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James Redford

The Fairfax filmmaker is back at this year’s festival with a look at an alternative teaching method that is having a lot of success.



How did you decide to focus on the students at Lincoln? Sadly, kids who have grown up exposed to chronic and traumatic stress often suffer neurological and physiological consequences that make it harder to learn. The teachers and administrators at Lincoln High School designed an educational approach that took that into account. Within three years, GPA, attendance and graduation rates were up, while fights, suspensions and arrests were down. That seemed like a story worth telling.

What brought you to this topic? My partner at KPJR films, Karen Pritzker, sent me the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. This landmark study proved beyond a doubt that chronic and traumatic stress, if left untreated, dramatically increases the odds of poor health outcomes later in life. It was a real head-smacker.

As a parent, did you learn anything new about teenagers? If you honor the adult in them, often the child is dying to come out.

You gave the cameras to the students to film themselves. Why? I had a talented and thoughtful production crew (local husband-and-wife team Tylor and Shannon Norwood) camped at Lincoln for days on end, but many of the kids remained elusive. Knowing how media savvy kids are these days, I invited them to tell their story with me. They all embraced it, some quite artfully. Giving them some control and authorship really made the film what it is.

Did you expect this positive outcome? Lincoln’s success metrics were off the charts, so I figured we would be witnessing “best practices” in action. But it was not all unicorns and rainbows. The kids had, and continue to have, their ups and downs. But they have the skills to thrive, and most of them credit Lincoln High School for a big part of that.

How many times did you visit the school during the filmmaking process? Oh Lord. I lost track. But I was finishing HBO’S Toxic Hot Seat at the time, so fewer times than the crew, that’s for sure. They were real troupers.

What is the take-home for teachers and educators dealing with children with disruptive behavior issues? Being trauma-informed helps teachers and educators as well as kids. To reject someone who is making your life difficult — that is so understandable. But if you know there is a good chance that the problematic behavior has roots in neurological or physiological changes, it might make the behavior feel less personal. It might make you a bit more sympathetic.

What does it mean for you to be in the Mill Valley Film Festival? Film festivals are a dime a dozen these days, but the Mill Valley Film Festival is one of the oldest and most well-attended and well-run film festivals in the USA. The California Film Institute has its act together. Trust me on that one. It can get pretty ugly out there on the circuit.

What’s next? I just completed a follow-up film to Paper Tigers called Resilience, a one-hour look at the science of stress and how to undo the damage. I also just finished my last day of shooting on an HBO film titled Happening, a fresh and inspiring look at the dawn of the clean energy era. It’s my first time in front of the camera. Now I know why I waited so long.


Fairfax filmmaker James Redford is presenting his sixth documentary, Paper Tigers, during this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. The film focuses on the positive effects of an unconventional teaching method at Seattle’s Lincoln High School that resulted in 75 percent fewer student fights and three times as many college-bound graduates.

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