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‘Make a Circle’ Places Child Care Providers at the Head of the Class

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Adult leads a circle of young children in an exercise, their arms raised
A still from Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide's documentary 'Make a Circle.' (Courtesy DocLands)

Documentary filmmakers get ideas from New York Times headlines, naturally, but also from their daily lives. Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide’s Make a Circle had its genesis in their children.

“In about 2019,” Bradwell recalls, “we had a group of preschool teachers come to us and say, ‘We have watched every documentary we can get our hands on about early childhood education, and there’s great stuff about brain development and policy issues, but there’s no actual teachers, or teaching, in any of these films. Can we do some kind of media project that would raise the visibility of our work?’”

The Berkeley filmmakers saw these teachers every day at their three-and-a-half-year-old-daughter’s preschool, which their older daughter had also attended. Yet Boekelheide and Bradwell didn’t fully grasp what the teaching day consisted of, or the ongoing crisis for underpaid professionals often seen as babysitters. They were both shocked and inspired by what they discovered, and crafted a film intended to provoke the same response from audiences.

Make A Circle, Boekelheide and Bradwell’s ambitious nonfiction directing debut after years of composing music for films and editing, respectively, has its world premiere Sunday, May 5 in the California Film Institute’s DocLands Documentary Film Festival (May 2-5) at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The husband-and-wife team filmed at three Bay Area child care centers: All People’s School in West Berkeley, led by Susan Stevenson and Anne Bauer; Rose’s Daycare in downtown Oakland, led by Charlotte Guinn; and Creative Learning Center in San José, led by Patricia Moran. Guinn and Moran took on roles in Child Care Providers United, a comparatively new movement that’s already made waves in Sacramento.

Woman in yellow logo shirt raises arm in a crowd other protesters
Patricia Moran at a protest, a scene from ‘Make a Circle.’ (Courtesy DocLands)

“We knew we wanted to have a bigger policy lens,” Bradwell says, “so the question became who can we talk to who’s both doing the work and doing advocacy around it? We follow educators that have one foot in the teaching world and – in all their spare time after their 60-to-80-hour workweeks — are trying to do something to make the work better for the people who do it and the parents who need it.”

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The husband-and-wife team started filming a month before COVID, and had a front-row seat for the pandemic’s impact on the fragile child care system. Plenty of parents, caring for and teaching their young children while working full time from home, had a new appreciation for their child care providers. More respect is terrific, of course, but wasn’t a substitute for the lost revenue.

“Any place that shut down for a month or two, or a couple families pulled out because they were worried about exposure, there goes the whole business model,” Bradwell explains. “Ninety percent is private payment, so it’s on parents trying to make it work. Most parents are paying college-tuition-level rates for child care and they feel lucky to get it if they do, [although] some people are lucky enough to qualify for a subsidy. Two hundred thousand educators left the field, though that number is [getting better]. Without serious public investment it’s always going to be a house of cards.”

Two headshots of a woman and man
‘Make a Circle’ co-directors Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide. (Courtesy DocLands)

Make a Circle includes enough of the COVID period to convey the providers’ skinny tightrope while reminding us of the essential workers whose jobs outside the house made child care providers essential as well. Its steady forward momentum, though, swiftly leaves the pandemic in its wake. “We didn’t want to sit in that eddy,” Boekelheide says, “we wanted to go down the river.”

After all, the conditions and challenges that plague child care providers and early educators — low hourly wages, no health or retirements benefits — still exist.

“There is a myth about this work that women are naturally more suited to this work, and it is unskilled work, and therefore it should more fall on women of color to do it and we don’t have to pay them accordingly,” Bradwell says. “The lack of regard and support for the work, all those roads lead back to racism and misogyny. And how do you disrupt that stuff? It’s through storytelling.”

Make a Circle, which marks Boekelheide’s first film as a cinematographer after decades of music composing and mixing, tells that narrative through a multitude of sequences in the child care centers themselves.

“One of our goals,” Bradwell says, “was to take seriously the experience of young kids and to not infantilize and distance them and treat them as cute or annoying, but try to get into their experience. What are they learning, even in their earliest days, how are they making sense of the world and relationships and all that.”

“Every time I went into a classroom to film,” Boekelheide says, “my life became beautiful. The learning is constant; they’re learning all the time.”

Children play with a toy colander in a scene from ‘Make a Circle.’ (Courtesy DocLands)

“Todd spent a lot of very patient time literally down on their level, just watching stuff unfold,” Bradwell adds. “Kids this age don’t see the camera within a minute of you being there, and they go through a rainbow of cinematic emotions every 10 minutes.”

“The kids have incredible BS detectors,” Boekelheide says. “If you’re lying to them, if you’re not fully present, they dismiss you or they destroy you. So these teachers are really present. What is cinema but being present?”

Ultimately, Make a Circle successfully juggles an inside-outside perspective. It showcases the skills and struggles of providers and educators, from one-on-ones in a center to demonstrations at the state capitol. However, the audience that will have the most visceral reaction to the film, in-state and nationally, is parents.

“There are 25 million parents in the country who are lucky enough to have access to child care,” Bradwell notes. “That’s a pretty big demographic, and it’s not really a voting issue for people. It’s a private struggle. The film is meant to be an education for parents and hopefully activate them as to what structurally can be done to improve this broken system.”

The filmmakers have a strategy to maximize the reach and influence of Make a Circle during this election year, with a festival run as well as impact screenings at conferences and on Capitol Hill.

As for the grand experimenting of co-directing a documentary after numerous jobs working for and with other filmmakers, Boekelheide and Bradwell say they would definitely make another film together.

“In some ways,” Bradwell offers, “I would say it’s easier making a film together than parenting together.”


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‘Make a Circle’ screens May 5, 2024 at 3:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 4th St., San Rafael) as part of DocLands. Find tickets and more information here.

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