Produced by Participant Productions – the high-minded, recently-minted production firm behind Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck and other films – The World According to Sesame Street has an irresistible premise: It offers to take us along with the Children's Television Workshop's staff as they create regionally-themed segments for the Sesame Street programming in three troubled nations – Bangladesh, Kosovo, and South Africa. The first image in the film is of Bangladeshi children filling empty Pepsi bottles with brackish water to bring back to town … and after emptying them, going in to watch TV.
So, they don't have easy access to water .. but they do get Bangladesh's one, state-owned channel. Even as you're scratching your head over the curious question of priorities, you're nonetheless not shocked that moving images are more available than flowing water.%uFFFD As Children's Television Workshop head Joan Ganz Cooney puts it, "It's not whether children learn from TV; it's what children learn from TV." Kids need good television; kids in troubled nations, even more so. So how, then, do you create positive programming that's strong enough to overcome poverty, ethnic hatred, health crises and fragile governments with nothing more than ping-pong ball eyes, years of experience and brightly-colored fabric? How, to be glib, do you tackle deeply-felt concerns with, well, felt?
The press screening of The World According to Sesame Street was packed, and the initial response to the film may have been tempered by Gen-X and Gen-Y nostalgia as Sesame Street footage we all grew up with was interspersed with interview footage and on-the-job efforts of producers traveling to other nations to talk with local production teams. The original Sesame Street was created in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights era, as America was facing tough questions, and its gentle, fuzzy (literally and figuratively) liberalism was a soothing balm to a wounded nation. Surely the same thing can happen in Kosovo, ravaged by ethnic separatism? Or Bangladesh, where children live primarily in rural communities burdened by poverty? Or South Africa, where AIDS is tearing the life out of a nation already reeling from dealing with apartheid?
The problem with The World According to Sesame Street is that while it's got an impressive premise, it's hampered by directorial choices that are either curious at best or disastrous at worst. The directorial team of Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan may have plenty of muppet footage from the original Sesame Street and other regional adaptations at the start of the film – and let's face it, you can get a lot of goodwill out of showing Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" in German – but the later parts of the film devolve into meeting after meeting after meeting as Children's Television Workshop staffers encounter setbacks and difficulties working with regional partners.
The essential rule of documentary film making – or any film making – is "Show, don't tell." But The World According to Sesame Street doesn't show us footage from the Bangladeshi and Kosovar projects. Even so, it's not as if there's not precedent to be drawn upon: As the producers reflect on the difficulties in having Kosovar Serbs and Albanians work together, one offers "Well, it's like what happened with the Israelis and the Palestinians. …" It's a tossed-off line, but it made me writhe in frustration when it became apparent that the filmmakers weren't going to actually follow-up: What did CTW do for the Israeli version of Sesame Street, Rechov Sumsum? How did they deal with a previous problem of ethnic and religious separation? It's a question that's left to dangle, as instead we get more footage of people driving to meetings, taking phone calls and walking through production spaces. The World According to Sesame Street is a great example of how a good subject doesn't always make for good moviemaking – and how if you can tell your story by showing us adults talking on phones or kids talking to muppets, you should probably go with the latter.
Others on The World According to Sesame Street: Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, while interested in the film's subject matter, was unsettled by how "boosterish" is was. He felt that, in the end, it "could have used more discussion of the merits of exporting western values, no matter how noble the intent."