Sarasota County school administrators are defending their entry into this year's Sarasota Film Festival while others are highly critical of the message it's sending to impressionable children.
In October, the 4th grade students of Mrs. Irina Pryzbyla-Bielewicz at the Tony Montana Memorial Elementary School staged a play celebrating the school's namesake. School Board members were so impressed by the students' performance, that they paid almost $2.4 million to have a Hollywood film crew come to Florida to film it. So enthralled were they with the finished product, the board they decided to submit it to this year's film festival. Some reviewers from the film society were considerably less fascinated by the piece, but, undaunted, the School Board mounted an all-out lobbying effort by a Madison Avenue public relations firm, costing the taxpayers of Sarasota County another $1.1 million for their efforts, but were ultimately victorious in getting their featurette on the playbill for this month's festival.
The School Board justified the expenditure of the nearly $3.5 million to produce and market the film, saying: "We believe in celebrating the arts here in Sarasota County and if it costs the county taxpayers a measly couple of million dollars to give some fourth grade kids an unrealistic opinion of themselves and the world around them, then so be it. It's for the children."
Reacting to criticism that the subject matter was inappropriate for elementary students, principal Vinnie Ganucciano replied, "Whaddya think, these kids ain't seen worser violence on the playground out there? Youse think they ain't heard worser language at home when their parents are bitchin' each other out for snortin' the last of the coke or runnin' around with their kid sister or something?"
The fourth graders, however, seemed to take all the hubbub over their play in stride. One of the co-writers of the play, 9-year old Madison Andrews, giggled sheepishly, "When our teacher asked us to write something about the man they named our school after, my friend Erin-Ashley and I thought it would be funner to write a play, so we did. We had to be careful, though, not to allow the poignancy and power of the subject matter devolve into bathos with the lack of thespian experience in our cast, but due to the steady directorial hand of Ms. Pryzbyla-Bielewicz, I feel we more than adequately accomplished an accurate recreation of the tragic events leading up to the foreshadowed demise of Mr. Montana."