Michelle Saport interviews Mary Katzke: World School

Corin and Mary at China Palace

Alaskan Filmmaker Mary Katzke did something that most of us only dream about:
she took off with her ten-year-old young son on a trip around the world, and chronicled
their experiences in the documentary “World School.” The photo exhibit opens on Sept 6. at Hugi-Lewis Studio and the film
itself premieres on Monday, Sept. 16, at Bear
Tooth Theatre Pub. Here, Michelle Saport catches up with Katzke to learn more about her project.

At the start of adventure, you had only
your first ticket to Ireland booked and no further itinerary, leaving the year
open to any number of plot twists, settings and characters. Did you find the
screenplay writing itself as the trip unfolded, or did it take some gestation
after returning to nail down the narrative?
Extemporaneous, free association–call it
what you will. This was free-form writing at its maximum. We had a
one line synopsis: “Mother and son sell everything to travel the world, heading
in an easterly direction until they return to Alaska.” This
“screenplay” would take up to nine months for the first draft, and
then untold months to polish into a shareable format. Everything from
characters to plot twists was unknown, and the blank page rolled out in front
of us full of promise and surprises every day. It was simply exhilarating.
Truthfully, we usually
had the next week outlined, but certainly no more than that. I made it a habit
to have the next night’s accommodations planned. It’s very unsettling to arrive
after dark in a foreign country with no destination in mind, especially when
traveling with a child. But continual new stimulation and charting the course
of our lives’ by the seat of our pants was not at all unlike facing fresh pages
in the morning when you’ve had a night of ideas. The return to Alaska and the
re-establishment of routine gave us the quiet focus to start to put them down,
which in this case meant the steady culling of photos and video footage.

As far as nailing down
the narrative, I entrusted that storytelling to my collaborator of the past
five years, editor and writer Vanessa Cochran. My inclination was to make a
how-to video with practical information on what type of expandable laundry
basket (light, cheap and indispensable) to take and what type of homeschooling
program (not in books, use CDs) and then try to reap some sort of financial
return on the experience. Her instinct was to tell the story of a mother and
son’s growing relationship while traveling around the world. She kept reminding
me that it took major chutzpah to do something like this and that I was
too close to it to make objective decisions. So we did it her way–and it’s
touching. It’s accessible in a soft, personal way. Whether or not that was a
wise choice on the practical level remains to be seen, but on the artistic,
humane level, it rings true. If we can inspire other families to step out of
their routines and become “global citizens” by experiencing the world–and each
other–more deeply, we will have created something valuable.

(How) did the
international setting impact the film? Did you pick up any writing ideas during
the journey? Did you meet other writers who influenced you along the way?

We both “met” many
writers–by reading. We each read far more books while traveling than in the
prior years combined and often shared the same books, which opened a new door
for discussion and insight. One in particular was Life of Pi. We found it sitting in the ship library, then snagged
and savored it (and were thrilled to see the film some time later). I also
enjoyed reading fiction and nonfiction books that were about the regions of the
world in which we were traveling. Corin’s appetite, since there was often no
internet or TV, expanded to adult books, which he devoured.

A fabulous woman
filmmaker I met at the Reykjavik Film Festival introduced us to the South
African writer Margie Orford, author of the Clare
Hart series, which I read before and after our visit. We loved seeing her sweet
writing studio and nap cot overlooking her modest family swimming pool and
well-tended flower gardens. She introduced Corin to the “shark watchers” above
the surf on the edge of Cape Town, which was immensely intriguing to a
10-year-old boy.

Our traveling also
sparked several ideas for new projects. One idea was that we truly need a
television series based in Alaska. I spent many months mulling over how to make
that happen. And when we got back, we launched the Alaska Pilot Project
(still in the works).

Our time on the cruise
ship was also long enough (two months around Africa) to reveal the inner
workings and dramas of the cruise ship staff and the long-term cruisers. We had an
Italian captain who came out to the pool every day in his Speedos and had a
cocktail with us. He had a woman in every port, and a wife and kids back home.
Adding to this story were the permanent residents on the ship–who knew this
could be an interesting alternative to assisted living homes? Nearly every port
of call was met by either an ambulance or a hearse. This contributed to my
current work on baby boomers caring for their aging parents, especially those
experiencing mental decline. So I remotely directed the trailer for our current
work in progress (expected to wrap up this year), “Backing Out of Time.”

Apart from Corin’s role
in the film and his additional commentary, did he contribute to the writing and
arc of the film in any other way? Did you collaborate with or consult him
during the editing process?

