OTM Chats With Jonathan Kalafer, Director Of ‘Once In A Lullaby: The Story Of New York’s PS22 Chorus’

Last month, I had the pleasure of viewing Jonathan Kalafer’s documentary about the PS22 Chorus, and their journey to performing at the Academy Awards.  It immediately became one of my favourite documentary films, due to its powerful message and Kalafer’s vision moving beyond the Oscars to the impact Gregg Breinberg has on his students.

Hot on the heels of the film’s ‘Best Documentary’ win at the 30th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival, I was fortunate to speak with Kalafer about the film, teaching, and Once In A Lullaby‘s impending run at the International Documentary Association’s 16th Annual DocuWeeks™ Documentary Showcase.

Steve Kalafer (Producer) and Jonathan Kalafer
Photo Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images North America

OTM:  Congratulations on the “Best Documentary” win at the New Jersey International Film Festival! After this accolade and the warm reception here in Toronto, how are you feeling?

KALAFER: Thanks! It’s a great feeling. I have had a deep respect for the programming at NJIFF for a long time so the award is very meaningful to me. It has been great screening for audiences and getting to talk to them about how the film affected them, as a filmmaker, that means the world to me.

The film will be a part of this year’s International Documentary Association’s 16th Annual DocuWeeks™ showcase in New York and Los Angeles. For those not as familiar with the various showcases and festivals, can you explain how the film found a place here and what significance it has for the film?

I am really excited about DocuWeeks™ because it gives people the chance to see the film in a great theatre as a commercial grade DCP file. The film will run in LA and NYC for a week so it is a really convenient great way for people to get to see it. It is run by the International Documentary Association, which is a non-profit that has been around over 30 years in service to filmmakers and the documentary artform, so it is a huge honor as well.

You’ve mentioned getting an early start at filmmaking via exploratory work with VHS as a medium. What about film as a means of expression drew you in?

So funny you bring that up! I have been digitizing all those old VHS tapes lately and it has been such a fun and reflective experience. With film or video you have so many tools. You have still or moving images, language, music, narrative, animation, etc. I have a love for all those things and a need to express myself. Initially, I was just a bored kid who knew where his dad’s video camera was.

I remember first hearing of the PS22 Chorus in late 2006, when Mr. B shared performances of Tori Amos songs on YouTube. Can you think back to the very first time you heard the chorus and what songs you heard or your reaction to their performance?

I had the same experience that I have heard so many other people relate to me: you know, getting lost in their music, clicking video after video, getting a really great feeling. I can’t remember the first song but I remember definitely seeing Tom Waits – Time and thinking, “OK, this teacher has an approach I can relate to.” I remember kicking myself for not listening to Melissa and checking it out earlier.

You’ve mentioned being acquainted with PS22 principal Melissa Donath for years and having a “backstage” perspective on the chorus from the start, as well as an interest in a documentary about them. Was the invitation to the Academy Awards a final push to embark on the project or did it provide a window of opportunity you’d been waiting for?

Yeah, I think the invitation from the Academy really opened our window of opportunity. At that point, I think everybody recognized that this was an amazing story that should be documented. Really, it was Mr. B and the chorus who opened the window because they made everyone love them so much that everyone was really pulling for the documentary to happen. It wasn’t a great time for me personally, but I’d had the idea for a while and that was the push. I was like, “now or never.”

Jonathan Kalafer and Gregg Breinberg
Photo Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images North America

Moviemaking with children can be challenging; for example, Richard Donner (The Goonies) praised his cast for their energy and excitement, but said that they were a handful when brought together. How did the kids respond to the process of being filmed? Were there any difficulties?

At first I was astonished at how comfortable the kids were with the camera.  There wasn’t the usual period of reminding them not to look at the camera etc. Of course, it was because they are so used to being filmed. They had the perfect balance of being comfortable with the camera but not playing to it. To be honest, working with the kids in this case was all positive; of course, we were just there to observe and shoot whatever was happening. The PS22 staff and the parents had all the challenges Richard Donner did. Actually, as a teacher and a parent myself, that had to be the most challenging thing: I would find myself wanting to help the teachers get the kids settled. I think staying in the role of filmmaker when my teacher instincts would kick in was the hardest part. That and getting lost in the music.

One of the things I enjoy most about the film is that the Oscars journey is a framework for the piece, but there’s a broader message. The film is about a teacher and the program through which he reaches students and transforms their lives. As a teacher yourself, was this your intention?

That element is such a big part of my life that it was almost unavoidable. That is a main part of my job as a teacher and even after over a decade in the classroom, the process is still so fascinating to me. The way people grow through education is really a complicated, beautiful process. Of course, it really helps that Gregg is an amazing teacher, so it was great having all of these wonderful examples to work with.

You teach Media and Communications in the New Jersey school system. Past students have praised you and noted that your classes are fun and “Mr. K. tricks you into learning.” It reminded me of the scene in Once In A Lullaby where Mr. B subtly quizzes the kids on math via daily hug allowances. Do you see aspects of your own teaching philosophy in Mr. B and Melissa’s work with the chorus?

Yes! Watching Mr. B teach so closely, I quickly realized we are kindred spirits and our teaching styles have a lot of overlap. It is a little uncanny, really. We have tread a lot of the same ground. Melissa has to play a little different role since she is the principal (which we see in the film with Azaria’s disciplinary situation) but pedagogically, we are on the same page too. That was one of the things that made the project feel so right: just getting to work with these people I had such an affinity and professional respect for.

Each of your prior projects – as director or producer – in the documentary arena seeks to reveal buried truths or inform audiences about issues. It seems that the sharing of knowledge, or teaching, is an undercurrent in your projects. Would you say that’s accurate?

Yeah definitely. That is what appeals to me so much about documentary film.  It is such a great forum to explore things and create conversation about them so that people can draw their own conclusions, or create their own questions. Same stuff that happens in my classroom – it is that beautiful, complicated process again.

What do you hope audiences take away from watching Once In A Lullaby: The Story Of New York’s PS22 Chorus? What would you like a future teacher to take away from the film and the PS22 Chorus journey?

I generally don’t have expectations for audiences. I am constantly surprised by people’s reactions and love hearing how it affected them in a unique way. For a future teacher though, I would hope they get some good techniques from observing Mr. B at work but also, I hope they get a taste for the dignity of teaching. Right now, particularly in NY and NJ, teachers are villainized by those with a certain political agenda.  They are robbing the profession of some its dignity.

Last question, for fun: The world is ending in ten minutes. You can choose one song to play during that time. What song do you choose?

Depends on what type of end it was coming to, but probably Armageddon by Carnivore.

Thank you so much for your time, Jonathan!  OTM’s rooting for the continued success of Once In A Lullaby: The Story Of New York’s PS22 Chorus.

If you are in the New York or Los Angeles area, you have a great opportunity to check out Once In A Lullaby on the big screen via the International Documentary Association’s 16th Annual DocuWeeks™ Documentary Showcase.  Need persuasion?  Read my review of the film.  Now, go right now and grab tickets.  I’ll wait.

New York Showings (Aug. 3-9) and Ticket Information Here
Los Angeles Showings (Aug. 10-16) and Ticket Information Here

Keep up to date with the PS22 Chorus via their blog.
Keep up with New Jersey Pictures and Jonathan Kalafer here.

Last, check out the new PSA the PS22 Chorus has done with the National Forest Foundation, featuring Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”!

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