This is part one of a two-part interview with the Co-Directors of 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem conducted by Joshua R. Godinez. This is Joshua’s first, but hopefully not last, article on Scouting News, his website BoyandGirlScouts.com provides News, Opinion, Advice with the tagline, “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts under one roof… with proper supervision, of course.”
759: Boy Scouts of Harlem Interview – Part One
By Joshua R. Godinez
This interview is being conducted with Justin Szlasa who directed, produced, and edited 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem, and with Jake Boritt who also directed and was the cinematographer for the film.
Justin Szlasa, what is your background with the Boy Scouts of America and how did that influence your decision to make 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem?
JUSTIN: I grew up with Scouting–first as a Cub Scout then as a Boy Scout with Troop 42 in upstate New York. I earned Eagle like my father and brother–so it is a family thing. Scouting taught me a lot–how to lead, how to follow, the value of service to my community and country, an appreciation for the outdoors and a whole range of practical skills–from personal finance to first aid to how to cook–that I put to use every day. With this film I wanted to put the spotlight on Scouting. I don’t think it gets enough attention.
Does making this movie have anything to do with the Eagle Scout oath to make your influence count strongly for better Scouting?
JUSTIN: I can’t say I was conscious of the oath when I set out to make this film. Until one of the guys in Troop 759 made Eagle I hadn’t actually recited it in over a decade. I was motivated by a very basic idea: to try to give back to an organization that gave something to you.
Troop 42 in Big Flats, New York is a pretty far distance from Harlem both literally and figuratively. Why did you choose to do an inner city Boy Scout movie rather than one that probably matches the suburban, white Boy Scout image that most people have?
JUSTIN: My hometown was small and rural. My Troop matched the stereotype–white, from families with two parents around with plenty of Dads ready to volunteer their time. I wanted to see how Scouting operated in a big city, how it could deal with urban challenges and work in a place that was more diverse. What I didn’t realize until I started this project is that Baden-Powell created Scouting as a program for city kids, not country kids. Originally Scouting was a way for kids to escape the city–to go hiking, to build fires, to learn how to swim, to appreciate and understand the environment. It makes sense that Ten Mile River, the Scout camp that serves New York City is the largest Council-owned property in the country. FDR, who secured the land for TMR, was a huge booster for urban Scouting. Scouting may be more common in our suburbs but I’d argue it has always been more relevant in our cities.
Jake Boritt, I was very impressed by your previous work and your ability to engagingly tell your father’s story with your movie “Budapest to Gettysburg”. Your father was honored by President Bush with a National Humanities Medal and your work has received praise from world-renowned documentarian Ken Burns. You’re also taking on the story of Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American President. In light of those accomplishments and goals, a story about a kid going to summer camp seems like a strange departure from a very weighty series of films. Why did you decide to do this movie?
JAKE: Several years ago I moved to Harlem and fell in love the neighborhood. Living in the Village of Harlem – as locals call it – is a very rich experience. As a filmmaker I began contemplating possible angles to explore in a documentary.
Justin Szlasa and I had met a couple years earlier via a mutual friend of ours from John Hopkins. Justin was transitioning from the business world and was interested in getting into documentaries. While I made the Budapest to Gettysburg film (www.boritt.com) Justin backpacked around the world with his wife. When he returned I was finishing my film and Justin was looking to start a new film. We discussed several possibilities. Justin wanted to do a film about Scouts in New York City. I wanted to do a film about Harlem. On a Saturday morning in the spring of 2007 we walked into the basement of the Church of the Master in Harlem and we found our subject: Okpoti Sowah’s Troop 759.
What association or background have you had with the Boy Scouts of America?
JAKE: I knew very little about Scouts before beginning work on “759.” We spent so much time with the troop it was almost like we were part of the troop. We played football, went camping, hiking and it was almost like I was a teenage boy running around. Especially for kids living in the city it is a truly amazing experience.
How did you become associated with Troop 759?
JUSTIN: We knew we wanted to follow a Troop in New York City and we had some very practical considerations. First, it was easiest for us to travel in Manhattan so we ruled out the outer boroughs. Next, a smaller unit would be easier for us to film and get to know than a large one–so we ruled out the big Troops like 150 in Chinatown, STN and 718 in Washington Heights, and Troop 1 in midtown. But at the end of the day it was the warm welcome we received from Troop 759 when we dropped in at one of their meetings to pitch them on the project. It also helped that 759 met at a church around the corner from Jake’s apartment–which made it easy for us to lug our gear to Saturday meetings.
Who is the primary character in your film and how are you hoping the audience engages with his story?
JUSTIN: In some ways the primary character is Troop 759 itself–which is an entity made up of six different personalities–four Scouts and two leaders. But we do spend the most time with the Troop’s newest Scout–Keith Dozier–who is taking his first trip to summer camp. I think a lot of people will relate to his experience at camp.
Do you continue to have a relationship with the troop or leaders or individuals from Troop 759?
JUSTIN: You bet. Mr. Sowah, the Scoutmaster, and Ms. Ann, the Assistant Scoutmaster, have become kind of personal heroes to both me and Jake. They are tremendous people and a lot of fun. We keep in touch with them and the rest of the Scouts in the Troop.
Justin noted that he and Keith share swimming history in how their first ability tests came out. What others ways were you able to relate to the boys of Troop 759?
JUSTIN: Like Keith, the first time I took a dock test I failed. Jumping into a lake when you are eleven is not always easy man! But Keith is a tough kid. He practiced hard and passed his test by the end of the week–which was better than me. I was too chicken to get back in the water my first week at camp.
Read part two of this interview with the Co-Directors of 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem.
Learn more about 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem by visiting http://harlemscouts.com. Be sure to sign up for the email list to receive up to date information about the film.
This was a guest post by Joshua R. Godinez of BoyandGirlScouts.com.