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Sesame documentary premieres at Sundance film festival

"The World According to Sesame Street" offers a behind-the-scenes look at Sesame Workshop from 1969 to today

Courtesy of Sesame Workshop
January 25, 2006

In Egypt, a local variation of the "Sesame Street" gang encourages literacy and empowerment for girls in a sharply male-dominated culture. In an Israeli-Palestinian edition, the show sought to build mutual understanding. In South Africa, an HIV-positive Muppet helps teach children about AIDS.

"The World According to Sesame Street," a documentary that premiered over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, recounts the role of Muppets as goodwill ambassadors around the world in localized versions of the children's TV show that has been a U.S. staple since 1969.

The film by directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Sesame Workshop in New York City, where the stewards of "Sesame Street" offer assistance for overseas producers to tailor the concept to their own countries' needs.

Exporting American culture often is greeted with skepticism or even hostility, yet "Sesame Street" seems to find a warm reception wherever it goes.

"The World According to Sesame Street" takes a behind-the-scenes look at efforts to export the popular children's show to other nations.
"I'm sure there was some trepidation, but the fact of the matter is, this is a model developed over the past 36, 37 years, and it's an incredibly adaptable model," said Hawkins Costigan, 37. "It's so pliable to all these different countries, and the local researchers dictate their own curriculum. I haven't heard of a situation where the researchers weren't welcoming of it."

The documentary grew out of the filmmakers' curiosity after learning about Kami, the fluffy yellow HIV-positive Muppet that debuted on South Africa's "Takalani Sesame" in 2002, causing a stir among supporters and critics in the United States.

The perky character, whose mother died of AIDS, was created after the Sesame Workshop's South African partners insisted the show had to help educate children about HIV and AIDS.

"That this American company and show we grew up on that we love so much, this American icon, really, is going around the world and doing these culturally specific co-productions was really, really fascinating," said Goldstein Knowlton, 40, an executive producer on 2002's "Whale Rider."

"Especially regarding Kami, we thought, they're using Muppets as catalysts for social change. That's remarkable."

"The World According to Sesame Street" centers on the South African show and two new incarnations, a joint effort to bridge gaps between Albanians and Serbs in war-torn Kosovo and a version intended to educate youths in Bangladesh, where many children leave school at tender ages to find work.

Popular characters from the U.S. original such as Big Bird may pop up on overseas versions, which also feature Muppets created to suit the local culture. The German incarnation features a large bear, while the Bangladesh show has a Bengal tiger and a collection of traditional puppets bearing no resemblance to Muppets.

Editions of "Sesame Street" have been created in nearly two dozen countries, including China, Japan, Mexico, Poland and Portugal.

For all the regional variations, the core of the show remains the same as the original "Sesame Street," fostering respect and understanding for people's differences.

It was a "slight rude awakening" after growing up on those "Sesame Street" lessons, Goldstein Knowlton said, "and then coming into the world and going, 'Wow, people really don't like each other. They kill each other all the time."'

Even so, the tenets of "Sesame Street" linger, said Hawkins Costigan, who grew up in a multiracial family and saw "Sesame Street" incorporate a multiracial cast.

"Watching it on television, I had no idea that people just didn't do that. That to me was completely normal. I think the show is part of the basis of me having friends from all over, friends from all different nationalities," Hawkins Costigan said.

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