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Metropolitan Digest / LOS ANGELES COUNTY NEWS IN BRIEF

Student Cinema Verite Examines Earthquake

October 11, 1994|ERIC SLATER

They knew the genre well--how to light the scene starkly and set the camera low to achieve an ominous, bigger-than-life effect. But the film students figured the only disaster they might shoot would begin and end on a Hollywood sound stage.

Then an earthquake came to town.

Almost nine months after the Jan. 17 temblor laid their classrooms low, Cal State Northridge film students and their professor are putting the final touches on a bittersweet project: a documentary film on the quake that left them out of school and out of their homes, thoroughly shaken and mourning the loss of friends.

Aptly titled "Epicenter U.," the 16-millimeter film is a quirky mix of academia and disaster, of therapy and movie making, of rubble and rising from it. "It's painful to be in an earthquake, but it's a joy to make a film about it," said professor and producer Alexis Krasilovsky.

A documentary filmmaker for 20 years, Krasilovsky began "Epicenter U." before the earth had settled back into itself that Monday morning. When the appliances stopped toppling at her Silver Lake home, she calmed her shaken but safe 6-year-old son and allowed herself a moment of contemplation over their close call with a bookshelf. Then she ran for her movie camera.

Buildings were coming down, flames were rising and the filmmaker's instincts took over.

When her class met next, Krasilovsky asked how many of her students' homes had been damaged. Most students raised their hands and shooting began in earnest despite far more pressing concerns.

A scene with Salvador Morales is dark and shaky.

He stands against a chain-link fence, a crumbling apartment complex behind him. He speaks in jagged sentences. "This is the building where I live . . . yellow-tagged. I have to stay there."

The setting changes, more rubble. Morales pulls at a shard of drywall. "They looted my apartment. They stole my piano. I couldn't believe it, because it's a heavy piano. . . . I don't care about what I lost, but you kind of lose faith in the human race."

Working on both sides of the camera, Morales delayed his own student film to join the cast and crew of "Epicenter U." The most costly natural disaster in U.S history demanded documentation, he said.

Dedicated to the memory of CSUN students Manuel Sandoval and Jaime Reyes, among the 16 people killed when the Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed, the film concentrates on the earthquake's effects on the university and its students.

But, said executive producer Deborah Abrams, a former student of Krasilovsky, "The film is dealing with emotions that come out of all natural disasters."

Many film industry professionals experienced the quake firsthand as well, and have offered support so the shoestring production will be ready to premiere on the quake's first anniversary.

They have donated editing equipment, cameras, film and lighting equipment. A man at a production shop would not accept Krasilovsky's check for his work on the soundtrack. His Woodland Hills home was demolished, he told her, and he wanted only a copy of the finished film as payment.

Editor Amy Tompkins gave up better-paying feature film work for the rest of the year to put the footage together. Some of it is raw and overexposed, she said, lending a unique feel.

Just before the credits roll, the passionate voice of civil rights activist and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young is heard. It is his commencement speech given June 6 to those who graduated despite the quake: "You've been blessed by having been born in difficult times. Go and . . . contribute these blessings."

As Young's voice fades, a grinning graduate runs in slow-motion toward the camera, his mortarboard in place, tassel swinging.

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