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Jefferson High film students have again been invited to the Sundance festival, where they will screen 10 documentaries about aspects of their lives in South L.A.

November 26, 2000|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

It is the quintessential Los Angeles scene: a film crew on location. The star rehearses her lines. The sound man cues his tapes. The director barks "Action!"

But this is no movie set at Paramount Studios. This is Room 158 at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, where every member of the crew is still too young to vote.

They all belong to Jefferson's Academy of Film and Theater Arts, a popular program that has attracted a loyal following on campus and has earned a prize of Oscar-like significance.

For the second consecutive year, Jefferson's students have earned an invitation to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. At least 16 teenagers will make the trip in January, screening 10 of their documentaries at the festival's Gen-Y Studio, which gives students from the United States and elsewhere an opportunity to explore the world of movie making.

"This time, we're actually going to have our finished products to show," said senior Lisa Lopez, who will be visiting Sundance for the second year and plans to screen her documentary about immigration. "Hopefully we'll get the recognition we deserve."

For their raw material, Jefferson's young filmmakers draw on their own lives in the impoverished and mostly Latino neighborhoods around their high school. Their work runs the gamut from serious to personal. There's a documentary about flashy low-riders with souped-up engines that cruise the streets at night. And a piece about nearby Central Avenue, a forgotten thoroughfare of weed-strewn lots that once was the jazz mecca of the West. And there's Maria Elena Duron's video about her father's two beloved Volkswagen vans that are practically members of her family.

Several set out to tackle the complex social issues that have shaped their experiences.

In one documentary, two students rail against what they consider to be the macho attitudes of Latino men. The video, titled "No Mas," contrasts scenes of women hard at work scrubbing dishes, mopping floors and folding laundry with scenes of men drinking beer, shooting pool and playing cards. "The boys grow up to be useless," one women says in the video.

Another video explores immigration through the eyes of those who have made the dangerous--and illegal--journey north to Los Angeles.

"We would see the Border Patrol and throw ourselves to the bushes where there were worms," Lisa Lopez's Guatemalan mother says on camera, speaking in Spanish from the comfort of her front porch. One documentary investigated inequities in education. The young producers got the idea from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in May, which alleged that tens of thousands of poor and minority students in California are denied an equal education because their schools lack adequate textbooks and other resources. Jefferson High was one of several schools named in the lawsuit.

"I hope that everybody who watches it realizes that students at inner-city schools need more help," said Rosa Garcia, one of the creators.

It was stories like these that caught the eye of officials at the Sundance festival. The Jefferson students, at the behest of their teacher, wrote to the festival in the fall of 1999, asking to attend. Their letter landed on the desk of Nicole Guillemet, the festival's co-director, who oversees its youth component.

"They told me about their stories," Guillemet said. "It was very personal. There was a passion and a desire to be part of filmmaking."

Guillemet invited 15 Jefferson students and two teachers and offered to pay their air fare. The students stayed at the homes of residents near Park City.

Guillemet also invited a group of students from Pacoima Middle School's performing arts magnet. They showed four short films about money's effects on people.

Guillemet invited both schools back this year. Pacoima declined because its new crop of film students has just started and has not yet produced work to screen.

Jefferson's students will join about 60 other young filmmakers from Israel, Kosovo and elsewhere.

The Jefferson teenagers have devoted nights, weekends and vacations to their newfound craft, crisscrossing the state for footage they edit on computers in the school's old metal shop, which serves as the film academy's headquarters.

The productions are part of Jefferson's three-year theater arts program in which students take classes in film history, screenwriting and other subjects.

The program has won key support from major Hollywood players since it was launched in 1996 by Steve Bachrach, a filmmaker-turned-teacher.

Sony Pictures has donated video cameras. Paramount Pictures has provided a camera dolly. The American Film Institute gave lighting and editing equipment.

"The perspectives my kids bring are not represented in mainstream film," Bachrach said. "These kids don't have an outlet for expressing themselves. The whole point is to invite them into the dialogue about our culture."

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