Vol. 17, No. 16 July 29 - Aug. 25,  2004


Norwood Filmmaker Shares Passion With Students


In her over two decades teaching at city high schools, Norwood resident Pam Sporn has kindled her students' love of learning in some unlikely places, such as the deep recesses of libraries, storage rooms and other far-flung locales.

"It takes you all over the place," said Sporn, 47, about the process of teaching her students how to bring history alive through the production of documentary films.  

Documentaries have helped students explore race relations, homelessness, and media analysis. But to get to that point, Sporn had to first teach herself how to use a camera. "We stumbled along together," said Sporn with a laugh. Eventually, though, she ended up producing an award-winning documentary about her husband's Cuban roots. 

Sporn's enthusiasm for living history germinated early in her career. A social studies teacher at Bronx Satellite Academy in Hunts Point, Sporn frequently brought interesting people to her classroom to talk about their lives. She also began taking students outside to document personal histories with cameras and tape recorders. 

Her passion for video came in the late 1980s after watching "Eyes on the Prize," a TV series exploring the Civil Rights movement. "I started to do video as a way to preserve some of these wonderful people speaking in my classroom," she said.

Sporn's list of student-produced documentaries is substantial. Her classes interviewed the producers and Civil Rights leaders profiled in "Mississippi Burning," analyzed relationships between blacks and Jews just as the Crown Heights riots broke, and produced an educational video for the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Sporn firmly believes that this work develops all kinds of skills — from storytelling to writing — and former Satellite student Linden Harrigan couldn't be a better example of that. "To be honest, I had gotten bored with school," said the Parkchester native, now 33, about his early high school years. "I hadn't ever thought about college, or a career."

That all changed when Harrigan got his hands on a camera. Working on two pieces with Sporn, his interest in history, and learning, grew exponentially. After hours editing the "Mississippi Burning" piece in "a storage room," as Sporn put it, the documentary won a film festival award. "I remember being very nervous about sharing my work, but the reaction was incredible," Harrigan said. "That kept me going forward."

In this Cinderella-like story, Harrigan now works for NBC as an editor and will go on to graduate school soon. "These classes really turned my life around," he said.

While enthusiastic about teaching, Sporn itched to direct her own movie. In 1994, she began a six-year odyssey to produce "Cuban Roots, Bronx Stories," a feature-length film exploring the complex identities of three Cuban siblings. 

One of them, Paul (Pablo) Foster, is Sporn's husband and a Community Board 7 member. "I'm a very private individual," said Foster, 54. "But I think the younger generations needed to hear the history of our family."

Pablo Elliot Foster, Sporn's 29-year-old stepson and a Norwood resident, narrates the film as he quests to learn about his family's roots. The film travels from Co-op City, where the elder Foster talks about his family's voyage after the Cuban Revolution, to the streets of Longwood where the Foster children grew up. 

It also follows Paul Foster on his first visit back to the island since he left in 1962. An emotional scene where Foster says good-bye to his elderly and frail aunt, just prior to her death in 1998, is especially poignant. "All immigrants have hardships," Foster said. "Migrating to another country, you have to leave people behind." 

While the film traces the path of one particular family, it brings up issues of immigration, race and identity that are applicable to many Bronxites. In one of its premiere screenings at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, the room was packed, according to Sporn.  "The audience gave ‘much love,' as my students would say," she joked. 

But making the video truly was a labor of love. Sporn borrowed cameras, edited 
intermittently after school, and traveled from Harvard to Florida to collect the film's rich archival footage. She also wrote stacks of grant proposals for funding, and eventually, received $40,000 to hire a professional editor. But the vast majority of the film resulted from her handiwork.

Sporn gets a glint in her eye when she talks about screening "Cuban Roots" in Havana, or the prize it won in Brazil. But more than the awards, it is the emotional impact of her work that keeps Sporn going. She is now mulling over three or four possible future projects, including documenting the persecution of her radical parents by the federal government. 

But teaching video is still Sporn's bread-and-butter, one she increasingly worries is jeopardized by the city's push for a uniform school curriculum. For Harrigan, that prospect is tragic. "The students would lose big time," he said.

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