Q&A: Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan

For most people in America, “Sesame Street” warrants no introduction. The long-running PBS program and landmark, nonprofit children’s educational organization, Sesame Workshop (renamed from Children’s 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 world’s most-watched and beloved children’s 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 Africa’s version of ‘Sesame Street’—and 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 children’s 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 show—now it’s a Bangladeshi show.

RC: There’s a voiceover at the start of the film that talks about how hate is taught and how it’s not a matter of if children are learning from television, but what they’re learning from television. Hate is a real part of our world—how 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 don’t 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.’ It’s all about humanizing the other.

RC: And it has to be that rudimentary, doesn’t 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 can’t 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 hatred—it 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 children—they wanted to end the cycle. And yes, it’s going to take more than making documentaries, but it’s 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. It’s 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 they’re 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: You’re talking to maybe two of the most Pollyanna people, but I will tell you that we didn’t 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 couldn’t help making a film that we hoped would inspire others.

RC: What was it like introducing the film to Participant Productions?

LGK: It’s 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 it—they got that it fit with the part of their mission that promotes social action through film. They’ve 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 didn’t 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, there’s this great Margaret Meade quote: ‘Never believe that a small group of people can’t change the world for in fact that’s all who ever has.’ I hope that’s right. I think that’s right. You know, we have to be hopeful, and yes, it’s hard work, and yes, it’s pushing the rock up the hill, and yes, it’s pushing against multi-generational change, but if we don’t try, nothing is ever going to change.

LHC: Sesame is never going to do it all on its own, that’s 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 they’re 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 they’re 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? They’re really entertaining. They’re really, really funny and smart. It doesn’t matter how great your curriculum is; if you’re not entertaining, kids aren’t going to watch.

RC: Right. I wasn’t 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 midnight—I think everybody gets a midnight screening—but 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 o’clock 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 people’s eyes to the fact that the world is getting smaller, that we’re 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

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Rebecca Carroll former Editor-in-Chief of The Independent