For most people in America, Sesame Street warrants no introduction. The long-running PBS program and landmark, nonprofit childrens educational organization, Sesame Workshop (renamed from Childrens Television Workshop in 2000), has been viewed in thousands of homes across the country since 1968 when it first began changing the way we look at television with its smart, innovative, and provocative programming for kids.
In The World According to Sesame Street, a Participant Productions film that premiered earlier this year at Sundance, filmmakers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan take a close, heartrending look at the challenges and complexities of producing the worlds most-watched and beloved childrens television show in countries such as Bangladesh, South Africa, and Kosovo.
Rebecca Carroll: How did you come to choose Sesame Street as the subject of this documentary?
Linda Hawkins Costigan: We had heard about Kami, the HIV-positive puppet on Takalani Sesame South Africas version of Sesame Streetand we were so intrigued that Sesame Street had found a way to put a face on HIV/AIDS for two- to six-year-old kids. Upon further research, we found that not only was Sesame Street dealing with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, but with the idea of mutual respect by promoting a sense of peace in its Israeli/Palestinian/Jordanian productions, and with girls education in Egypt. We just thought, Oh my God, this is Sesame Street, and they are dealing with some of the biggest issues for an audience of little people.
Linda Goldstein Knowlton: Just to finish that thought, we both grew up with Sesame Street and it made this massive impact on us. And here they were taking this very American show to different countries and making it culturally indigenous all around the world. What an amazing feat. How do they do that? Are they actually using Muppets as a catalyst for social change?
RC: And what do you think it is about Sesame Street that makes it an American show, apart from the fact that it was founded and is produced here?
LGK: First, Sesame Street is a show that most people think of as an American show, but the Sesame Workshop is a not-for-profit organization that goes to different countries and says: Tell us what your children need. Then they have meetings and seminars where they bring together child educators and child psychologists and childrens artists and animators and all of these different people who work the world of children, to create education and entertainment for them. In that way, the people on the ground within a certain country, for instance Bangladesh, get to create their own curriculum and their own puppets and their own street, and so then Sesame Street is no longer an American shownow its a Bangladeshi show.
RC: Theres a voiceover at the start of the film that talks about how hate is taught and how its not a matter of if children are learning from television, but what theyre learning from television. Hate is a real part of our worldhow did you handle this in the film?
LHC: We were lucky enough to go to Kosovo to watch them create a Sesame Street there. As we all know, Kosovo is very ethnically divided. The hatred is palpable. We talked to three-, four-, five-year-old Albanian and Serbian children who were already talking about not wanting to know the other, or who knew nothing about the other. These children live right next door to each other in some cases, and they dont know that the other exists. So what Sesame is trying to do is to introduce one set of children to the other. They are saying: Look, the Albanian child brushes his teeth or does his homework. The Serbian child brushes his teeth or does his homework. Its all about humanizing the other.
RC: And it has to be that rudimentary, doesnt it?
LHC: It really does because as soon as you are able to create a common denominator, which is what Sesame has done in so many different ways around the world, you cant hate someone as readily.
RC: As a black woman, the notion of teaching and witnessing palpable hatred hits home for me. How do you stop the teaching of hatredit has to go beyond making films, right?
LGK: In Kosovo, we interviewed several of the adults who came together to help create the show, and they each had incredibly dangerous and dire experiences of being chased, jumping off buildings, and horrible things happening to family members, and yet these people all came together and sat at the same table because they wanted to create something new for their childrenthey wanted to end the cycle. And yes, its going to take more than making documentaries, but its a start. And if you can start the ball rolling, if you can start to break the cycle, you are making progress.
RC: I noticed in the film notes that there is an action campaign that goes along with the film. Can you make a film like this without an action or social change agenda?
