Bittersweet flavor served up in ‘Pressure Cooker’
September 25, 2008
ASPEN ” On the one hand, the documentary “Pressure Cooker” tells an inspirational story: Underprivileged, inner-city Philadelphia kids, predominantly African-American, are guided by an indefatigable teacher toward higher education and professional achievement. The upbeat note extends into the film’s final scene as the principal subjects attain goal number one ” namely, turning in outstanding work in a high-level cooking competition, and thus earning scholarships to top culinary schools.
But Mark Becker, who co-directed “Pressure Cooker” with Jennifer Grausman, wasn’t aiming primarily to tell an uplifting tale. The main objective, said the 38-year-old by phone from his home in New York’s West Village neighborhood, was “to try to approach the film with a level of honesty.” So while there is an essentially happy ending and characters whom you mostly want to cheer for, there are also harder truths in the film: The students are pushed hard to win the scholarships, and the woman doing the pushing, Wilma Stephenson, the head of the culinary arts program at Philadelphia’s Frankford High, often does so with little regard for social correctness. Outside of the surprisingly well-appointed kitchens in the schools ” almost certainly a product of Stephenson’s efforts ” the lives led by the kids are filled with struggle.
And a viewer doesn’t have to look far beyond the screen to realize that the three students under the spotlight in “Pressure Cooker” are, in their way, the lucky ones.
Not all the competitors in the competition ” a nationwide initiative known as the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-Cap ” earn scholarships; in fact, most inner-city high schoolers aren’t even in the running for one.
“What’s sad is the need, and how few pathways there are for these kids,” said Becker, who is expected in attendance when “Pressure Cooker” shows tonight, at 6:30 p.m., at the Isis Theatre, as part of Aspen Filmfest. (The film also screened yesterday at Filmfest, and Becker is making appearances in local schools.) “It can be frustrating that this window is so small. You almost wish there were a million more Wilma Stephensons out there, people who care that much and can guide them.”
Which is not to say that Stephenson comes across as an angelic figure. On-screen, she makes comments about students’ prospects for the future that are borderline inappropriate, and remarks about their personal appearance that definitely cross the border. She is quick to resort to anger and sarcasm. Perhaps the unspoken truth of the film is that she’s far from perfect, but she’s nearly all these kids have in their quest for an education and a meaningful career, and they need to grasp their limited options.
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Becker notes that, in his desire for a million more Stephensons, he’d want them “maybe not quite so dictatorial. It’s a bittersweet thing.” But the film comes down ultimately on the side of sweetness.
“It’s this channeling of love,” said Becker, who was recruited to the project by Grausman, who was looking for a collaborator with experience in editing. (Becker had edited the Emmy-nominated “Lost Boys of Sudan.”) “It can come out blunt, sometimes cruel. But it’s all about getting these kids to the next level. The goals with Wilma would be even narrower. She’s offering them, through discipline, through a no-boundaries way of teaching, a pathway out of the city, and not getting lost in the system like 99.9 percent of these kids do.”
“Pressure Cooker” focuses on the students as much as it does their teacher, and it’s easier to be emotionally moved by them. They get up early to learn to cook, serve, keep a clean kitchen.
“It’s uplifting when you’re witness to the ambition, that belies the common perception of inner-city kids,” said Becker. “They have a lot of energy.”
The filmmakers were guided by a desire to portray the students on film exactly how they experienced them in real life.
“My goal is to do justice to the people who have given me that privilege of their time, access to their inner lives,” said Becker. “We try to convey the essence of what we felt during production. And in as unmanipulative a manner as possible, so that the subjects feel their lives were treated with honesty and intimacy.”
Becker said he didn’t need to alter much to give the film a hook. “With other documentaries, you have to create the stakes for the audience,” he said. “This was very easy: They don’t get the scholarship, they get the mediocrity everyone tries to avoid ” flipping burgers, or maybe being a manager at a big-box store. There’s a lot at stake for these kids.”
Tonight, at 6:30 p.m.
Also showing today in Aspen at Aspen Filmfest: the Russian drama “Traveling with Pets” (Wheeler Opera House, at noon); the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Bill Murray (Wheeler, at 2:45 p.m.); the comedy “How About You,” set in a Irish nursing home (Wheeler, at 5:30 p.m.); and the Israeli film “Waltz with Bashir,” a partially animated remembrance of the 1982 Lebanese-Israeli war (Wheeler, at 8:30 p.m.).
At the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale: the French drama “A Secret,” set in post-World War II Paris (5:30 p.m.); and “Life. Support. Music.” a documentary about the recovery of a musician after an on-stage brain hemorrhage (8 p.m.).
Aspen Filmfest runs through Sunday, Sept. 28. For full program details, go to aspenfilm.org.