At first, Corin said he
wanted to be surprised when asked if he’d like to watch various cuts of the
film along the way. He said he hated his voice. Then one day he asked if we had
used his prized photo taken of a pigeon building a nest in the eave of a mosque. This made me realize
he does care about what is in the film and so I shared about half of it. He was
relieved to see that we poked fun at each of us equally, but still gave each
other time to say the things that mattered most. As a young teen, he is
expectedly self-conscious about being on screen in this personal way in front
of so many people he knows. So I have to pay him $10 per appearance to show up.
It works out. He really wants some new electronic toys!

The trip seems like it
was a great bonding experience for the two of you. In the film, we get to see a
lot of your conversation and reflections about each of the places you visited.
For both of you, how did this ongoing dialogue impact your outlook of the trip?

We often talk about
things we saw or tasted, or people we met, or places we stayed. It can be
triggered by a random scent or sound, in the classroom at school, or even when
we meet people from the various countries now. As might be expected, we each
remember things that the other wasn’t even aware of. And so this trip, like all
trips, becomes a shared experience unique to the players. He grew up so much
physically–gained five inches, lost nine teeth, added fifteen pounds. His voice
dropped and he started shaving. As a mom, I was right there for every step of
those significant changes. I loved being that close to him at that time in his

You have years of
experience of a filmmaker and writer. While many of your projects deal with
meaningful, intimate subjects, “World School” seems like your most
personal film yet. How did this affect your writing process?

This film is definitely
the most personal film to date. I am pretty sure National Geographic has
the travelogue market cornered, so I took the direction and advice of others
who made personal films and paid attention the questions people asked us. They
routinely wanted to know how many countries we visited, which was our favorite,
and how we paid for it. No one really wanted to hear about the particular statues,
museums or monuments. So we focused on the answers to those queries, and
slipped in a message about cross-cultural understanding being a critical
element to world peace. I personally don’t think kids who endured Thai dance
lessons (Chiang Mai), or painted porcelain race cars (Scotland), or played
miniature golf (Vietnam) together are going to be so eager to drop bombs on
each other. I recently saw a chilling documentary about our soldiers in
Afghanistan. Wielding machine guns, they head into a village to slaughter some
suspected terrorist and his family, but they didn’t even know the name of the
village. They had no idea who the people were, not a shred of knowledge about
their food, families, or local politics. Yet they were prepared to take them
out in very brutal ways. This is not the world we want.

What do you think the
documentary aspect–both the process and finished film–added to (or maybe even
detracted from) the travel experience?

I can’t help but “see”
constantly. Some might say that interferes with “being,” but it’s so second
nature for me I don’t even realize I’m editing as I go–selecting, framing,
listening and thinking several moves ahead. For Corin, it was annoying and at
one point he did tell me to stop. He also stopped shooting himself. He was
always “coming back” and I was much more likely seeing things for the only–and

Since I love photography
so much, being able to share the trip visually on a regular basis really
enhanced it for me. We tried to keep journals, but it was so much more
time-consuming that we didn’t keep it up for long.

Do you have any plans
for another ambitious trip (and/or documentary) with Corin?

We missed South America
on this trip, and have only been as far south as Belize and Costa Rica so
that’s next. Russia is wide open territory for us. Corin is more interested in
acting than being followed with mom’s camera. He has a knack for it and is easy
enough on the eyes, so I think he has a chance.

What’s your advice for
people interested in taking a similar “World School” experience?

Many of you will say you
wish you could do something like this. And others will say they’d wish
they had done something like this. But here is the cold, hard truth:
There is no perfect time to put your life on hold and take the plunge. You
have to make the decision that you can do this and have faith in life. All the
fears that people have, such as getting sick (we each had one three-day fever
at different times and that was it), or being in danger (we didn’t experience
anything scarier than obnoxious taxi drivers–and you can find that at home), or
leaving their job (the year was hardly even noticed by most of my colleagues,
who were still at work on many of the same big projects as when I left). The
other big worry people mention is, “I can’t home school. He’ll get too far
behind.” But Corin aced his Alaska Standards-Based Assessment (SBA)
tests–literally 99 percent in all categories. During the trip, he probably
received more time and attention from adults than he would otherwise.  

So all I can say is just
do it. The kids will be fine. You’ll be even better.

Mary Katzke received a
Bachelor of Science in Radio Television and Film at the University of Texas at
Austin, along with an MFA in Writing and Directing Film and Television from New
York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has produced more than 36
documentaries and feature films. Mary has received awards from AFI,
Docker’s Khakis for Women, A & E IndieFilms Finishing Grant, a Rasmuson
Film Fellowship as well as grants from Chicken and Egg Pictures and The
Fledgling Fund. Her works have been seen at festivals around the world and
aired nationally on PBS, Lifetime, and A&E.
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