If You Build It

By: Addison WylieIYBIposter

Educators/designers/activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller organized a program called Studio H and aimed it towards a select group of high school students in the Bertie County.  The class involves teens brushing up on carpentry and learning about architecture.  The program then has the students utilizing their skills towards their own community.

Bertie County is undemanding.  Those who live in the stoic Northern California area understand their unfortunate circumstances and try to stay keen within their less-than-apt surroundings.  However, when a key educator is dethroned and a natural disaster has local business owners questioning if its worth re-opening after the destruction, Bertie County’s stability wobbles even more.

If You Build It is a nifty documentary showing that by using the right teaching strategies, people can inspire others around them.  Filmmaker Patrick Creadon does a good job of showing audiences how Pilloton and Miller connected with their students without sopping the story with contrived enthusiasm.

The teachers don’t try too hard to fit in with the crowd.  They treat the students with respect and show them how easy it is to put something together that would benefit their life in the long run.  Before we can say “cluck”, the kids are creating chicken coops that look as if they’ve been lifted out of Frank Gehry’s portfolio.

Pilloton and Miller as well as the Bertie County clan don’t play up any personalities for the camera; which shows that everyone is treating their jobs with maturity.  Creadon and his camera stay out of the way, but at the same time is able to catch natural moments from inside the classroom.  With the addition of flipHD footage taken by the students to document their process, the earnest attitudes are more accessible to the audience.

If You Build It moves well and lightly, but Creadon’s film is one of those examples where I wouldn’t have minded if the documentary was a bit longer.  The students come across as level headed with their own quirks.  I would’ve loved if the doc slowed itself down for audiences to get more acquainted with the classmates.  The development of each teen is limited and its only until final testimonials where we get a real feel for these avid builders.

Understandably, If You Build It is more interested in focusing on the establishment of Studio H and the hurdles the class collectively face.  By giving movie goers that extra layer of what makes these students special, the audience could see these charismatic teens individually leap out more substantially instead of being labeled as “that guy with the hair” and “that kid who loves his cows”.

To give Creadon credit though, he does tell a decent backstory about Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller’s relationship.  It gains more likability towards the two leaders, and a saddening story abut one of Miller’s greatest disappointments drums up sympathy.  We appreciate the sweat and tears Miller and his partner in crime work up in order to ignite kernels of determination from others.  And, Creadon’s filmmaking doesn’t oversell any of this.

If You Build It doesn’t cut too deep.  What you see is what you get.  But, what audiences are shown and told is affirming and positive.  I hope other educators take cues from Pilloton and Miller and pick up on their steps to involve the average teen in activities.  To those who already know how to do this: I hope they show Patrick Creadon’s provokingly compassionate doc to future classes to spark similar changes.


‘If You Build It’ screens as part of Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival’s Doc Soup series.

Catch the film at the Bloor Cinema on Wednesday, February 5 at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm as well as on Thursday, February 6 at 6:45 pm. series.

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