Film

Review: In When It Breaks, a Public School Teacher Turns to Folk Music to Raise Awareness, Create Change

This is a guest post by Chloe Noelle Fourte.

Named after a song by the documentary’s main subject, Konrad Wert, When It Breaks is a deceptively understated portrait of a local teacher gone folk music sensation. Shot, directed, and edited by award-winning Chicago filmmaker Todd Tue, the film paints an extremely personal portrait of a passionate man and his family as they hit the road in search of the path forward. With Wert’s charisma, the family’s humanity, and Tue’s masterful ability to quietly capture it all, we are given a film that is intimate and observant without becoming intrusive or clinical.

When it Breaks

Image courtesy of Todd Tue

The film begins with a voiceover of our main subject, teacher Konrad Wert, as he explains the power of ‘we’ over ‘I’. “We shall overcome? Or I shall overcome?” Konrad’s voice asks. “We shall overcome,” he answers. The scene cuts from black as Konrad’s stomps and ecstatic vibrato break out of silence giving way to song. Shot on handheld in a darkly lit venue, you can see the sweat collected around his face and clothes as he intensely gives voice to the working struggles of teaching in modern America. Just as quickly, we cut to a tracking shot of a well-lit but empty school hallway and into a classroom. These two vastly different scenes  exemplify the two worlds that Konrad will try to reconcile throughout the course of the film.

What does it mean when a teacher can make more money on the road as a musician than in the classroom? For Konrad, a special needs teacher for Texas public schools, is also “Possessed by Paul James,” a folk music sensation and teachers’ rights evangelist. Having found himself, like so many other public school teachers, increasingly struggling to make ends meet for his students and his family, he turned to music as both an alternative income and a way to spread awareness about the current roadblocks to accessibility in American public teaching. We find him and his family as they pack up their home in an RV, where they will spend the next couple of months on the road as Konrad tours the country as “Possessed by Paul James.”

As Konrad and his wife Jenny Gillespie prep themselves and their two kids, Jonah and Kai, for life on the road, we get a quick glimpse into their small Texas home and what might be a typical day save for loading up into the RV. Filmed on a handheld camcorder by Konrad’s wife, Jenny, we watch the youngest son, Kai, cradle a frog he has recently caught as he runs to tell his brother and father. Such an ordinary scene could easily be mistaken for typical home video, but there is nothing typical about this situation.

The film makes use of handheld shots that are operated by the likes of Konrad’s wife and children as well as the director/cinematographer, giving the documentary its understated and deeply personal feel. Tue’s approach is honest and unpretentious. As the documentary crew travels, always out of sight, with Konrad, Jenny and their family, we get an insider’s peek into their life on the road as they speak directly and candidly to the camera as though we were part of the family. There were moments when I forgot I was watching a documentary and felt as if I was merely getting updates from friends on a road trip. And this is the beauty of the film Todd Tue crafts. Where he could easily have presented a story of an oddball family or sensationalized Konrad’s folk music mission, he lets Konrad, his family, the music, and the friends they make on the road do the talking.

The idea of a teacher dropping out of school to hit the road as a folk music evangelist to spread awareness about the lack of support for teachers and students may not immediately make sense. But the longer we travel with Konrad and his family, the more we understand how important his work is. We witness the movement his music brings to his audience and the attentive way Konrad treats every person he meets. It becomes increasingly clear that his work is as important to this widespread community of current and would-be teachers as it is to Konrad and his family.

Halfway through the film, when Konrad and Jenny meet Konrad’s parents, his mission takes on even more significance. Raised Mennonite with his father serving as a teacher for over 30 years, the near evangelical fervor with which Konrad has set upon this tour fits into the framework of service and community-first values his family not only preached but practiced. Here, evangelical might seem an odd description for a man touting advances in public education and no longer practicing religion. Yet the passion with which Konrad’s audiences receive him might only be accurately conveyed this way, for the fervor and honesty of his performances as “Possessed by Paul James” reach an ecstasy rivaled only by what some may call spiritual enlightenment. At one point a young fan remarks to Konrad in a post-show meet-and-greet that his performance has solidified the fan’s decision to pursue teaching. His energy is just that powerful.

When It Breaks takes you on a journey into the life of a charismatic man, his family, and his passion. Ultimately this beautiful film is grounded in the foundation of family and the human reality of striving for a better community. Todd Tue’s ability to give space to both subject and story results in a documentary that is as honest and human as the family it follows. An energetic and intimate portrait of a man and his family working toward something higher than themselves, When It Breaks is a must-see film.

When It Breaks screens Friday, November 29, at the Logan Theatre.

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