LGK: Sesame approaches each project they do with the sense that everything has equal weight: research, production, and outreach. So every show they do has an outreach component to help reinforce its message. Its not just a half-hour show that you see and then it goes away. Sesame books or games or video or radio shows are all going to help reinforce the ideas theyre trying to convey with the hope that one or more catch fire and continue to grow and grow.
RC: I love the sort of hope-springs-eternal concept behind Sesame Street, which has really built its foundation on this abiding faith in kids and the human spirit. As filmmakers, did you feel a sense of obligation to honor that?
LHC: Youre talking to maybe two of the most Pollyanna people, but I will tell you that we didnt set out to make an inspiring film. I will attest to that right now. We set out to examine and explore, and we were so inspired that we couldnt help making a film that we hoped would inspire others.
RC: What was it like introducing the film to Participant Productions?
LGK: Its been amazing. I mean, we walked in and the first person we met said, I love Sesame Street! We had already gone on two trips and cut together a trailer. We showed them that and our proposal, and, you know, they got itthey got that it fit with the part of their mission that promotes social action through film. Theyve been fantastic. They were surprised like a lot of people that the film has such a political face to it, but education is political, and the beginnings of Sesame Street are political, born out of the civil rights movement.
RC: What do you hope this film will do for its American audiences?
LHC: As we were talking earlier, children are not born to hate. They are taught to hate. If we can realize this, and not to sound Pollyanna about it, we have a responsibility, especially people in our field, over how we talk to our children and what our children are exposed to.
RC: My concern is that, as with race relations in this country, to undo the hate that has existed for prior generations is to create dangerous and sometimes as harmful internal struggles for current generations.
LHC: But as Linda [GK] said, Sesame Street was born in the1960s out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the first television show to include a multiracial cast and in an urban setting. Their social agenda was multicultural diversity even though they didnt have that phrase back then, and the show was not accepted on some of the public television stations for that reason. I was born in 1968, and I started watching Sesame Street in 1969, and the diversity I see on the show today is the norm to me. I think that if you can get kids early enough, it becomes the norm.
LGK: You know, theres this great Margaret Meade quote: Never believe that a small group of people cant change the world for in fact thats all who ever has. I hope thats right. I think thats right. You know, we have to be hopeful, and yes, its hard work, and yes, its pushing the rock up the hill, and yes, its pushing against multi-generational change, but if we dont try, nothing is ever going to change.
LHC: Sesame is never going to do it all on its own, thats for sure. Watching a half-hour of Sesame Street every day is never going to change someone completely, but hopefully it can do something, it can initiate some thought.
RC: Well, obviously theyre doing something right by having sustained all these years. What do you think that right thing is?
LHC: That from day one they have considered themselves an experiment and that they are willing to adapt, mold, and be pliable to different situations, which is why theyre so adaptable in so many different countries. If they feel that certain children are changing or see things a little bit differently in one country than they do in another, they are willing to change their program while still honoring their mission, which is to help children reach their highest potential.
LGK: And also, you know what? Theyre really entertaining. Theyre really, really funny and smart. It doesnt matter how great your curriculum is; if youre not entertaining, kids arent going to watch.
RC: Right. I wasnt at Sundance this year, but I understand that it was very well received. How do you feel about that response, and what do you think it says about independent film and the film community and what can be done insofar as social change?
LGK: We had a screening at midnightI think everybody gets a midnight screeningbut we had a screening at midnight, which was sold out, and there were 40 people on the wait list to get in. And after the film, at 2 oclock in the morning, there were 40 more people who stayed for the Q&A. So we were blown away. I mean, we always believed that this film could have a very wide audience because whether you watched it as a kid, you watched it with your kids, or with your grandkids, everybody has some type of recognition and connection and curiosity about Sesame Street. And so we think the joyful response at Sundance shows that the film can do a couple of things: It can show the power of film to make an impact, and it can open peoples eyes to the fact that the world is getting smaller, that were all a part of it, and that kids around the world are really the same.
For more information about The World According to Sesame Street, please see www.participantproductions.com