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The Other Side of the Lens

by on July 14, 2009
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Half a soul-searing story of tragedy and an indictment of the American media, half call to political action, if you don’t look closer you might accuse “The Other Side of the Lens” of not knowing what it wants to be.

 It’s all pulled together by a little boy named Wesley. He is the glue of the piece, even as it becomes almost an entirely different film.

 The story is told by director Reed Cowan, a former TV news journalist whose job it was to go to crime scenes and cover the story for the local news station. By his own admission, he had learned to pull himself away from the scenes emotionally, so that it was just another day at the office, even if people had been seriously injured or even killed. His job, he thought, was to get the camera as close to the action as possible, then discuss it clinically and casually, so that the audience knew what was going on.

 This all changed, though, when he got a call from his ex-wife. Their 4-year-old son Wesley had an accident on a swingset in the backyard and wasn’t breathing.

 His son died that day, leaving Reed full of guilt and regret. The first half of the movie chronicles his grief and his bitterness toward the local news media, angry at their coldness toward his family’s circumstances, and at getting details wrong (one newscaster, he noted, said his son “hung himself” on the swingset, a phrase that suggests suicide).

 With a giant hole in his life, Reed decided to do something for his son’s legacy. He learned the plight of the poverty stricken agrarian communities in Kenya, and raised enough money to build a school for the young children there.

 It’s at that point that the film becomes both about Reed’s desire to honor his son’s memory and to change the lives of a group of people he had never met. He chose Kenya specifically because the American media seems to be more interested in updating us on the plight of Britney Spears and Jon and Kate rather than the terrible conditions many Kenyans live in: AIDS is a full-blown epidemic, and many neighborhoods live in squalor that even those in most of America’s poor areas could not imagine. Sewage runs down dirt roads, water laced with feces, cholera and dysentery are common illnesses.

 In a land where a lot of kids don’t go to school, or are beaten for even asking if they can get an education (as one child recounted), Reed decided to make an investment in the future of children an ocean away from his own homeland. He finds comfort and healing in working with the kids, and each one helped lay a stone for the school. He developed a rapport with the locals, and formed some lasting friendships.

 The film loses focus a bit when Reed returns to Kenya a year later after violence erupts over a contested election. But Reed pulls it back in, and we see his story is much larger than a single school: it’s about the entire country. He’s helpless to repair rifts between warring tribes, but chooses to focus on children.

 “Lens” is a story of redemption amidst unspeakable tragedy, but ultimately concludes that from some things you can never move on. All you can do is wake up each morning and try to make this day better than the last.

 Rating: 3 1/2 Yaps out of 5