Documentary Pahokee, set in a town near the Florida Everglades, gives you something to root for | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Documentary Pahokee, set in a town near the Florida Everglades, gives you something to root for

click to enlarge PHOTO: VISIT FILMS
Photo: Visit Films
It's easy for documentaries to fall into the same one-note format. But Pahokee, a documentary about a small Florida town of the same name, does away with many conventions of the form. There are no interviews, no talking heads, little backstory that deviates from the present of the story, which is not a story as much as an extended snapshot. The film follows senior year for the class of 2017 at Pahokee High School, a majority Black and Latino school where many of the students would be the first in their families to go to college. The film crew mostly follows the trajectory of four students, through football playoffs, school elections, college applications, prom, and graduation.

The seniors at Pahokee high school are like those at any other high school; they're looking forward to what comes next after they graduate. But unlike students from wealthier (and whiter) areas, there's no guarantee that the future will be brighter than what they have now, which includes living in trailers and working in a chicken shop after cheering at a football game.

Pahokee, located near the Everglades, has a significant agricultural industry, including vast fields of sugar cane. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of workers watering and tilling crops and igniting controlled burns. The images loom like a threat; the teenagers all know that if they don't get to a four-year college, or community college, or technical school, or the army, that they could end up working in the fields.

In one scene, as student Jocabed Martinez is figuring out what to write in her college application essay, she explains to her friends that when her family first immigrated from Mexico, she was averse to school. But she saw how hard people worked in the fields, and how many hours her parents have to work at their taco shop. "I know they get tired. They work there for like 12 hours," she says about her parents, through tears. "I need to do something with my life. Like there's no way like my parents can be working 'til like they die."
Pahokee also follows Na'Kerria Nelson, a cheerleader who wants to go to nursing school; BJ Crawford, a football player who wants to continue playing in college (the town of Pahokee has produced dozens of NFL players); and Junior Walker, a marching band drum leader who also has a young daughter. We see the extreme highs, like the football team winning the state championship, and the extreme lows, like the school getting its championship rescinded because of a clerical error. All of it gives off some of that Friday Night Lights feeling; rooting for these kids to win, get into college, and get everything they want and deserve out of life.

The film gives an intimate look at their lives, but never feels too close or exploitative. You get the sense that the filmmakers, directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, let the subjects only reveal as much as they were comfortable with. Instead of interviews, there are Instagram story-style videos of the teens recording their feelings for the filmmakers. Before making the feature-length Pahokee, Lucas and Bresnan had already been working with the community in Pahokee for years, making short-form documentaries. In the hands of other filmmakers, Pahokee could have felt voyeuristic, but they approach their subject with familiarity and comfort. They're rooting for the kids, too.

Pahokee is now available to screen virtually at home through the Harris Theater and the Tull Family Theater.

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