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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

WEEKENDER: GlobeDocs Film Festival celebrates 9th year, Tufts student stars in featured documentary

Among the many great documentaries from this year’s festival, one stands out.

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Pictured left to right are Deanna Pan, Isara Krieger, Makai Murray, Jessica Estelle Huggins and Dr. Akilah Cadet.

The Boston Globe successfully ran their ninth-annual GlobeDocs Film Festival from Oct. 25–29. GlobeDocs is a five-day film festival that features new, acclaimed documentary films, ranging from big-budget streaming hits such as “American Symphony” (2023) and “The Pigeon Tunnel” (2023) to smaller, independent films such as “The Highest Standard” (2023) and “The Philadelphia Eleven” (2023). Screenings took place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Brattle Theatre. A highlight of the festival involves pairing Globe journalists with filmmakers for each documentary to moderate a post-film panel and discussion.

The festival brought audiences together in person with documentarians from all over the country ranging from debut directors to famous veterans such as Errol Morris. 

“I think it’s really special that [the filmmakers] are so excited to have an audience see their film projected on the big screen and have that audience reaction and then have the discussion with the Boston Globe moderators. It was electric and really wonderful,” Lisa Viola, director of programming for the festival, told the Daily.  

The festival opened with the world premiere of “The Highest Standard,” a feature documentary that follows three Boston-area public middle schoolers, Meleah, Makai and Exavion, who rank far below their suburban peers by the eighth grade. They attend Beacon Academy, a 14-month program between middle and high school that prepares students from historically underrepresented and economically constrained backgrounds to succeed in some of the best private high schools in the country.

In addition to following the stories of the three middle-schoolers, the documentary focuses on the racial inequality of education in Massachusetts and America. 

I thought focusing on [Beacon] was an opportunity to highlight the extremely different environments that are available for students in Boston or Massachusetts for education,” Isara Krieger, director of “The Highest Standard,” told the Daily. “[Focusing on Beacon] would allow for investigation and discussions around the inequalities, injustice and racism in the ways that our school systems are set up.”

Makai Murray, one of the three stars of the film and a junior majoring in philosophy at Tufts, spoke with the Daily about his experiences in education from Beacon to Tufts and what it was like being a subject of a documentary.

With his home in Brockton, Mass., Murray faced a steep daily commute to attend Beacon Academy.

It was a six-day school week. I’d wake up at 5 a.m., I’d get on the 5:18 [a.m.] train to get to school by 8 [a.m.]. School would end at 4 [p.m.] but I’d still be in Boston until 8 [p.m.] because we had study hall from 8 [p.m.] to 10 [p.m.]. Then I’d go home after 10 o’clock [which took] two hours,” Murray said.

Beacon also challenged Murray with a level of academic rigor that he said he has not experienced since, even at Tufts.

“My Beacon year I didn’t do anything but Beacon,” Murray said. “There wasn’t a time during that 14-month period where I wasn’t really doing homework.”

Having to always stay on top of assignments added to this rigorous schedule and lifestyle for Murray.

“You are held accountable in a different capacity than I’ve ever been held accountable. At Tufts I’d submit an assignment late and they might take a point off or whatever. Beacon, you’re submitting late assignments and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re not gonna be able to go to school here anymore,’” Murray said. “They’re trying to keep their school at such a high standard that they can’t have students within their infrastructure that are pulling that infrastructure down. Everybody has to be at the highest standard.”

While these conditions sound difficult for a 14-year-old to navigate, being held to this “highest standard” monumentally impacted these kids’ lives, giving them access to a new world of opportunities. During his time at Beacon, Murray tirelessly worked to improve his SSAT scores and admissions essays, which helped him earn admission to the prestigious St. George’s School and eventually led him to Tufts. 

During Murray’s time, Beacon not only focused on academics but also trained their students to be able to present themselves to the foreign worlds of whiteness and privilege that they would be entering.

“They were taking us on skiing trips. None of us had gone skiing before,” Murray said. “That conversation is in the same conversation as the white savior thing. What’s the importance of skiing?”

Even though Murray has frustrations around being forced to learn activities that seemingly should have no relation to school or success, he also recognizes the value of these activities.

“I do understand now the importance of skiing. It was that important. How much different would my life have been had I not gone skiing or taken that etiquette class that teaches me about the seven different forks that are supposed to be on the table and how I use each of them,” Murray said.

While attending prestigious schools like St. George’s creates opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds, being transported from their local communities to predominantly white and wealthy institutions where they were expected to present themselves differently creates issues of identity.

“I feel like identity is just a hard thing when you’re in a space that forces you to think about the way you’re presenting. … I never had problems with identity when I was in Brockton at Davis School. I could be whoever, I could act however, because I didn’t feel as though I was being judged. … That wasn’t the case at St. George’s,” Murray said.

It took Murray a long time to be comfortable presenting himself as the same person at both school and home.

Now I’m in a space where … I can be this person around both people. That took me so long. It was almost like an identity crisis,” Murray said. “There’s this aspect of this split lifestyle where I was battling myself a lot. … I was comparing myself to a different lifestyle that’s just culturally so different and the background is so different. I almost had some sort of malice towards my life before because I wanted a different type of life.” 

These issues of identity and code-switching have continued past high school for Murray, just as they have for many other black people in America.

“Tufts feels like a St. George’s. It feels different but it feels the same. I feel like there’s a part of me that’s afraid of getting back into that space where I’m battling my identity because I feel like it’s wrong. Because who I am is not wrong. I can be a person that's from Brockton and still exist in this space and do well in this space. That was a very hard thing for me. I never realized that at St. George’s,” Murray said. “But I feel like right now I’m in a great space. I have great friends here and I appreciate my classes.”

Murray tried to hide his background at St. George’s, but now he feels proud of his identity and his story. He’s happy to share his story, but thinks there is no way to truly understand without watching “The Highest Standard.”

“There’s no way to properly voice the journey from being a Brockton kid to then going to St. George’s. You have to see the film to understand each part of that and how it exists for different people. Even seeing the film, my story is completely different than Exavion’s or Meleah’s story,” Murray said.

The three students’ unique stories proved central to the film’s identity for Isara Krieger, who directed the film.

“I really fell in love with each of the three of them, and audiences do too. I’m proud of that. Certain times when they really shine, [and] their personalities really come through in the film, I feel very accomplished. That was my goal,” Krieger said.

Above all else, Murray feels grateful that the documentary tries to address the systemic issues of American education, even if no obvious solution exists.

“I love this film and I love what this film stands for,” Murray said. “I think the film is a vehicle that tries to solve the same problem that Beacon solves, but in a different way because Beacon tries to fix the problem with individuals, the film addresses the problem as a whole.”

GlobeDocs presented a diverse range of documentaries this year, with the stories of Meleah, Makai, and Exavion standing next to the stories of celebrities like Jon Batiste and John le Carré, highlighted in “American Symphony” and “The Pigeon Tunnel” respectively. The benefit of GlobeDocs 2023 was that anyone could have found an interesting story in one of the 28 featured documentaries, while feeling involved in a community. At the time of their screenings, the majority of these films were not available for the public, and directors and producers offered invaluable insights after each screening.

The Globe prioritizes the accessibility of its screenings and in-person discussions with filmmakers.

“I think when people hear the word ‘film festival,’ they often think it’s elitist or closed or too expensive. Not only are we open to the public, but we really are encouraging people from all walks of life and try to be as welcoming as we can. [We] try to have as few barriers as possible other than time to encourage people to participate,” Viola concluded. “Every time we have new audience members, I’m thrilled just to see new faces in the audience and have people hearing and seeing for themselves what's going on.”