by Nathan Lerner

Now celebrating its quarter-century milestone, this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, which started Oct. 20 and will end Oct. 30, has programmed 110 titles originating from 23 different countries. Despite its international flavor, the festival will also provide a platform for “Backpack Full of Cash,” a film with a decidedly local connection.

Directed by Sarah Mondale, “Backpack Full of Cash” focuses on the issue of the drastic decrease in state funding for public schools. Mondale is a school teacher who became alarmed by these cutbacks. She took a hiatus from teaching to make this film.

As depicted in “Backpack Full of Cash,” during Governor Tom Corbett’s administration, there was a statewide cutback in funds for public schools by a massive $1 billion. The budget for Philadelphia’s public school system was slashed by $300 million. As a consequence, there were 4,100 jobs eliminated from the Philadelphia school system. Many political pundits consider these actions by Governor Corbett as contributory to the plummeting of his approval rating and being voted out of office.

At the epicenter of “Backpack Full of Cash” is South Philadelphia High School. The student body hails from families with an estimated 90% poverty rate. At the time that the film was shot, Otis Hackney was principal of the school. The 44-year-old Mt. Airy resident had to deal with the fall-out from the loss of school funding. As revealed in the film’s epilogue, Hackney was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney to serve as the Chief Education Officer for the City of Philadelphia.

Hackney was an ideal person for the filmmakers of “Backpack Full of Cash” to interview. He appears extensively in the film.

Q: What section of Philadelphia did you grow up in?

A: West Philly. I went to West Philadelphia High School.

Q: Growing up, did you always want to be involved with education?

A: My mother is a retired educator and education was something that I became particularly passionate about during my college years. I began college at Hampton University, took a few years off and then returned to Community College and graduated from Temple University.

Q: How long have you lived in Mt. Airy, and what do you like about it?

A: 16 years. I live with my wife and daughter. Mt. Airy is peaceful and close to the parks but at the same time, still close to Center City.

Q: What would you tell people about this film to convince them to see it?

A: It is important to see the film to understand that adequate and fair funding is imperative for all schools

* Playing a pivotal role behind the scenes was another Mt. Airy resident, Malika Jamison. The 37-year-old Philadelphia native served as the chief location scout for scenes shot in Philadelphia.

Q: Where did you go to school before college?

A: Holy Cross for grade school and Bishop McDevitt High School

Q: Growing up, what did you aspire to be?

A: I always knew that I would be working in film and TV somehow. I just wasn’t sure in which capacity. I went to American University in Washington, D.C., and majored in visual media. Film and TV production has always been a passion of mine.

Q: What do you like the most about living in Mt. Airy?

A: I like the diversity of Mt. Airy. It has a lot of character and charm.

Q: What other films have you been involved with?

A: I worked as an associate producer on another local documentary called “Crescendo! The Power of Music.” It takes an in-depth look at three kids as they participate in music-inspired programs. Most of the film was shot in West Philadelphia. I also did some acting on “How to Get Away with Murder.” They shot the pilot here in Philadelphia in 2014.

Q: What were your professional and personal interactions with the other members of the crew?

A: We worked with a relatively small production crew. They are a great group of professionals who are committed to the project. The film community in Philadelphia is pretty small, so you get to know each other pretty well. Some of us even work on other projects together.

Q: What locations did you use for this film?

A: Most of the shooting for the film took place in and around Center City and South Philadelphia. Many interviews and meetings were filmed at the School District of Philadelphia Education Center. Philadelphia is a city comprised of distinct neighborhoods. Locals will definitely be able to recognize the various sections of the city where we filmed. It is important that the audience recognize these locations so they can have a better connection with the characters and subject matter.

Q: What was the most rewarding aspect of doing this film?

A: Knowing that it will have an impact on people’s ideas and thoughts about education. Hopefully, it will spark a greater dialogue on how we can improve America’s public education system. This is a must-see documentary that is largely homegrown. It addresses important school reform issues taking place in our very own backyard. For people who think the privatization of public schools  doesn’t affect them, I suggest that they would take a second look through the lens of this documentary.

“Backpack Full of Cash” will be shown at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., on Saturday, Oct. 29, 4:10 p.m. The filmmakers and subjects are scheduled to be in attendance.

For more information, visit filmadelphia.org/festival or the Prince Theater at 267-239-2941. Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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