanage, Kukum National Park, and a lake in the Ashanti region. Each of these visits arrives as a fleeting, decontextualized stop in an itinerary, and Black to Our Roots' biggest problem is such time compression, a matter of narrative expediency but one that occasionally undermines the documentary's potential emotional weight. Instead of capturing how this African trip is affecting the students, it sometimes resorts to having them explain their feelings in voice over. Only when Sylvia has to cross a rope bridge spanning a deep ravine at the national park, an experience that finds the usually assured young woman walking tentatively across the rope-suspended wooden planks with tears welling in her eyes, does the documentary dramatize how the experience is affecting these young people. But this moment feels more like an Outward Bound adventure-based testing of fears than an exploration of cultural and personal identity.

HABESHA's Black to Our Roots program, though, is part confidence builder and personal odyssey, which becomes resoundingly clear when the entire group visits a coastal slave dungeon. These palatial buildings were where stolen Africans were kept in dark, crowded cells until they were boarded on ships for the perilous journey across the Atlantic (the documentary cites that 48 of the 52 such dungeons dotting the West African coast were located in Ghana). The visit--into the pitch-dark caverns where Africans were held captive--is unnerving to watch, and the filmmakers wisely stay out of the way, letting the impact of this experience be felt in the students' faces and their observations of how the place smells.

And then Sylvia, Kweku, and the rest are quickly back in Atlanta trying to vocalize how the experience has affected them. Black to Our Roots starts to feel incomplete here, unsure of what it has to say about the very journey it has documented. Sylvia comes to the rescue, though, in a voice over that captures the ephemeral nature of just what the African visit has taught her. She concludes by admitting that she still doesn't know who she is, but that thanks to what she has seen and learned, "it's the beginning of me finding that out."

E-mail Bret McCabe

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