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Life has its own story line

In a film class, an L.A. gang offender scripts his death. But a close call in the real world inspires him to change the direction of his future.

December 10, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

In an old classroom trailer on the grounds of Camp David Gonzalez detention center, Alex Munoz teaches a handful of youthful offenders the art of making films.

Every year for the last five years, the class of teenagers has produced a number of dramatic scripts and, eventually, short films about the precarious twists and turns of a harsh life on the streets.

But this year, one student's story was different: Marquise Calhoun's screenplay focused on death -- his own.

And that story line troubled Munoz, who felt uneasy about encouraging Calhoun to make a film that foretells his own demise.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Munoz asked. A different ending, he said, might be better.

But Calhoun wasn't about to alter his story of a young man from South Los Angeles who must make a choice: Do I smoke weed, shoot dice and hang out with homies searching for easy prey? Or take my girlfriend's advice and find a job and escape to a better place?

"That's my reality," Calhoun told his instructor. "A lot of my friends are already dead, and I just may be next."

Months later, when Calhoun was back in his neighborhood at 75th Street and Broadway, the story of his life came perilously close to following his script.

Crime can be relentless in the shadow of the 77th Street police station, the neighborhood where Calhoun grew up. He was a student at 68th Street Elementary School when his best friend was shot in the head and killed. He was enrolled at Bethune Middle School when he began ditching class, joined a local gang and started selling drugs and getting arrested.

Calhoun attended Locke and Fremont high schools -- and several alternative schools -- before dropping out somewhere in the 11th or 12th grade.

Last year, at 17, he was sentenced to nine months at Camp Gonzalez in Calabasas after robbing a group of Latino men at gunpoint. His take, he said, was about $50 and three cellphones.

He arrived marveling at his own stupidity. He was about to blow nine months of his life, for what? "It just wasn't worth it," he said.

The bunks at Camp David Gonzalez are full of tales of wrong choices -- stories of hanging out with hotheads, dropping out of school and stealing cars, packing weapons and selling drugs.

Calhoun stayed out of trouble there, keeping to himself and spending much of his time writing rap lyrics.

But it was lonely. His 18th birthday came and went unnoticed, and that bothered him. Birthdays, he said, were meant to be celebrated at home with family and friends, but Calhoun's family was not the storybook kind. His mother was always supportive, but his last recollection of his father was on his eighth birthday: His dad failed to show up.

That sense of feeling forgotten is the kind of emotion that Munoz seeks to help young people explore through his program FYI: Films by Youth Inside, which teaches filmmaking to youths in probation camps. Since 2002, Munoz, an award-winning director who holds a master's degree in filmmaking from USC, has trained more than 60 youths. The program's annual budget is $15,000, and much of the labor that goes into making the short films is donated. Most of the money comes from private fundraising.

"They usually write about their histories, their families, their girlfriends, the violence in their neighborhoods," Munoz said. "What we do is challenge [them] to work cooperatively together."

The class wasn't an immediate attraction for Calhoun. In fact, he didn't even sign himself up; an observant guard had quietly added his name to a list of 11 students in the hope that the young man who spent so much time writing lyrics might have other talents.

On his first day of class in February, Munoz asked his students to draw pictures illustrating the themes of their movies-to-be.

"This is like kindergarten," Calhoun remembered complaining. Nonetheless, he drew a montage, which he titled "South Central Days." The rough illustration depicted a man with an Afro, an AK-47, a pair of dice and an LAPD helicopter on his right; his girlfriend and a Greyhound bus on his left.

From the drawings, stories would be conceived and scripts written. Films would be staged, professional actors selected and lines memorized. Students would direct under Munoz's tutelage.

Calhoun had the concept for his screenplay, but the words didn't flow immediately. He took the idea back to his bed that night, and while others watched television or did push-ups, he started writing.

"I wrote up a little script, added a little to it and a little more about the things going on in my life. Just to keep it real," he said.

But he didn't think anything would come of it. He lacked confidence in Munoz; he didn't believe the director would deliver on his promise to hire black actors for his student film.

That changed the day Tunisia Hardison walked into the camp.

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