DIFF 2017: Review of 44 PAGES

A documentary directed by Tony Shaff. No MPAA Rating. 97 minutes. 2017.

Garry and Caroline Myers loved kids, and they loved kids so much that they wanted to create a magazine directed toward children that would have a sense of respect for their level of intelligence and capture the time in which they lived. The year was 1946, so of course the decision to create such a magazine must be informed by the social, cultural, and political sphere of an Earth still recuperating from a world war and amid the advent of the Boomer generation. The creation of Highlights for Children, a publication that would come to be known by the first word of its title, is the subject of 44 Pages, a documentary that tracks the construction of the magazine’s June 2016 issue.

The structure of the documentary is simple and, admittedly, not very cinematic in any inherent way. We are introduced to the major players in the publishing group, such as the current editor-in-chief Christine French Cully. We meet the various copy editors and illustrators who put in the daily work of a nine-month process to build a single issue. We learn only a little about these people beyond how fate has led them to work for Highlights, the publishing company that has taken its name from the magazine they work tirelessly to foster into the more-than-respectable brand that it is now.

We are also witness to the process of the creation of an issue of Highlights, which begins at ground level with thousands of fiction and non-fiction manuscripts the staff combs through, determining what could belong in an issue and what, sadly, must be left out. Much of the documentary’s most potent material comes from our glimpses into these submissions. One child sends a drawing of the attacks of September 11, 2001, something that disquiets the copy editor who receives it. The “Dear Highlights” feature, which publishes a letter per month from children with genuinely pressing concerns, regularly turns up a plea for help in domestically volatile situations (although such letters are not published, of course) or in socially uncertain ones.

The publication’s aim from the old days remains in the current climate: to be respectful of the intelligence of children in a way that can contribute to their emotional growth but also to be respectful of the social mores that dictate the family model of today. The struggle to remain relevant is also a pressing matter of the heart for many of these people. The path to such relevance is slow: We see the first illustration featuring a same-sex couple arriving in February 2017 (after the production of this documentary was completed), while a growing interest in scientific articles is relatively recent, a direct response to children worrying about climate change.

Much of director Tony Shaff’s method is dependent upon talking-head interviews, which are interspersed with archival photographs and behind-closed-doors footage of the staff at work. The simplicity of the method works because the result is a fascinating study of process. We also get a clear, if rather simplified, picture of the impact of Highlights, which has and will hopefully continue to be considerable. 44 Pages is certainly modest, but the documentary is also an affecting tribute to a beloved brand that stands out by sheer force of will.

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