From director Mel Stuart ("Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", "Wattstax") comes this documentary about a particular classroom in the Hobart inner city elementary school in L.A. - one of the largest elementary schools in the country, in fact. Most of the children are around ten, and come from varied cultures - mostly Latino or Asian. For some of them, English is a second language, and all of them must face growing up in a rough neighborhood.
In one of the classrooms at the school, teacher Rafe Esquith tries to make a difference in the lives of the children. One of the cores of his lesson plan is to teach Shakespeare. As he notes, the kids are not Shakespearian actors and it's not all about learning Shakespeare. It's about learning vocabulary, discipline and other elements via learning about Shakespeare.
"Hobart" is a straightforward, crisply paced (it comes in at just under an hour) documentary that gets its emotional moments from pleasant surprises, scenes showing the incredible accomplishments and the feeling that one hopes that there's more than just one Rafe Esquith out there, as his views on education are certainly winning.
He even sees playing baseball with the kids as a fine example of fair play and teamwork and encourages fundamentals via the sport - there's always some sort of learning going on, even when you're not in the traditional classroom situation, in other words. An interesting tidbit the school principal offers is that other teachers in the school resent Rafe for his success with the students and the press he's gotten from his teaching methods.
Another brilliant method that Rafe uses is a money system. Kids get a certain amount of "money" and they have to pay rent to sit at their desks. Desks towards the front of the room cost more than desks at the back of the room. If kids don't do their homework, they're "fined". If Rafe doesn't do his work, he doesn't get paid - so if the kids don't do their homework there's a penalty, as well.
The fifth graders that Rafe works with go on two major trips per year - at one point, Rafe was working four jobs per year to fund the money to take kids (who otherwise couldn't afford it) on trips every year. Now, Rafe has created a non-profit organization that funds these trips through donations from people who are. The kids go on field trips to colleges where Rafe shows them what they're working towards. After they visit the college, Rafe asks them one way that they're going to work towards improving themselves in the next year.
Later in the documentary, Rafe even manages to bring Michael York (and later, Ian McKellen) into the class to discuss Shakespeare with the children. The visits from the celebs are part of the build-up towards the year's final project, where Rafe and his students put on a production of "Hamlet". He demands the best from his students and, while he doesn't say that he'll get it from everyone, he does get exceptional results and says that all children should be given an equal opportunity to start with.
Overall, this is a quietly moving documentary that shows that there are unbelievable teachers out there who are creative and imaginative in the ways that they approach teaching. Rafe doesn't put on a giant show to gain the kids attention, but smartly and subtly works lessons into everyday moments and adds in lessons that are tools that will hopefully help these students down the road. Speaking of the future, Rafe doesn't stop with his own classroom - he comes in on Saturdays and helps former students continue down the right road.
VIDEO: "Hobart Shakespeareans" is presented by Docurama in the film's original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio (the film was originally shown on TV.) The DVD presentation does have some minor issues, but the picture quality largely seems to be about what I would imagine the presentation looked when originally broadcast. The only concerns were some minor moments of shimmering and a couple of slight traces of noise. Otherwise, the picture looked crisp and clear, with solid colors and accurate flesh tones.
SOUND: "Hobart Shakespearians" is presented in stereo audio. The film's audio is basic, but it crisply and clearly captures dialogue.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes a very informative interview with director Mel Stuart, who chats about how he was able to do the film, his thoughts on the subject and experiences while shooting the documentary. There's also a Stuart bio and trailers for other Docurama titles.
Final Thoughts: A fascinating film about a gifted and devoted teacher coming up with simple (yet often quite inspired) ways to teach his kids and make a difference in their lives, "Hobart Shakespearians" is a highly recommended rental (given the short length and somewhat low repeat viewing value; otherwise it'd be a recommended purchase.)