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Documenting life -- and then death

Filmmaker Vanessa Roth chronicled Risa Bejarano's rocky transition out of foster care. Later, she turned her camera on Risa's killer.

December 01, 2009|By Victoria Kim

Vanessa Roth studied the girl sitting across the table.

A light smell of deep-frying oil hung in the air of the Carl's Jr. restaurant, where the girl worked night shifts to save for college. Roth, an independent filmmaker, knew this girl would be perfect for her documentary on foster children aging out of the system. She was looking for at least one child to represent a success story,among the many others who end up pregnant, incarcerated or homeless.

Risa Bejarano seemed to be that child.

Barely 5 feet tall, with a round face and gold streaks in her chocolate-brown hair, Risa was a high school senior whose cheery smile made her seem like any other teenager. Roth picked at her fries and sipped a milkshake as she listened to Risa recount her tragic upbringing, typical of so many of the foster kids Roth had featured in her documentaries: a drug-addict mother, a sexually abusive stepfather, and siblings on drugs, on the streets and in jail. Since age 9, Risa had bounced from home to home.

Now she seemed bound for something very different. She talked about her long list of activities, her honors classes, her plans for the future. She was at the top of her class, working two jobs and on her way to UC Santa Barbara on scholarships. She dreamed of becoming a psychologist or a teacher.

Roth explained to Risa what it would be like to be the subject of a film. She would be asking a lot of the girl by bringing a camera into her life as she transitioned out of foster care. The camera would have to be there, Roth told her, for the good times and the bad.

The girl agreed without hesitation.

Roth filmed a beaming Risa wearing a white dress at her prom, as a proud honor student at her high school graduation, being showered with praise at her emancipation from foster care.

Soon, however, Roth saw glimpses of something else beneath Risa's strong, articulate front.

The girl confided to the filmmaker that she was experimenting with more drugs to stay up the long hours demanded by schoolwork and jobs. She talked about her past and how much she identified with the world she had come from, and how much she feared being sucked back into it.

College meant new pressures and temptations she wasn't prepared for. Roth watched her fall behind in her classes and struggle with drug addiction. As a friend, Roth offered some advice and support. But as a documentarian wanting to tell the story as it unfolded, she was careful to leave decisions up to the girl.

Halfway through her second semester at UCSB, Risa suffered a psychological breakdown. Doctors feared she was showing signs of schizophrenia. She left school and moved back in with her foster mother. But she was quickly back on her feet -- starting work, signing up for community college classes and moving into an independent living facility.

Roth's crew wrapped filming with Risa on a hopeful note. The filmmaker returned to her life with her husband and two young daughters.

The film premiered the following year to acclaim at festivals around the country. Variety said "Aging Out," by Roth and East Coast director Roger Weisberg, combined "strong human interest and an overlooked social issue." PBS picked it up for national broadcast.

But as Roth's film reached more and more people, Risa retreated further.

Roth felt Risa was growing increasingly evasive. Her phone number kept changing. Calls went unreturned for weeks. She heard Risa may have been using drugs again and was flitting from place to place after she was kicked out of her transitional home for stealing. Since she wasn't filming anymore, Roth felt she couldn't pry into Risa's life if the girl chose not to share it. Roth worried that Risa was heading toward another breakdown. On a Sunday morning in June 2004, Roth was on her way with her daughters to a child's birthday party in West Los Angeles when her phone rang.

It was Risa's former foster mother, Dolores.

"They shot her," she said, over and over. "They shot her."

Roth sat frozen in horror as Dolores told her Risa had been killed in a dark alley in South Gate. She was found lying next to a dumpster and an abandoned couch frame. At least nine bullets had pierced her small body.

Roth struggled to reconcile the Risa she knew with her tragic, lonely death. She was no longer sure how well she had really known the girl.

A few weeks later, Risa's older sister, Ale, called. Risa's body had been at the morgue for nearly a month, and the county was going to give her a pauper's burial in a matter of days. Ale didn't know what to do, and she had no one else to turn to.

Roth helped her claim the body, and she put together a small memorial service on an overcast day in East Los Angeles.

Roth struggled to put Risa's death behind her.

Thoughts of Risa crept up at unexpected moments -- when she drove her car, as she cooked dinner for her daughters, in fitful dreams at night.

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