What is the future of filmmaking? I'm not sure about you, but what I hope it's not is a new superhero movie every three months peppered by the occasional "blink and you'll miss it" acclaimed indie. What we need now more than ever are new stories — perhaps ones not exclusively crafted by white men, thank you very much — and, for the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful that we'll get great ones. The reason? My visit to Ghetto Film School, an after school program dedicated to creating the next generation of filmmakers.
These students are going to take over the world — or, at least, give fresh eyes into it.
Located on the campus of the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) a non-profit community center nestled in the centrally located neighborhood of MacArthur Park, the west coast branch of this South Bronx-originated program plucks a crop of eager, passionate applicants and turns them into bonafide filmmakers. The Los Angeles Fellows Program, which began three years ago after the success of the New York City branch, runs on Saturdays during the school year and during the week in the summer. Added up, students spend over 1,000 hours working on projects at GFS over those two years — the equivalent, executive director Stosh Mintek tells me, of a four-year liberal arts degree.
It's a big time commitment for students, but one that's well worth it for those accepted. Though they receive roughly 150 applications a year after recruiting at high schools around Los Angeles, only 30 to 35 students earn a spot each spring. Those who are not accepted are encouraged to apply the following year, and anyone between the ages of 14 to 18 is welcome to apply. The program is completely free for all students, and meals and public transportation are provided. According to the school's website, 21st Century Fox covers GFS' core operating costs, and any additional donations go straight to programs that directly help the young artists.
As for the name of the school, GFS doesn't recruit based on specific socioeconomic quotas. GFS artistic director Derrick Cameron told Variety: “The people who really get [the program] understand [the name], and the rest... [the name "Ghetto Film School"] keeps the bad people away.”
On a campus tour with Mintek, he shows me the art gallery filled with surrealist paintings done by the students at the HOLA community center — all beautifully strange, and surprisingly excellent pieces. An image of a warped lobster catches my eye. Mintek nods — he likes that one, too — and tells me: "High quality is rule number one to authentically engage kids in an artistic practice that’s taught at a very high level. If you’re not doing that, it’s not a true arts program in our opinion, so meeting an organization that sort of had a philosophical alignment was really great."
It wasn't the only reason that GFS chose to set up camp on HOLA's campus, adds Mintek.
"We wanted to have a meaningful partnership with a local host that could really teach us about the differences of Los Angeles," says Mintek. "[HOLA] serves about 3,000 kids a year, they do fine art, painting photography, they do academics, after school tutoring, college prep, they run a whole sports program... The thing that they didn’t have at the time was a film program, so for us being able to come here and open up shop inside of their space, be embedded right in their center and run our programs here allows them to offer that to their participants in high school and it just became a real win win for us."
While at GFS, students receive access to top-notch cameras (which they can use on their days off to shoot their own projects), classes that teach them both film history and practical skills, and, on occasion, a visit from film superstars like Spike Jonze. They are given opportunities to pitch project ideas to real film and TV execs. (This year, the program is creating eight promos for Fox's TV series Star, the top three of which will be selected by Fox on May 20th.) A small group is taken every year to a different country in order to make a film in that nation's native language. One film, Demon's Gate, a creepy, thought-provoking take on gentrification, was shot in Tokyo with Japanese actors. (The students who made it would be carded at an R-rated movie. You would never guess.)
"The staff and the teachers at GFS, they really do take you seriously and... they treat you like you’re an adult," explains student Khalif Bradley, 18, whom I spoke with while interviewing the crew of one of GFS's Star promos. (Bradley is the shoot's boom operator.) He adds: "They’ll really prepare you for the things you want to do in the future if it’s related to film.”
As I tour the campus, I realize just how similar it looks to the collegiate film schools that I have seen — including my own at Temple University. Students edit on MacBooks, and have access to a variety of cameras, lighting, and sound equipment. There are classrooms where they can learn film theory and watch influential films like Sunset Boulevard to Pan's Labyrinth.
(I — only half jokingly — ask if I can apply.)
But while GFS certainly rivals top-notch film schools like the famed ones located nearby at USC and UCLA, perhaps the real gift GFS gives its students is the confidence to craft their own stories — and the knowledge to know why doing so is important. Students at GFS are acutely aware of the challenges within the industry, be it a gender bias or a lack of diversity. And, because of it, are able to be the change the industry needs.
Student Rosibel Villalobos, 16, the director of one of the selected Star promos, knows that female filmmakers are often underestimated: "There are different stereotypes... Girls can’t do the technical jobs as well. [Like] if a girl is [the director of photography] and a shot is out of focus it’s, ‘Oh my God she can never be DP again, like she ruined that completely,’ but if it happens to a guy it’s like, ‘Oh, everybody makes mistakes, he can do it again.’"
I am both excited to hear a teenager speak so eloquently about sexism in the industry, and bummed that it's an issue at all. Yet what her classmate says next gives me hope that programs like GFS are instilling confidence in women to fight sexism by doing good work —unapologetically.
"I’ve heard women say, ‘Oh I don’t want to be in film because I feel like...men [dominate the industry],’ and I’ve had someone tell me personally, ‘Oh, you know you’re a woman, it’s going to be harder for you to pursue film because you’re a woman,’" says Anali Cabrera, 16, the promo's assistant director. "It didn’t discourage me. If anything, it motivated me to break that stereotype or whatever it is [because] that’s a big issue that we have... women aren’t a big part of the industry."
The students are aware that what they're doing can change the course of the industry at large — simply by making the stories that they want to make.
"[M]en and women and people of color have very different backgrounds, so they have different stories to tell," adds Julia Song, 15, the shoot's editor and script supervisor. "It’s very important to see those stories on screen."
"I feel like the solution is obviously to hire more people of color in films, but there are also issues that need to be addressed....like whitewashing in films. With movies [and TV shows] like Iron Fist and Death Note and... Ghost in The Shell, " adds fellow student Michelle Kim, 18, the promo's director of photography who, shortly before our interview, learned she was accepted at UCLA. "Even though these issues are so persistent, people in the industry are not doing anything about it. So hopefully with programs like Ghetto Film School we can do something about it."
The graduates of GFS may only be a small portion of the entertainment industry as a whole — according to their website, over 1,500 people are engaged in the program each year — but it's promising to see students who excel at their craft want to use it in order to give more people a voice. These are the students who will not only be the next generation's cinematographers, writers, and directors, but likely agents, publicists, and advertising executives as well. (Mintek tells me that while we may not know of any wildly famous alumni, or at least not yet, many of them are working in the industry. One student is in the process of selling a feature script, so stay tuned.) In that way, GFS is a step in the direction of systemic change — and in a world where so few people seem to have a voice in the media, a group of talented, smart, and aware individuals striving for change is exactly what we need.
Check out Ghetto Film School's two international films Ghost Of A Chance and Demon's Gate below:
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