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Their parents have abandoned them, and they live in the most crime-wracked city in Central America, but the girls who appear in Voices Beyond the Wall have good fortune, too. It’s evident from the film that they’re exceptionally well educated and cared for at the orphanage where they’re being raised, and that they’ve formed deep sisterly bonds. And for the small group of teen residents who are the heart of the lyrical and engaging documentary, their poetry classes with a visiting instructor are a chance to explore and express complex emotions — to release them, as one girl puts it.
Subtitled Twelve Love Poems From the Murder Capital of the World, the eloquent film is the first nonfiction work by Brad Coley, who wrote and directed the narrative features The Undeserved and Frank the Bastard. He takes viewers into the safe haven of Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas (Our Little Roses) in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that led the globe in homicides for several recent years, until it was surpassed by Caracas, Venezuela. In 2012, when San Pedro Sula still held the dubious title, poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece traveled there on a Fulbright grant to teach poetry and English.
Executive produced by James Franco — who turned Reece’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale” into a short film — the doc is engrossing and intimate. Thanks to the fluent work of Coley, cinematographer Carmen Osterlye and editors Elise DuRant and Seth Anderson, it turns meaning and meter into a dynamic synthesis, as any good poem does.
Voices interweaves the poems that the girls write (which will be collected in a book) with their stories, hopes and dreams, told directly to the camera (many speak English). They discuss what it means to share and to trust, and what it means to be abandoned. One girl thought she was only visiting the orphanage when her mother dropped her off there, never to return; another was told she was going to a party. “It hurts to know that I was deceived by my mother,” she says. Reece is struck by the theme of forgiveness that runs through their writing. But it’s hardly the stuff of ribbons and butterflies; their language is precise and hard-hitting.
Dressed in casual, nonclerical threads and called Spencer by the girls, Reece uses such greats as Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop to spark searching conversations about craft, creativity and identity. Given the option of having their poems published anonymously, some girls choose to withhold their names, while others embrace the chance to go public. The film honors these wishes by not attaching names to faces; only in the end credits are the poets identified — or not, as the case may be.
Coley captures the family bonds among Our Little Roses’ 60 residents, from the smallest day-to-day interactions to Christmas celebrations and such milestones as quinceañeras and graduation. (There are scenes in church, but the NGO’s Christian teachings are never discussed; the spotlight belongs to creative writing and art.). Some girls look forward to independence, but none to leaving the embrace of this nurturing home. A 17-year-old who will be leaving the next year says, “I’m not sure if the world will love me like this place.”
The specialness of that place is clear. It’s accentuated, by heartrending comparison, when Coley follows two girls on their visit to a former resident. After multiple escapes from the private facility, Carolina lives in a government orphanage, apparently by order of the courts. It’s a prisonlike cinder-block complex that’s crowded with despondent kids, and her sorrowful longing for the place she once considered a prison couldn’t be more apparent. She describes the sleeping arrangements — 20 or 30 to a room — the punishment cell, the rats. There’s no mention of schooling, let alone enrichment programs like Reece’s class. “And when do you play?” one of her visitors asks, perhaps too pointedly.
The film offers telling glimpses of the city surrounding Our Little Roses: soldiers in the streets, a car pockmarked by bullets, the hillside landmark of a giant Coca-Cola sign. Like images in a poem, they instantly convey the complex truths of present-day gang terror and a nation’s colonial history. The latter finds further expression in the wonderfully rich language of excerpts from a play by one of the girls, which speaks of Honduras as a beautiful pink orchid and Spain as a witch with “a ridiculous lisp.”
Coley’s film reveals a thriving oasis in troubled territory. It captures an inspiring connection between Reece and his students, whether they’re discussing love and loss or exploring meter through Auden and salsa dancing. It’s the connection between language and life.
Production company: Stories Matter Media
Director: Brad Coley
Producer: Cassidy Friedman
Executive producer: James Franco
Director of photography: Carmen Osterlye
Editors: Elise DuRant, Seth Anderson
Composer: Beth Custer