An observational documentary following a unique social experiment to hothouse 12 year old boys.

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An observational documentary following a unique social experiment to hothouse 12 year old boys.

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14 March 2007 (UK)  »

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A totally flawed documentary then that is only engaging in the way that Sewell's "social experiment" seems to be nothing more than a very well funded summer school
12 May 2007 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

In the UK young black men are failing at school and are seen as trouble makers and underachievers. In a social experiment called "Generating Genius" Dr Tony Sewell takes a group of ten 12-year-old black and mixed race boys from the UK to a summer school at a Jamaican University. His goal is to give them an university level education in sciences over a series of summers, challenging them with the material to see if they rise to it or not.

Starting with aims that are a little mixed up and unclear, Sewell's project does make for an engaging documentary but not totally in the ways that he intended it to be. The film doesn't really address the problem in the UK because it doesn't link very well with the issue – instead just focusing on the group of ten boys. It is also hard to really judge the success of the project because the aims are not that clear at the start of the film – what is "success" or "failure", what is the hypothesis that the social experiment is testing? By not setting targets and milestones clearly from the start, we come down to looking at the behaviour of all involved and, guess what, turns out that children are children! The boys are engaged when they get lessons that are engaging and mess around when they are pushed too hard or are given too much freedom. Whether they are black or not doesn't seem to be a major factor in their behaviour. Of more interest is the action of Sewell because he does rather copy the actions of the UK schools. Bad behaviour sees the boys humiliated in front of others and ultimately some of them are excluded or threatened with exclusion. The most obvious example of this is Ethan, who is bright and coherent but for some reason is a little difficult to handle – the solution is to drop him and I did wonder if this attitude among teachers was not part of the problem. The incident where Sewell attacks parents with overweight children also highlights his poor judgement and I really did doubt his ability to do something with this project.

The conclusions in the film are rather weak. There is no clear improvement and the boys tend to say the same sort of things they said before the project began. Director Carter must take a lot of the blame here for failing to deliver a good argument across his film; in fact it was so weak that the screening I saw on TV had a summary read out by the continuity announcer over the end credits in a (failed) attempt to provide a more meaningful conclusion by telling us that "all the mothers continue to say their boys are interested in science" and that Ethan "has battled past his disappointments".

Overall then a fairly weak documentary that fails to set out its hypothesis clearly or test it in a meaningful measurable way. Aside form giving the boys extra schooling and being a bit overly tough on them, Sewell's aims aren't clear. Director Carter certainly can't do much with them and the film falters as a result meaning that I took almost nothing away from the film other than seeing that children are children and will react well to education that is pitched just a little above their level in a way that is interesting and engaging for them and that difficult children will require a lot more work rather than being thrown out of the system. A totally flawed documentary then that is only engaging in the way that Sewell's "social experiment" seems to be nothing more than a very well funded summer school with him as lord and master of all he surveys.


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