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'The Philospher Kings' Explores The Lives Of College Custodians

February 16, 2010

Wisdom is present in the most unlikely of places, as director Patrick Shen shows audiences in his documentary The Philosopher Kings.

Set in the halls of some of the country's most prestigious colleges and universities, the story exists in the place where blue collar work meets higher education: the college and university custodians.

The film humanizes a group of workers who are routinely disregarded, judged or flat out ignored, and reminds the viewer that a career need not provide glamour and recognition for a person to enjoy their work and take pride in their accomplishments.

It has always been the outsiders that intrigue Shen, a director whose accomplishments include the award-winning documentary Flight from Death, Shen's first feature-length film, which he directed, edited, co-wrote, and co-produced.

"I have always been fascinated with the people and the stories found on the 'fringes' of society," Shen said. "I think those stories tell us a lot more about ourselves than most of what we might find in the 'mainstream.' The initial spark that ultimately led to what became The Philosopher Kings actually came from a professor I interviewed for my last documentary, Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. He once remarked that janitors probably had more insight into the human condition than the professors and the people in suits. That's when the light bulb first went off."

philosopher kings poster artThe feature-length documentary interweaves the untold stories of eight custodians at prestigious schools, including Princeton University, California Institute of Technology and Cornell University. Through interviews Shen explores the triumph and tragedies experienced by people who spend their days in the shadows, silently cleaning up the messes of others.

Some of the custodians are undereducated, one is handicapped, while another has emigrated from Haiti and works two jobs to support him family back home. While each person's circumstance is different, what the film exposes is the overwhelming pride each custodian takes in his or her job, and each person's sense that they have found their calling in a profession many others look down on.

Oscar Dantzler, the custodian for the Duke University Chapel in Durham, NC, explains in the film the sense of purpose he feels in his position.

"This grand old building is called the Duke Chapel. It was built in 1930. People from all over the world come to worship or meditate in this chapel," Dantzler said. "There is a mystique about it. Every time I walk in it, something comes over me. It's an old saying in my family, 'If you can't keep the house of God clean, you can't keep no house clean.'"

But more than straightening chairs and sweeping floors, Dantzler sees himself as a friend and mentor to the Duke University students that he comes in contact with.

"In four years [the students] are fixin' to make the biggest step in their career: they are fixin' to step out into that mad world. Any advice I can give then I am going to give them because I have already stepped out into that big bad world," he said. "When their mothers and fathers drop them off I like to say that they left them in my hands but there is other people who get credit for that too."

For Corby Baker, inspiration at work comes for other reasons. An aspiring artist, Baker is a custodian at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA. Baker chose his job over another, higher-paying position because it offered him benefits and the chance to spend his day surrounded by art.

Baker carries around a notebook the contents of which juxtapose the thoughts that consume him during the day. On one side of the pages are his ideas for art, on the other, lists of tasks that need to be completed at work.

"What inspires me about the students are the clever ideas they come up with every year... I write them down. I want to incorporate inspiration I get [into my own work.]," he said. "Sometimes I keep a pad that I write down things that need to be done, things that need to be cleaned. But on that same pad, if I have a great idea for a painting, I'll write it down right there I write it down in my notebook, then I do drawings or conceptual versions of it."

The honesty with which the subjects tell their stories is impressive and resoundingly true. They discuss marriages, children, divorce, their aspirations, the death of loved ones and war stories without embellishment, and with a confidence that belies the fact that they spend their day performing duties that garner little to no attention. So how did Shen pull it off?

"I rarely give subjects advice on what to do when the cameras are on," he said. "I like to consider documentary filmmaking an exercise in being human. You don't expect a complete stranger to share their innermost thoughts with you unless you've spent the time to really connect with them. Also, you'd be surprised how much people are willing to share when you simply ask them to--especially people who don't often get to speak their minds."

One section of the film shows a clip of Bill Clinton delivering a graduation address. He tells the students that in one part of Africa a typical greeting is for one person to say hello or good morning. The other person responds, "I see you."

"Think about all the people in the world that we never see," Clinton said. "When we leave here today do you have any idea what a job we are leaving for the people who are going to come in here and pick these chairs up and pick up after us? Do you have any idea what they make or how they support their children? Or whether they believe anyone ever sees them? How you think about your life in relation to others will determine how you use what you know and how you do as citizens."

What viewers will take away from this film is that there is life and wisdom, courage and humanitarianism in everyone around us, even in those who are pushing a broom. Our job is to open our eyes and see it.


Written by Heather O'Neill

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