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BC Grad's Film Shows Moral Courage

For The Heights

Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

This past Tuesday, Feb. 21, Boston College hosted a screening of the documentary Brownstones to Red Dirt. The film documents a penpal program between sixth-grade students from inner city Brooklyn and orphans from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The film's co-creators, Dave LaMattina, BC '03, and Chad Walker, shot the documentary in 2006, and it premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in 2010. The fundraising campaign surrounding the film has raised over $55,000, enough to finance the construction of a new primary school in Sierra Leone.

Brownstones to Red Dirt features a group of roughly 10 children from Brooklyn and Freetown discussing their lives and the adverse environments in which they are growing up, as well as their aspirations for the future. It alternates between the children relating their own life stories, and reading the letters that they compose to their pen pals. Through the letters, the children discuss their lives and form genuine friendships.

It is clear from the beginning of the film that both groups of children lead lives marked by hardship. Unquestionably, the Sierra Leone orphans, whose parents were killed during the decade-long civil war, lead more difficult lives than their New York pen pals.

In Freetown, poverty is rampant and electricity is unavailable 24 hours per day. All of the orphans' lives have been indelibly marked by the Civil War. The Bedford-Stuyvesant housing projects from which the Brooklyn students hail, however, are situated in a dangerous urban environment where shootings are all too common.

LaMattina described his inspiration for the film, noting that it began during his time at BC. While at BC, LaMattina took part in the Jacques Salmanowitz Film Program, which offers money to students who wish to make films that show "moral courage."

LaMattina chose to film a documentary about single mothers in South Africa. He enjoyed the project so much that he decided to soon make another film about Africa, though he was unsure as to what specifically.

That question was answered for him by his fiancee, Elizabeth Glenney, who taught at the Urban School for the Environment in Brooklyn (the school which the subjects of the film attended). Glenney elected to have her students participate in the Respect Refugees penpal program, and LaMattina saw the opportunity to make a fascinating documentary.

When discussing the film, LaMattina said that the most surprising part of making the film was the level of poverty in which both groups of students were living. He expected the orphans in Sierra Leone to be living in difficult conditions, but the lives of the students in Brooklyn were more adverse than he could have imagined.

He was, however, struck by the wholly innocent desires of both groups of children. While many of the adults with whom he dealt in Sierra Leone had an ulterior motive for working with the filmmakers, the children only wanted to tell their stories.

Brownstones to Red Dirt is streaming free online at for any interested viewers.

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