At-Risk Youth Tell Their Stories through Film

Adolescents dealing with gang violence, loss of family members and more tell their stories with the help of the California Film Institute.

A group of adolescents stood on a stage were filmmakers and stars like Darren Aronofsky, Ewan McGregor and Martin Sheen stood before them.

And like thos big names, this group screened their latest work, a series of short films, to an audience at the Monday night as part of California Film Institute’s “My Place/My Story” program.

“My Place/My Story” is a five-day free workshop where kids from ages 13 to 18 write their own stories and then edit them into a short film. The kids are recruited by local social service agencies, many coming from Marin City and the Canal neighborhood in San Rafael. Each movie is around three to five minutes.

“It may be the most intimate program,” California Film Institute Executive Director Mark Fishkin said at the screening.

Many movies began with the filmmakers telling about the people closest to them. For Dany Reyes, that person was his older brother, who was a member of the 18 Street gang in the Canal neighborhood. His brother’s involvement with drugs and the gang terrify Reyes, his mother and his grandmother.

His brother bounces in and out of juvenile hall, only to return to the arms of his gang. One evening, a pair of cops arrive at the Reyes house, telling his mother that a rival gang member killed the friend of his brother. Fearing for his safety, the brother flees with his grandmother to Guatemala.

Reyes’s film closes with the hope that one day his brother will return to the United States to reap the benefits he would’ve had if weren’t for his illegal activity. In letters, his brother tells Reyes to be smart and never join a gang.

Loss was a common theme. Nia Crowell’s film showed her loneliness after some of her siblings served time in juvenile hall and were placed in group homes far away. She explains in her voice over that her hands are the most precious to her because they wipe away her tears and hold her loved ones close.

But not all the movies were somber. Alex Danvilla told how his fear of leaving Guatemala seven years ago transformed into optimism about his future in the United States. Joe Feria Lopez dreamed of one day becoming a professional soccer player. Gutberto Cab tells of his determination to improve his education.

For Crowell, her most important lesson during the workshop was the courage to tell her story.

Other than discovering their own courage, students learn to create their own music and use programs like Final Cut Pro and Photoshop to tell their story.

“It was hard because I didn’t know how to use a computer,” Luiz Velazques said. “A lot of times I wanted to go home and take a nap. So I began drinking coffee.”

The program, which is in its sixth year, provides lunch and transportation for the participants. Funded by several foundations including the Marin Community Foundation,  CFI keeps its costs between $6,000 and $10,000.

“This program is so important,” CFI Board Member Larry Eilenberg said. “What it says is that you’re important and your stories fill the big screen.”



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