Everyone knows “Sesame Street” is a quiet, stalwart part of American culture. But what of its influence abroad? Do other countries find it as useful as we do?
The answer, as found in the over-long and under-focused documentary “The World According to Sesame Street,” is: sort of. Directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan dash between Bangladesh, South Africa and Kosovo, showing how foreign, localized versions of “Sesame Street” are created.
It’s a fascinating process, actually, though Knowlton and Costigan’s way of presenting it doesn’t do it justice. They don’t just dub over the American bits in a new language (though there is a little of that). Mostly they create characters and stories specific to the area, with Children’s Television Workshop representatives working closely with the local producers. So most of the content in each incarnation of “Sesame Street” is locally made, speaking directly to the children in that region.
In the South African version, for example, an HIV-positive Muppet was introduced a few years ago, reflecting that country’s massive AIDS epidemic. The few minutes spent discussing the controversy that ensued back here in the States comprise one of the film’s livelier segments.
The film is also fascinating when it shows clips from the foreign versions of “Sesame Street.” The Bangladesh edition is eager to include a tiger character, since that’s the national animal. In Kosovo, two different versions must be made, one for Serbs and one for Albanians, since the two groups hate each other. (The original goal was to have one show that would teach children of both cultures that everyone is the same — but the grownups on both sides apparently didn’t want to send that message to their kids.)
Overall, though, a more accurate title for the film would be “Sesame Street According to the World.” It’s not about how “Sesame Street” views the world, or how it has impacted society. There are glimpses of Jim Henson’s 1968 tapes pitching the show to TV executives, but the focus is primarily on the people who produce the foreign versions today — and let’s face it, they’re not very interesting. Since first-time directors Knowlton and Costigan have both worked extensively as producers, maybe they think the behind-the-scenes negotiations are more engaging than they are.
Another more telling angle might have been to show how “Sesame Street” affects children in other countries, or how local levels of literacy or health epidemics make something like “Sesame Street” a necessity. It’s frustrating to see a film so doggedly focused on the people who simply should not be the focus. “Sesame Street” should be about the kids, remember?
C (1 hr., 47 min.; )