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Teachers Make a Difference
by Becky Tan

Here are three outstanding examples, represented in  film: a documentary, a feature film, and a film created by a teacher and her  students.

Director Tom Walters, USA

Director Walters documents the extraordinary life of Wachtang  “Botso” Korisheli, perhaps a stranger to you, but a strong personality and  influential teacher. Born 1922 in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet  Republic, his parents were successful actors in the state theater. Life turned  tragic with the arrival of Joseph Stalin. His KGB men arrested Botso’s father  for freely sharing his opinion of the new government. They threw him into  prison and executed him in 1936. Botso was drafted into the army during World  War II, captured by the Nazis in Poland, and put into a work camp. At war’s end  he connected with the Americans and immigrated to California. There his life  became bearable and he enrolled in college. He was a blessed musician, as well  as artist, talented in sculpture and painting. He spoke several languages  including German. Career-wise the sky was the limit, and what did he decide to  do? He became a music teacher with pupils of all ages. He also taught sculpture  at a local high school, and made works of art for his own pleasure. He founded  the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony orchestra.

Walters made the film in eight years as funding  arrived in small doses. It ends with Botso at age 92, but looking much younger.  We see him teach young people, and then again the same students, five years  later, still eager to learn from Botso. For his 90th birthday, 65 of  them returned from careers around the world to organize a unique orchestra to  present a special concert for their master. One such student was  Japanese-American Kent Nagano, from California, now head of the Hamburg opera  house. He began taking lessons from Botso at age eight. Nagano helped with the  organization of the special orchestra and with the making of this film. His  exceptionally gifted young daughter is the soloist in this presentation. Director  Walters was present for Q & A at Metropolis cinema and was sorry to report  that Botso had died a few months earlier at age 93. Nagano also came for Q  &A to tell us personally about this extraordinary teacher with so much  influence on so many lives. Botso’s motto, which he learned from his father,  while visiting him just before his execution, was, “When you go to bed each  night, ask yourself: have I done enough?”

Bach in Brazil
Ansgar Ahlers, Germany/Brazil

In this excellent feature film Martin, a retired  teacher, inherits an original page of manuscript by J.S. Bach. He must pick up  this inheritance in person in Brazil. Once there, he realizes that language is  a problem, especially after his papers and the manuscript are stolen. A young  man, Candido, agrees to help him, but only if Martin leaves retirement, so to  speak, and teaches music to youngsters in a juvenile detention center. These  kids are older than their years, used to fending for themselves. They have  never had an opportunity to develop anything except a sense for survival; they  have a natural talent for music. Martin opens new worlds –figuratively: a new  world in music and literally: a new world in Germany where they travel for a  performance. The ending is predictable but the transformation of the street  children and Martin’s knowledge gained from them are uplifting.

Dorothea Kleffner-Witkowski and Marc Witkowski,  Germany

This feature film played in the Michel children’s film  festival section. It is not about teachers, but was written by Dorothea Kleffner-Witkowski, a high-school German  teacher in Altona, and her students in Hamburg. In class they worked out a  script, based on their own experiences. When it was finished to their  satisfaction, it went to producer-director Marc Witkowski, husband of Dorothea. Zwischenstand is their third film to  be made in this way. It stars Michael Mainoo who plays David, a 16-year-old  African student who is living with his adopted Hamburg family: a mother and her  young daughter, Sara; unfortunately the father has died. These various traumas  affect David’s grades. He is moved from a Gymnasium to a so-called  Stadtteilschule with fellow students from different backgrounds, where he  suffers from mobbing. His best friend seems to be a Turkish boy, who stands up  for him and allows him to hang around with his group of friends. All is well  until David falls in love with the Turkish sister, Lela, definitely not allowed  in Turkish circles. David realizes that his real friend is Lucas from his  former school. 

Both Witkowskis were available for festival blogs, Q  & A, and interviews by youngsters, working as journalists. They discussed  their film about students, mobbing, refugees, and racial prejudices. Marc  Witkowski said that actual filming was for two weeks during a school holiday;  all actors were students and friends. They managed on a three-thousand-euro  budget, most of which went for food for the actors (“Teenagers eat a lot.”)  This is definitely a couple to watch in the future and definitely a huge opportunity  for high-school students to participate in an extraordinary film class. Their  films are available at