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In Focus: At Boston International Kids Film Festival, summer camp is much more than just a vacation

A scene from "New Homeland"

For some kids, the prospect of summer camp looms like a dreaded rite of passage. Not so for those featured in two documentaries at the Boston International Kids Film Festival (Nov. 15-17). For them it is an opportunity to manage past trauma, to escape loneliness and isolation, and to develop confidence and self-esteem.

For boys who have escaped the war zones of Syria, Iraq, and other embattled regions, more obstacles await them when they find refuge in the West. In “New Homeland” (Nov. 15, 7 p.m. Capitol Theatre, Arlington; there will be a Q&A with producer Eric Forman after the screening) veteran filmmaker Barbara Kopple visits the all-boy Camp Pathfinder, in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Kopple is a two-time best documentary Oscar winner, for “Harlan County, USA” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990).


Canada, unlike the United States, welcomes thousands of asylum seekers every year and provides volunteer sponsors to ease their transition to a new life. Mike Sladden, the camp director, an American who decries his own country’s response to the refugee crisis, has established a program for refugee boys to have fun and bond with American and Canadian kids in a wilderness environment.

Kopple joins five of these boys at the camp, where they swim, build campfires, paddle canoes, participate in rousing if corny mess-hall singalongs, and engage in all the rituals of the camping experience. They make friends with kids who never met a refugee before and find that they are almost without exception open-minded, curious, and sympathetic. Near the end of their stay they undertake a long-distance portage trek which tests their stamina and capacity for teamwork.

Not all fare well. Omer, a teenager who witnessed carnage in Iraq, has trouble adjusting to the new environment. He behaves erratically, threatens other boys, breaks the rules, and defies the counselors. What will become of him is uncertain. Some wounds can’t be healed by a couple of weeks at camp.


A scene from "My Beautiful Stutter"

Stuttering might not seem like a big deal compared to dodging bullets and surviving suicide bombings in Baghdad. But for the millions of kids growing up with this incurable genetic disorder (fluency treatments often bring frustration and little improvement) it can mean bullying, loneliness, stigmatization, even despair.

Take Malcolm for example, one of the subjects featured in Ryan Gielen’s heartbreaking and uplifting “My Beautiful Stutter” (Nov. 16, 1 p.m., Somerville Theater). When he was 4 he was traumatized after he witnessed his father shooting and wounding his mother and then killing himself. Now in grade school, he is constantly tormented for his stuttering by other students who tease, humiliate, and assault him. Though smart, talented, and athletic, he has retreated into a dark, silent, and lonely place.

Luckily for Malcolm and hundreds of others like him, there is the Stuttering Association for Youth (SAY), a New York-based, interactive arts program for kids ages 9 to 18. Founded by Taro Alexander, himself a stutterer, the program invites kids from across the country every year to Camp SAY in Hendersonville, N.C. There, in addition to the usual summer camp activities, they are taught that stuttering is OK, that it is part of who they are, and they should embrace it.

The camp provides a refuge where stutterers can have fun with others like themselves. They can share their stories, achieve some of their potential without being stifled by those who mock or try to change them. For a few brief weeks they can be themselves and not feel alone. But as the end of the session nears some grow anxious and tearful knowing that, though they are stronger, they will be returning to places where such acceptance and empowerment are rare. As Alexander says, “There is a lot of sadness in this world.”


Go to bikff.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.