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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » I Am a Promise
I Am a Promise
New Video // Unrated // February 22, 2005
List Price: $26.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted February 15, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie:
In a time when "reality television" reigns supreme, it is a treat to see a documentary like I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School. The film, released in 1993, brings a vérité approach to its subject that was sorely lacking at the time. With their documentary, award-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond provided an unflinching glimpse into the world of the underprivileged, and opened the world up to "reality programming" before it was really hip to do so.

Filmed, over the course of one year, at M. Hall Stanton Elementary School in North Philadelphia, I Am a Promise goes past the schoolyard and into the halls to show exactly what happens when a caring, passionate staff takes the time to try to help students that normally wouldn't be given a chance. Lead by the most caring and passionate of them all, Principal Deanna Burney, the staff at Stanton Elementary School do all they can to give their students quality education, confidence, and a real chance to succeed in a place that pits so many things against them.

What makes the film so fascinating, aside from the charismatic children and dedicated staff, is the way in which Susan and Alan Raymond weave the several different stories into one passionate and heartfelt tale about children facing nearly insurmountable odds. Their vérité approach puts the viewer right in the heart of the school (and these children), and its almost impossible not to want every single student to succeed. In a time when every channel seems to have its own reality show, we tend to take for granted the power of a documentary like I Am a Promise. We see stories like this nearly every day. In the early 1990's, however, it was groundbreaking cinema.

Directed and narrated by Susan Raymond, and beautifully photographed (and edited) by Alan Raymond, I Am a Promise doesn't shy away from the most difficult subjects. We see students fighting, finding hypodermic syringes in the schoolyard, and dealing with drug-addicted parents. But these harsh aspects of the film are not what, ultimately, won the film the 1993 Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature. It is the ability of the filmmakers to maintain a tremendous amount of heart and soul throughout every single obstacle and tragedy these students (and staff) must face on a daily basis. It is this very heart and soul that makes the film simultaneously brutal and tender. What was groundbreaking cinema in the early 1990's has aged quite well and is now simply an excellent film. I'll take something with as much truth and beauty as I Am a Promise over reality television any day of the week.

The DVD

Video:
I Am a Promise is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format and looks pretty much like what you would expect from a early 1990's production shot on 16mm. Detail is lacking, colors sometimes bloom, and some of the brighter spots even look a bit blown out. The print is not in the best shape with noticeable grain, dirt, and even a few scratches throughout. A digital remaster may have been able to remedy a few of these problems, but it's probably not necessary. The film looks as good as it's ever going to look, and this transfer is serviceable enough.

Sound:
The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby 2.0 stereo format and, just like the video, suffers from a lack of quality source material. Sound levels fluctuate from time to time and there isn't much of a spacious soundstage, but the dialogue does come through nice and clear. Really, that's what is important for a film like this anyway. I was even surprised to hear a little bit of ambience and bass pumping through my speakers when I ran the film through Dolby ProLogic II decoding. Nonetheless, everything you really need to hear is intelligible, and for a film such as this that is plenty.

Extras:
The one real shining extra feature on this disc is an audio commentary featuring the filmmakers and former Principal Deanna Burney. The track is mostly screen-specific with Susan and Alan Raymond expanding on some of their difficulties in bringing the film to life. They share more stories about the children and provide some great insight into exactly what it was like to film at Stanton Elementary School throughout the course of a year. Principal Burney, however, contributes the most intriguing part of the commentary track, as she is able - ten years later - to reflect on the choices she made and the hardships she had to endure when I Am a Promise was being filmed. She even provides an update on the whereabouts of a few of the children. The three participants are very focal and honest about the film, which makes for a very engrossing track.

Also included on this disc are a text biography of Susan and Alan Raymond, a brief text feature on DocuRama, and the entire text of the DocuRama catalog. A few trailers for other DocuRama features are also included.

Final Thoughts:
While I cannot recommend the film highly enough, I would have liked to see a little more effort put into this DVD presentation. The audio-visual presentation is adequate, and the inclusion of the audio commentary is a nice touch, but it would have been nice to have a little more insight into such an important film. A retrospective featurette would have been great, and I would have liked to know where more of these students are today. Nevertheless, the strength of the film alone is worth the price of admission, and - with the inclusion of the engaging commentary track - it would be hard not to recommend this disc.

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