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Baltimore, unscripted

The Baltimore Sun

Two legendary Baltimore institutions are featured in national, prime-time TV productions this week, and at first glance, it might seem as if they could not be more different.

Frederick Douglass High School, one of the first black high schools in America, is the focus tomorrow night of Hard Times at Douglass High, a two-hour HBO documentary by the Academy Award-winning husband-and-wife team of Susan and Alan Raymond.

With an astronomical dropout rate and shockingly low math and reading scores, the aging high school has major problems - and the Raymonds are not the kind of filmmakers to sugarcoat the truth. Working in the cinema-vertite style they helped create and define, they offer an unblinking look at the reality of a troubled urban school, which can't even afford books for all its students, as it struggles to comply with President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform act.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, meanwhile, which has become a world-renowned model of excellence, is explored in a six-hour documentary series, Hopkins, starting Thursday night on ABC. No shortage of resources here - nor any lack of accomplishments by those who walk the high-tech halls of this institution as the filmmakers track heart transplants, brain surgeries and many lives saved.

And, yet, because the best documentaries help us see the world in new ways, the Raymonds also find and capture moments of triumph at Douglass, while the ABC News team led by executive producer Terence Wrong explores the limits of what even Hopkins medicine can do when faced with some of the fallout from the social ills of the city outside the hospital doors.

Two compelling documentaries, two very different sides of the city, but never a simplistic, black-and-white depiction of life in Baltimore.

'Hopkins' beats any fictional hospital drama

Less anthropology and more Grey's Anatomy - that's the big difference between Hopkins, the six-hour documentary series starting Thursday night on ABC, and Hopkins 24/7, the award-winning look inside Baltimore's world-renowned hospital that aired in 2000.

The deeper bow to the dictates of prime-time storytelling in this return to Hopkins by executive producer Terence Wrong and his ABC News documentary team isn't a bad thing. In fact, the choices made by Wrong and his digitally armed filmmaking troops result in a faster-paced, more engaging series - and that's no small accomplishment since Hopkins 24/7 drew as many as 12 million viewers a night, a phenomenal audience for any documentary.

But you are struck by how attractive, engaging and representative of larger issues in the culture virtually all the Hopkins doctors are in this new version - and how closely they resemble the kinds of characters who populate prime-time medical dramas like ABC's Grey's Anatomy.

In Thursday's first hour, there's Dr. Karen Boyle, a young female urologist who describes herself as "perpetually pregnant" and cracks jokes about her mother's attitude toward the focus of her medical energies. There's also Dr. Brian Bethea, a handsome young resident on the verge of becoming a star surgeon - and possibly losing his wife and two children to divorce.

The intimate drama of Dr. Bethea's troubled marriage plays out across several hours of the series - with as much of his personal as professional life explored. He is not exactly Dr. McDreamy, but he's as close as an honest filmmaker is going to get while working with the stuff of real life rather than pure Hollywood fantasy.

No Hopkins doctor gets more screen time Thursday than Dr. Alfred Quinones-Hinojosa, who explains at the start of episode 1 how he entered the United States illegally from Mexico by climbing over a fence. His first American job was picking fruit; he is now one of the leading brain surgeons in the country.

The story tracking Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa is one of the most compelling. It is also the one most reminiscent of the strategy that drove the original Hopkins 24/7: find accomplished surgeons and follow them through their most dramatic cases to the deepest corners of the medical culture at this teaching hospital. Not all the corners are perfectly made.

As unflappable as Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa is in the operating room, viewers see him become visibly angered when he finds out that a patient with a confirmed brain tumor waited several weeks before getting his calls returned from Quinones-Hinojosa's office. The doctor demands an explanation from staffers on the spot - and nobody has one.

ABC's fly-on-the-wall cameras also capture intensely private moments while following the brain surgeon's cases.

"I'm scared to death. It's all I can do to keep from crying," one of Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa's patients confides to the camera in the privacy of his room late at night on the eve of surgery to remove a large brain tumor.

Later in the series, viewers see Dr. Benjamin Carson telling a mother and father that it does not look as if their 11-year-old daughter will ever recover full consciousness after a swimming accident.

The new Hopkins is brimming with such intimacy and drama.

But it's intimate in terms of the lives of doctors and patients, rather than the behind-closed-doors culture of this famed institution itself. Like a prime-time drama, personality and conflict are featured at the expense of a deeper understanding of the inner workings of Hopkins and what it is that makes the hospital such a special place in the world of medicine and the public imagination.

