Paper Tigers Documentary Review Essay

Documentary filmmaker James Redford released the trailer for Paper Tigers, a documentary that follows four teens who attend Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. Lincoln was the first high school in the country to integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, which resulted in an 85 percent decline in suspensions and a 40% decline in expulsions after the first year. After four years, suspensions had dropped 90 percent, expulsions dropped to zero, and graduation rates increased five-fold.

The documentary will be released early next year. Here’s info from the Paper Tigers web site:

Over one million children are being exposed to a toxicity that dooms them to become obese, drug and sex addicts, risk-takers and criminals. This toxin is very real and very damaging. You can’t hold it, see it or smell it, but it can kill just the same. This is the toxin of childhood trauma and stress, and ACES examines the latest understanding of how our adverse experiences alter us for life – and what we can do to overcome it. As Families. As Parents. As children.

Paper Tigers captures the pain, the danger, the beauty, and the hopes of struggling teens—and the teachers armed with new science and fresh approaches that are changing their lives for the better.  

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Unorthodox teaching strategies at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla are documented by filmmaker James Redford in his movie “Paper Tigers.”

At Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, in the past, a student’s profanity-laden outburst might have been grounds for suspension. Now, it’s met by kindness — and maybe an in-school suspension — by teachers who take a deep interest in their students’ home lives.

Lincoln, documented by director James Redford in “Paper Tigers,” which plays at Seattle International Film Festival at the SIFF Cinema Uptown on Thursday and Saturday, May 28 and 30, is an alternative school for kids with a history of truancy, substance abuse and childhood trauma. The school’s struggle with poor academic performance and behavior issues sparked a shift toward abandoning (most) punitive responses. The results? Seventy-five percent fewer fights and three times as many college-bound graduates, according to the film.

To effect this kind of change, “You have to look at behavior through a slightly different lens,” Redford said in a recent interview. “It’s hard not to lose your temper at kids who misbehave.”

Coming up

‘Paper Tigers’

7 p.m. May 28, 12:30 May 30, SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; $13 general admission (206-324-9996 or Director James Redford is scheduled to attend both screenings.

Lincoln’s approach is informed by “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) studies, led by Vincent J. Felitti. He found that each ACE a child has (some form of emotional, sexual or physical abuse) increases the riskfor substance abuse, learning issues, behavior problems, certain diseases and early death.

Redford and his filmmaking crew spent a school year following staff and students at Lincoln. The staff believes its methods of trauma-informed teaching can stop and reverse likely outcomes of untreated “toxic stress” — a term used to describe how traumatic childhood experiences affect developing brains.

Redford is the son of film actor and director Robert Redford and is the co-founder and chair of the Redford Center, a nonprofit organization that tells stories about environmental and social challenges in hopes of spurring action and change.

“Paper Tigers” is emotional, but not sappy. The dedication and passion of the teachers and staff at Lincoln shines, and the school’s vibrant personalities are captivating (see if you can count the number of teacher Erik Gordon’s different facial hairstyles). The film illustrates the ACE concept, but shows students as humans, not statistics.

This was accomplished, in part, by handing out cameras to the kids to film their own lives. Redford said at first, there was a “tremendous amount of skepticism,” from students at Lincoln. But after handing out the cameras, things took a positive turn.

“Not only did it give us a far more intimate look at what was going on, but it changed the relationship,” Redford said.

Lincoln was among the first schools to make headlines with its unorthodox approach to teaching and behavior management. The philosophies are spreading now — the Kent School District and Big Picture High School are local examples of those trying alternatives to suspensions and punishments for rule-breaking students.

Redford said learning about ACE studies and implementing the basics of trauma-informed teaching practices “don’t involve an enormous amount of resources” or a drastic departure from current practices.

Redford has directed and been a part of a handful of documentaries and movies and in 2016 plans to release “Resilience,” which delves into the science of toxic stress. It’s clear in “Paper Tigers” how the humanity of the students at Lincoln moved him, as much as the science.

“More than any other film, I’m tremendously attached to how [the students] are doing,” he said. “I’m kind of their worrywart uncle.”

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