When a press and industry screening of a documentary about Sesame Street attracted a capacity crowd at Sundance, it was hard to tell which contingent was more surprised. Then again, perhaps a distributor from Australia summed it up best: “Who doesn’t know Sesame Street?”
Even if you’ve been a Sesame Street fan since childhood, The World According to Sesame Street reveals something about the beloved children’s program you might not know. It is broadcast in 120 countries around the world, and in roughly 20 of those, the show is actually a co-production between the Sesame Workshop in New York and a handful of artists and educators in the country at hand. The goal is to tailor Sesame’s mantra of “tolerance, love and respect” to a given audience in ways that are culturally relevant as well as culturally sensitive, and the challenges in each market are quite different.
The World According to Sesame Street goes behind the scenes on three such co-productions — Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa — that were in different stages of development in 2004, when production on the documentary commenced. In Bangladesh, where children often begin working as early as age 3, a Sesame team led by Nadine Zylstra strives to create a program (Sisimpur) that will honor the Bangladeshis’ vibrant theatrical tradition and also meet with the approval of the government, which controls the nation’s only television station. In Kosovo, a Sesame team led by Barbara Nikonorow contends with the fallout of a very recent war that has left Albanians and Serbs totally segregated and deeply suspicious of each other. And in South Africa, where one local says “everyone is assumed to be HIV-positive until you know his status,” Sesame co-producer Naila Farovky and her collaborators on Takilani Sesame detail the challenges of creating the country’s first preschool HIV/AIDS curriculum, whose centerpiece is an HIV-positive Muppet.
Throughout the far-flung shoot, which happened intermittently over almost two years, directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan worked with one director of photography on each coast, Nelson Hume in New York and Christine Burrill in Los Angeles. (Additional operators helped out in some locations.) Burrill was unavailable for an interview, but Hume spoke with AC by phone about his work on the documentary.
“We all grew up with Sesame Street, and this sounded like a really interesting project,” says Hume, whose credits include the documentaries Keeping Time and Robert Stone’s Hollywood Vietnam. “The Lindas and I had a mutual friend, producer Alicia Sams; I had worked with Alicia, and she put the three of us together. When I met the Lindas on our first shoot in New York, I could tell they would be fantastic to work with.
“I don’t know that I knew how long the project would turn out to be,” he continues. “For me it was about 11/2 years with lots of breaks in between. I went to Bangladesh three times and Kosovo twice and shot in New York intermittently [at Sesame headquarters]. I’ve never actually met Chris [Burrill], but I know she went to Bangladesh at least once and filmed all the material in South Africa and El Salvador [the site of another co-production that is glimpsed in the film]. It was tons of work, and it would’ve been really, really hard for one cinematographer to do all of it.”
In fact, Hume and Burrill were assisted by additional operators in the States and overseas, largely because some key events could not be predicted. In Bangladesh and Kosovo, for example, a variety of developments made the respective co-productions’ fates uncertain for a time; in Bangladesh it was catastrophic flooding, a political assassination, and a nation-wide strike, and in Kosovo it was a fresh outbreak of violence that put the Serbian enclave in lockdown mode. “A lot of things were happening in Bangladesh, and there was just no way for us to be there all the time,” says Hume. “The Lindas found a great shooter there, Mohiuddin Ahmed, and some of his footage — including shots showing the Sisimpur set being built — is my favorite in the whole film. He was a wonderful guy who really understood the project and did great work. In Kosovo we worked with Avni Ahmetaj, who had shot a lot for CNN and was extremely competent. He was our fixer when I was there, and he did some additional shooting.”
Although the Kosovo sequences are among the tensest in the picture, Hume says the danger for the production remained “fairly abstract.” He recalls, “We could feel the tension in the air and it was still fairly raw, but I was in Belfast briefly in 1984, and that felt much more like a city under siege — the British soldiers were running from door to door, whereas in Kosovo they were strolling around. Life was going on, only with a big security hand over everything. We did feel quite a bit of tension in the Serbian enclave, where there’s a much bigger military presence with security checkpoints and so on. But overall, I’ve felt more tension shooting in certain parts of New York.” He adds, “The Lindas did a lot of work to make sure we didn’t travel into [potentially risky] areas until a lot of checking around had been done.”
Sometimes both directors would come along on a shoot, and sometimes Costigan would head to one location while Knowlton went to another. “They work very well together and independently, and they were very much on the same page,” says Hume. “Shooting docs like this is a very intimate process — the entire crew is three or four people. You can’t help but become immersed in the subject matter, and that allows you to enter each scene with an informed eye. I knew what the Lindas were looking for in terms of story arc and detail.” He adds that soundman Ben Posnack was invaluable on the shoot. “On projects like this, where you don’t have access to rental houses when gear goes down and helpful hands are hard to come by, you need someone like Ben. We’ve worked together for many years, and I rely on his technical ingenuity and his humor.”
The filmmakers started the shoot with a Sony PD-150, and a few months into production they bought a second camera, a Canon XL-2. “I liked the Canon more, which worked out well because Chris preferred the Sony,” says Hume. “To make sure the Canon footage matched up with the Sony material, I shot 60i [interlaced] in the 4:3 aspect ratio. I knew transferring to 35mm would help blend our material as well.
“I tried to capture the visual signatures of the countries we covered,” he continues. “Bangladesh is an explosion of colors glowing in the hot sun, whereas Kosovo is characterized by concrete, old snow, smoke-belching power plants and oppressive cloud clover. The New York material is the endless cubicle maze and Crayola colors of Sesame headquarters.” Although he was unable to participate in the color-correction and transfer to film (carried out at EFilm), he was pleased with what he saw onscreen at Sundance. “The stylistic differences between Chris’ material and mine were insignificant, and I was happy with the transfer.”
Hume carried a compact Lowel lighting kit on his shoots, and he tried to do supplemental lighting in all interviews and office scenes. “I designed it to fit in one Pelican case: an Omni/Tota, an Omni Pro and a 500-watt Rifa Lite. The Rifa is great for interviews, and I used it whenever I could.”
The filmmakers were given free reign at Sesame Workshop, with the proviso that they never photograph a “dead Muppet” — any Muppet that wasn’t on a puppeteer’s hand. “We were adopted into the Sesame family, and they got used to us being around,” says Hume. “A good example of what we had to get in New York is the scene where the Muppet maker there is videoconferencing with the Bangladeshis, who were [at Takilani Sesame studio] in South Africa, and he’s showing them the Muppets and talking about what might suit their program.” (This was a last-resort arrangement Sesame made when the Bangladeshis were unable to obtain visas to travel to New York.)
Hume is especially pleased with another Sesame Workshop sequence, which shows the Bangladeshi minister of women and children’s affairs visiting the team and finally informing them of the government’s decision regarding Sisimpur. “There were a lot of players in that scene, and we were trying to be as discreet as possible yet also cover the action,” he says. “[Editor] Kate Amend did an amazing job with that, and the suspense really comes through.”