Each year in the U.S., 500,000 neglected and abused children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care by the state. Should foster care fail, the children may be sent to a residential treatment center like The Green Chimneys School, which operates with the unique philosophy that even the most emotionally-damaged child can learn to form relationships of trust and love when given the responsibility to care for an animal. Telling the story of this school and three boys who live there, the "CINEMAX Reel Life" documentary GREEN CHIMNEYS debuts TUESDAY, MAY 26 (8:00-9:45 p.m. ET).
Other playdate: June 15 (1:15 p.m.).
Founded in 1948, The Green Chimneys Farm and School is home to more than 100 young residents, primarily boys between ages 6 and 21, who come from backgrounds of homelessness, broken families and parental drug abuse. The children remain at Green Chimneys for an average of two years, where they tend to their animals, go to school, and work with a staff of social workers and psychologists who help them learn that love and mistreatment do not have to go hand-in-hand.
Beginning with Halloween and ending at graduation in June, this verité documentary examines Green Chimneys, its staff and animal program, as seen through the eyes of three boys:
- Anthony, 13 -- A physically (and verbally) imposing boy whose father is missing and whose mother died of AIDS two months before the film begins, Anthony's year and a half at Green Chimneys has been marked by recent outbursts of anger and violence. Most staffers feel this is because he has not been able to let out his grief over his mother's death. Anthony's uncle Victor is his only surviving adult relative, and plans to have Anthony live with his family if the boy can pull himself together. But as we see over the course of the school year, Anthony has a penchant for always being in the eye of trouble. When he is allowed to go home for a visit, he gets into a dangerous brawl with local kids involving guns and knives -- which gets him grounded at the center for three months.
- Eddie, 12 -- The son of drug-addicted, HIV-positive parents (his father dies during the course of this documentary), Eddie came to Green Chimneys after a stay at another center. One of eight children removed from the family "for their safety," Eddie was hit with a wire hanger by his mother when he refused to admit he'd been stealing. At Green Chimneys, Eddie shows himself to be a talented, intelligent student who writes and sings in several assemblies. Nevertheless, he has an attitude problem that often gets him into scrapes with other kids. In an effort to soothe the boy during his outbursts, Eddie is given his own rabbit to care for; as one of the only boys not allowed to leave the center during Christmas (he's not allowed to see his parents alone), he'll need its company.
- Mike, 11 -- A slightly built boy who loves professional wrestling (his walls are plastered with photos of his favorites), Mike has been in protective custody since he was three. In his best moments, Mike is upbeat, energetic and caring, as shown by a moving speech he gives before a healed owl is returned to the wild. But Mike is haunted by the fact that he is a child of rape -- his mother had him at 15 -- and is convinced that as a result, he's a "dead-eyed boy" who isn't loved by his mother. Scheduled to be returned to his mother and grandmother in June, Mike becomes convinced they won't let him go back, and proceeds to rip up a schoolbook in which he's written "I hate this place. I hate everything."
During a "New Beginnings" weekend in February, families of the boys spend time discussing the progress and problems of their children (and themselves) with counselors. Anthony, who earlier visited his mother's grave for the first time, finally lets out his grief, crying on the shoulder of his uncle. Eddie's mother and father admit their abuse, but insist they'll get Eddie and his siblings back. And just when it appears that Mike's mother won't make an appearance, she arrives to have a heart-to-heart talk with her son; later at home, she reads a heartfelt letter from Mike, and reassures him that she chose to give birth to him because she loved him.
As the school year approaches its end, some of the students at Green Chimneys prepare for new lives at home, while others reconcile themselves to staying put. Among the counselors, interns and social workers seen over the course of the year, one has decided to depart: Boris "Z" Zimbrano, who has been a father figure to Anthony.
GREEN CHIMNEYS is a CINEMAX Reel Life presentation; produced and directed by Constance Marks; co-directed and edited by Bob Eisenhardt; director of photography, James Miller; co-editor, Philip Shane; executive producer, Neil P. Parent; music by Joel Goodman; executive producer for HBO, Sheila Nevins.
Debuting in 1995, the "CINEMAX Reel Life" series showcases distinctive documentaries on a wide variety of subjects. This eclectic series of original documentaries has attracted critical praise, as well as prestigious awards. "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien" received the 1997 Academy Award(r) for Documentary Short Subject. "Jupiter's Wife" has been honored with a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a News and Documentary Emmy,(r) while "The Selling of Innocents" also received a News and Documentary Emmy.(r) "The Dying Rooms" also received a News and Documentary Emmy,(r) as well as a George Foster Peabody Award, a Planned Parenthood Maggie Award and a CableACE Award.
At the 1997 CableACE Awards, four "CINEMAX Reel Life" documentaries were honored, including "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," "Calling the Ghosts," "The Selling of Innocents" and "Wonderland."