In the five hours made available for preview, there is nothing equal to the scene in the 2000 series that takes viewers inside a "Morbidity and Mortality" conference with Hopkins doctors reviewing each others' performances - using such frank language as one doctor describing his patient as having the "smell of death" about him. Nor is there anything as damning to the medical industry as a scene showing an angry Hopkins surgeon explaining how an HMO's "bottom line" policy means he has to "play catch-up" with a tumor in the uterus of a frightened 14-year-old girl.

Still, this is a remarkable series that is not to be missed. In an age of cheap, superficially-staged, reality-TV shows masquerading as documentaries, Hopkins is the real-thing - an illuminating and moving cinema-verite exploration of life and death inside a renowned institution. There is no correspondent or narrator telling you what to think, and it was produced according to the highest standards of accuracy at ABC News. Fifteen hundred hours of film were shot to yield the six that will air in coming weeks.

"I defy you to find anything like it elsewhere on network TV," Terence Wrong, the producer says.

If not him, then believe me: You won't.

David Zurawik

ON TV

Hopkins makes its debut at 10 p.m. Thursday on WMAR, Channel 2.

'Hard Times' gets high marks for realism

The kids are what you remember.

For all the powerful imagery and revealing real-life conversation in HBO's Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card, the students at the storied Baltimore high school are the ones that stick in your mind long after the final credits roll. The two-hour cinema-verite look at life inside one urban school as it tries to accommodate the controversial 2001 legislation that mandates improvement on standardized tests is steeped in politics.

How could it not be in dealing with matters as racially, economically and emotionally charged as the performance of students and teachers at an underfunded city school who are trying to meet standards set by a Republican president and members of both parties in Congress?

But in the highly skilled hands of Academy Award-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond, the politics quickly fade to the background, while the struggles and triumphs of students named Sharnae, Jordan and Matt come to the forefront.

Think of the fourth season of HBO's The Wire, when the series was at the top of its dramatic game exploring the sociology of public education in Baltimore by making its audience care about students named Randy, Dukie and Namond.

The stories here are even more compelling because they're real and the filmmakers are fearless in telling the truth about how these kids are betrayed - and how some still manage to achieve.

The depiction of Sharnae, a junior at Douglass, is representative of the way the Raymonds take complex issues faced by city schools and make them personal. The 16-year-old aspiring rap artist looks like Snoop, the androgynous drug enforcer on The Wire, but this young woman is trying to stay away from guns, drugs and crime.

"I'm on my own, trying to just survive," she says in the film, explaining that she lives by herself without any help from a parent. "I can't name one person who lives in a home with the mother and the father. I wish I could."

Cut to the auditorium at Douglass on Back to School Night. The camera shows the principal, Isabella Grant (a Douglass graduate herself), at the podium enthusiastically welcoming the parents to the school. But then, the camera pans back to reveal only a handful of parents in the hall.

"This is par for the course," a science teacher says one scene later, explaining that only one parent visited his classroom during the back-to-school event.

"You get used to it," an English teacher in the homeroom next door chimes in after testifying to the same kind of parent absenteeism.

A woeful lack of basic textbooks and access to computers would be a large enough mountain for any high school student to climb, but as the film clearly shows, many of these kids are trying to do it with little or no help from home.

Saying that the blame extends beyond teachers and administrators is political, and a lot of politicians avoid saying such things for fear of alienating the parents - who also happen to be voters. But the Raymonds scrupulously document the lack of parental involvement in image and testimony, and then present it without commentary. That is the heart of cinema-verite documentary filmmaking. It is also essentially the opposite of so much media today, particularly cable TV and the Internet, which is dominated by opinion and commentary unsupported by the reporting needed to find and confirm the facts.

Along with Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles, the Raymonds are considered the masters of the genre defined by its fly-on-the-wall, limited-narration approach to storytelling. On the rare occasions in Hard Times when you hear a voiceover, pay attention. It's Susan Raymond, and she is saying something profound.

One such crystalline moment of synthesis comes 13 minutes into the film as the camera shows students walking past a statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of the school that traces its pedigree to 1883.

As a lawyer, Marshall won the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case that outlawed school desegregation in 1954.

"As the students pass through the entranceway, a statue of Thurgood Marshall looks over a school that 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education is racially and economically segregated - and once again, separate and not equal."

Hard Times at Douglass High supports that sad and shocking statement a dozen different ways - and then makes your heart ache for the toll taken in hopes, dreams, self-esteem and lives because of it.

For all the churn and disruption that No Child Left Behind has generated in teaching careers and curriculum, the education reform act hasn't made a dent in that larger multigenerational tragedy, according to this stirring film.

David Zurawik

ONLINE

See clips from Hopkins and Hard Times at Douglass High at baltimoresun.com/documentaries

ON TV

Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on HBO.

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