Two years. Forty phone interviews. Eight custodians. This is what the making of The Philosopher Kings, a documentary screened as part of Claiming Williams Day last Thursday, boils down to. The film’s greatest strength, especially in the context of Claiming Williams, is the unique approach through which it interprets diversity. It does not limit itself to race, religion, sexuality or socioeconomic class, but rather chooses to profile people who are overlooked by much of society, including colleges and universities.
The Philosopher Kings explores the lives of eight custodians chosen from prestigious universities, including Princeton, Cornell and Duke. As the documentary progresses from following the custodians’ daily routines to listening to the stories of their hearts, it emphasizes the wisdom they have gained along the way. All have struggled to take care of their loved ones while barely making a living and have had to face their worst fears of failure. But though much of society would never judge their accomplishments as “successful,” nothing deters these seven men and one woman from living life to the fullest. Some take joy in learning from the academic environment they work in; another, who is a custodian by day and a taxi driver by night, saves money to send to his family in Haiti while also raising funds to bring water to an entire village.
In a question and answer session following the screening, director Patrick Shen explained that the idea had originated from a professor he had been interviewing for his last documentary, Flight from Death. Shen had been discussing misperceptions with one of the interviewees, a professor who was often mistaken for a homeless man on account of his long hair and generally unkempt appearance. The professor bluntly told Shen that “he was asking the wrong people,” and suggested that the people on campus who were most misunderstood were the custodians. Eventually, Shen decided to take the unvoiced challenge in the professor’s comment and began calling universities around the country searching for custodians who, in his words, “had stories to tell.” One of the eight selected was Jim Evener, a custodian at Cornell. Also present at the question-and-answer session, Evener’s honest and unpolished replies were a refreshing reprieve from the internalized scripts of many typical actors.
During the post-screening session, Shen said that, at first, his interviewers had gone in with “a set of rigid questions.” When it became apparent that no useful insights were coming out of them, he and the other producers changed their approach. “We just got to know them,” Shen said. Evener added that having someone who was willing to listen made an immense difference. “I had never told anyone all of this before,” Evener said, referring to his war-time experiences in Vietnam. “My daughters cried when they heard it.”
It was apparent that Shen deliberately chose custodians from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and workplaces in order to give a wide range of experiences. Yet the carefully selected diversity of backgrounds ceases to matter as the audience is drawn into everyday joy these workers take from their jobs. Oscar Dantzler, who maintains the chapel at Duke, works to preserve its sanctity and takes pride in its renown. Melinda Augustus, from the University of Florida, reads through the exhibit signs she dusts at the University’s natural history museum. In between tasks, Corby Barker, who works at the Cornish College of Arts, meticulously notes down ideas he gathers from the students’ work. The documentary refuses to romanticize their hard labor, but it also affords a rare glimpse of their thoughts and feelings as people who are often invisible in society.
However, at the heart of the film are the emotional and difficult backgrounds of the custodians. Extraordinary stories are unfolded scene by scene in a moving manner. Evener recounts his trials in Vietnam, during which he survived for three days in the jungle after losing his ability to walk by pulling himself around on his arms. The film crew follows Josue Lajeunesse, a custodian at Princeton, to his native Haiti, where he is a part of a mission to bring water to isolated communities. At the California Institute of Technology is Luis Cardenas, who lost one of his arms after being hit by a car. Shen’s film shows him struggling to open garbage bags with one hand. Cardenas, though, forgave the uninsured driver, and let him walk free so the man could continue taking care of his children.
The very showing of the film, and its position as a key event during Claiming Williams, challenges a common notion of diversity as one simply encompassing ethnic, socioeconomic, gender identity and related divisions among students. We are forced to consider that as a community, we must recognize other notions of diversity. Custodians, dining hall staff, secretaries, assistants – all are an integral part of our lives as a part of the College. We would do well to listen to the message passed on by The Philosopher Kings: Our respect for their voices should not in any way be diminished by our preconceptions.