Tangier Treehouse: Hope Begins at Home, a One-Hour Documentary about the Lives and Choices of Children in Morocco to Premier on Public Television in February 2008

Film tells inspiring tale of hope among despair and offers intimate window into the lives of disenfranchised Arab youth

(New York)—When a group of Moroccan street children are invited to take part in a treehouse building workshop, they find themselves unexpectedly transformed. Facing difficult choices in their lives—whether to emigrate to nearby Europe or cope with limited prospects for the future in Tangier—the treehouse they construct, under the guidance of an American architect, takes on symbolic significance. 

An inspiring tale of childhoods lost and regained, TANGIER TREEHOUSE offers a timely and intimate window into the world of Arab youth. This hour-long documentary gives voice to three troubled teenagers, who reveal their stories in moving detail: Amine Dahbi, a 16-year-old, ran away from home to escape abuse from his mother. He spent many months sniffing glue, begging, and sleeping in the streets, before moving into a shelter for street children. Elias Guemmah, 15, has lost both of his parents. His mother passed away and it has been years since he heard from his father, who abandoned him to emigrate to Europe without saying goodbye. Fifteen-year-old Omar Bakkali is a junior high school drop-out who soon emerges as the star pupil of the treehouse workshop. 

All three grew up in Tangier, a cosmopolitan city at the northernmost tip of Africa. Unemployment runs as high as 30%, and more than 30,000 illegal Moroccan immigrants a year use the port of Tangier as a jumping off point to Europe, tantalizingly close across the Straits of Gibraltar. Hundreds of street children lurk at the port, waiting to hide in the underbelly of 18-wheeler trucks and ride the ferry boats to Europe. It is dangerous work: many die every year, and even if they make it across the 14-kilometer stretch of water, the chances of being caught and sent home are great. Such legions of restless Arab youth also become prime targets for extremists recruiting for their ranks, as evidenced by the involvement of a number of Moroccans in recent terrorist acts in Spain and beyond. 

Amine, Elias, and Omar, for their part, also look to the North as a source of dreams and mythical opportunity. One of them has tried—and failed—four times to make the border crossing. Like many others around the world, they face a choice that is full of conflict: risk their lives emigrating illegally to Europe, or stay home, where the challenges are equally daunting. As they begin to build their treehouse, the children confront their concepts of home, family, and their own futures. It is a unique chance for these under-privileged boys to enhance their skills as carpenters. But the workshop—led by American treehouse architect Roderick Romero—quickly takes on new depths as the treehouse itself evolves into a powerful metaphor inspired by the boys’ personal histories: a boat 25 feet up in the tree, overlooking the very Strait which offers both dream and peril. As it takes the shape, so too does the boys’ ultimate embrace of renewed hope for life at home. 

With its vibrant cinematography and cross-cultural blend of languages and music, the film explores the borders between North Africa and the West, between the Arab world and America, and between those who have and those who have not. Highlighting the struggles and aspirations of down-and-out boys on the brink of manhood, TANGIER TREEHOUSE is an inspirational story for anyone who has ever dreamed of climbing a tree and transporting themselves to another reality. More information about local broadcasts throughout the country is available at www.itvs.org. 

The children of Darna: The ten adolescents who take part in the treehouse project come from the carpentry workshop at Darna Community Center for Boys, a trade school and shelter serving over 170 children in Tangier, Morocco. They share backgrounds as orphans, runaways, street children, and petty criminals. Crafty, sometimes unruly, and always full of song and laughter, the children dig into the treehouse project as if their lives depend on it. 

TANGIER TREEHOUSE focuses on three of the Darna boys:
Amine, 16 years old, ran away from home after his father died, to escape an abusive mother. He spent many months sniffing glue, begging, and sleeping in the streets before moving into the shelter at Darna, where he is learning carpentry. He hopes some day to make his mother proud and receive her blessing because, as he says, “a blessing is better than a curse.” 

Omar, 15, lives at home but dropped out of school to learn a practical skill in the Darna carpentry workshop. Inspired by the stories of those who “made it,” he dreams of getting to Spain some day to build a career for himself there. He immediately distinguishes himself as the star pupil of the treehouse project, inspiring jealousy among the other boys. 

