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'Homeroom' Filmmaker On New Documentary

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Another school year is getting underway already, the third school year to be impacted by the pandemic. Good timing for a new documentary that looks back at how students at one high school coped with the start of the pandemic last year. The Hulu documentary is called "Homeroom," and it follows the class of 20 at Oakland High School in Oakland, Calif., as the students there confront not just the pandemic, but also the growing nationwide movement for racial justice and their own quest to remove police from their school

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOMEROOM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Y'all need to show up in this Zoom school board meeting. Fill up public comment. Tell them why this is important. Go on social media. We have the school board's phone numbers up. Call them. Blow up their phones.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Keep the same energy.

GONYEA: The film was directed by Peter Nicks. And when we spoke recently, Nicks told us what it was like to be in the middle of filming the documentary when the pandemic hit and as its impact on the students slowly started to become clear.

PETER NICKS: I mean, it was profound, you know, on a number of levels, you know, the immediacy of it. But in retrospect, it wasn't so clear, you know, that that scene in the film where they're informed by the principal that school is closing, but at the time it was only three weeks, you know.

GONYEA: And you capture some of them actually cheering when they hear that announcement - no school for three weeks.

NICKS: Yeah, it's like a snow day. I grew up in New England. You know, every time, you know, we had hard snow. It's like exciting, you know? So it only became revealed as we went the significance of what it meant for all these things to be taken away from the kids that they've been dreaming of since they were young, you know, walking across that stage, their prom, performing in the school play, senior trip. All those things were taken away. And to sort of have revealed what they - how they found their voice in the wake of that loss was one of the most remarkable experiences for us as filmmakers.

GONYEA: And as viewers, we've already spent most of the school year with them when that happens. We watch them deal with it. We watch them deal with the uncertainty of it. And then just weeks later comes the murder of George Floyd and the story of Breonna Taylor. And these kids are immediately, no surprise, swept up in that. And you take us there as well.

NICKS: Well, they were primed, you know. And, you know, I think the pandemic was completely unexpected. But these stories have been turning for quite some time now. Going back to Rodney King, Eric Garner. Eric Garner was really no different than George Floyd. These are things that at least the city of Oakland has been fighting for for quite some time. But these kids had the prescience that they had, the focus, the vision that they had for what was needed in terms of societal change was so acute and profound.

When we sort of went back when COVID hit and we had to rethink what the movie was and what the movie was going to become and the arcs of the characters, we went back on our footage. And we realized that they were fighting for this change since day one. And that was really - the fact that these young people were ahead of the issue was really quite stunning, especially thinking back to when I was 16, 17 years old, I was, you know, kind of a hot mess, you know. And that's part of what the film is trying to articulate is how young people today are in possession of the type of skills and information and insight and wherewithal to act and to do the things that they're doing that prior generations of their age, you know, just weren't doing.

GONYEA: And it's worth noting here that from the beginning of the school year, before any of this happened, these students were already working - the student government specifically - to get rid of the permanent police presence that was in their school. They took it to the school board. They lost. But then the George Floyd murder and the the Black Lives Matter movement changed the dialogue for them on that particular issue, didn't it?

NICKS: That's right. And, you know, it's interesting that, I mean, just to see their perseverance and, you know, really interesting articulation of this controversial - these phrases that we've heard - defund the police, abolish the police - that are quite controversial. They really honed in on a very specific and actionable concern, which is a unique reality that some school districts in America have actual dedicated police departments that have huge budgets that take away from things like mental health services, after-school programs, test prep for college admission. And so that was something they were very focused on. And it was really a remarkable articulation to the country, I think at this moment where we're trying to figure out what does it mean to defund the police, to change the idea of public safety in America?

GONYEA: We get to know so many of these students over the course of the film. But there is another character, a really, really important character that is not a student. And I am talking about the smartphone. And it's obvious what a part of their lives it is. But then, after the George Floyd murder, after the story starts to turn, we see these students oftentimes just kind of alone in a hallway or in their home or somewhere looking at that horrific video from Minneapolis on their phone.

NICKS: Yeah.

GONYEA: We see them taking it in. Each of them maybe in solitude and absorbing it.

NICKS: Yeah. You know, I mean, early on in the film, there's a shot - in the opening credits sequence there's a shot of one of the students looking at a funeral. You know, a friend, you know, was killed. Many of these students have been carrying generational trauma that really precedes social media. You know, these are students in a school like Oakland High that have lost friends due to gun violence, who are dealing with food insecurity, housing insecurity, gentrification, having to move, you know, multiple times during the school year.

And then on top of that, you know, they now are carrying all the anxiety of sort of, you know, police shootings and the presence of police in their schools. And we wanted to communicate sort of how these students are absorbing this stuff on a daily basis and sort of internalizing it. And ultimately, they came together in various ways, as the rest of the world did in the midst of the pandemic, to step outside the confines of their homes, to join together to say racism is also a virus, is a disease, is something that we need to address and is an extremely urgent and necessary matter in our global society.

And so that space back-and-forth between virtual and real is a part of our lives now in our culture. And we're trying to understand what it means for us. And I think COVID has just emphasized that and underscored it in ways that are probably not an accident in the big scheme of things. You know, we're still trying to sort of work our way through all of this together. And these kids in some ways are leading the way.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Peter Nicks, producer and director of the new documentary "Homeroom" out now on Hulu. Peter Nicks, thank you so much for talking to us today.

NICKS: Thank you, Don. Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.