Elias, 15, has made four illegal immigration attempts, riding the ferry boats to Spain in the underbelly of 18-wheeler trucks. It is dangerous work: hundreds die from the attempt every year, and even if they make it across the 7-mile stretch of water, like Elias they are usually caught by the police in the Spanish ports and sent home. Such legions of restless Arab youth also become prime targets for extremists recruiting for their ranks, as evidenced by the involvement of a number of Moroccans in recent terrorist acts in Spain and beyond. Elias’s mother has passed away and it’s been years since he heard from his father, who abandoned him to emigrate to Europe without saying goodbye. 

The adult mentors: 
Roderick Romero, treehouse architect 
Roderick is an artist, musician, and one of the world’s leading treehouse architects. He has built elaborate structures in trees for luminaries such as Sting, Donna Karan, and Julianne Moore. He also has led treehouse workshops with children in community gardens throughout New York City, where he lives with his wife (and musical collaborator in the band Sky Cries Mary) and their newborn child. Roderick set out on this project hoping to inspire the children of Darna with the idea that “you don’t need a visa to dream or a passport to go somewhere fantastic in your mind.” 

Sean Gullette, treehouse project initiator 
Sean is a recent transplant to Tangier, having joined forces with Yto Barrada, a Moroccan artist and photographer. As president of the non-profit 212 Society, which supports cultural and educational projects in Morocco, it was Sean’s concept to build this treehouse as a tool for teaching children from Darna about other directions they could go with their carpentry skills. Sean writes screenplays, directs, and is an actor whose credits include the lead in “Pi” by Darren Aronofsky, winner of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Director’s Award, and “Happy Accidents” by Brad Anderson, among dozens of other films. He and Yto are currently at work on the Cinématèque de Tanger, a project to convert Tangier’s oldest cinema into a venue for films and filmmakers from around the world. Sean and Yto also recently had their first child. Daryl McDonald and Bubba Smith…master carpenters Daryl and Bubba of Treehouse Workshop are master carpenters from Seattle who specialize in building treehouses. They have helped create new construction methods and tools that protect the trees in which they work, and have contributed to dozens of treehouse projects – big and small – throughout America. This is the first time they built a treehouse outside the United States. 

David Shadrack Smith director/producer, director of photography 
David Shadrack Smith has been making documentaries for over a decade, in locations ranging from Africa to Asia to South America. After working for six years in television news bureaus in China, David returned to the United States to produce and shoot for broadcasters such as National Geographic, History Channel, PBS (Frontline), ABC (Oprah), BBC, ZDF, and Arte. He has been nominated for two Emmy Awards, once for the film The Forgotten Desert about a journey into rarely visited parts of the Gobi Desert, and once for China’s Lost Girls, a documentary on the phenomenon of adopting baby girls from China and its implications in Chinese and American society. David directed, produced, and wrote two major series for American television: Surviving West Point, a 14-part series for National Geographic about a year inside the U.S. military academy, and Revolution, a 13-part series for the History Channel on the American Revolution. In addition, he has completed one short narrative film which showed at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, among other venues. David was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and attended Wesleyan University. He founded wooway films, an independent New York-based production company, in 2003. 

Charlotte Mangin director/producer, editor 
Currently on staff with PBS’s international affairs documentary series Wide Angle, Charlotte Mangin has worked on stories ranging from the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, to political turmoil in Haiti, to the collapse of fishing communities in Scotland. She recently produced Class of 2006, a one-hour Wide Angle documentary about the role of women in Islam in Morocco. She was formerly a staff producer and associate producer for National Geographic Television where she worked on documentaries about illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, public health issues in Nepal, Colombia’s drug wars, and hurricane devastation in Florida, among others. For TANGIER TREEHOUSE, her first independent documentary project, Charlotte took on the challenge of editing for the first time. Born in Paris, France, Charlotte attended Amherst College, followed by a Masters from Harvard University in East Asian Studies, complemented by extensive travel in China. She shares this interest with David: both are fluent in Mandarin and have spent a collective eight years living in China. 

The Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the Emmy Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on Tuesday nights at 10pm on PBS. ITVS is a miracle of public policy created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television, bringing TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. More information about ITVS can be obtained by visiting itvs.org. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. 

CONTACT: Charlotte Mangin, wooway films, 212-608-2924 (work), 646-236-4624 (cell) woowayfilms@earthlink.net -or- Randall Cole, ITVS, 415-356-8383, ext 254 randall_cole@itvs.org

Posted on December 17, 2007