November 1, 1996

Reaching Out with Outreach

Documentary Production Workshop at Venice High School

Winning an award was not what I had in mind, when it instituted its production workshops; but that is exactly what happened. The Documentary Production Workshops were created as part of IDA's Outreach Program to local high schools. And, Larry Shapiro's Filmmaking Class at Venice High, under the supervision of Project Director Ed Landler and Technical Advisor Rich Samuels, won 1st place in the 12th Annual Visions of U.S. Home Video Competition—Young People's category, for Code 594 in Progress, a nine-minute documentary about graffiti tagging from the perspective of teenagers. The competition was sponsored by Sony Electronics and administered by the American Film Institute.

The intent of IDA's Outreach Programs to diversify the audience for documentary, fostering an appreciation and understanding of the art form by encouraging creativity, self-expression and—in the case of the workshops—providing an opportunity for hands-on participation. Outreach also allows filmmakers the chance to inspire youth who are for the most part unfamiliar with the documentary art form. Shapiro's class—as well as Hollywood High School's Humanitas Class, runby Neil Fitzpatrick, Paul Itkin, Shel ley Hill and under the supervision of IDA 's Kerry Nea—were participants in the Documentary Production Workshops of IDA's 1995-96 Outreach, made possible by underwriting from Langley Productions; the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles; the California Arts Council; and donation of tape stock from Studio Film and Tape. IDA Outreach is administered by staff member Grace Ouchida.

In the past, the program had consisted primarily of DocuFest Outreach, where lDA members presented screenings of documentaries and conducted camera-use workshops in schools and community centers throughout Los Angeles. A turning point in the program came in 1993 when IDA board members presented an actual production workshop at Camp Karl Holton, a secured youth probation facility in the San Fernando Valley. According to Rich Samuels, director of that program, "The purpose of the workshop was to progress, with the help of other IDA board members, through almost every stage of documentary production, screen ing a completed video at the close of the program. "The boys ended up conceiving, writing, directing and shooting a five-minute tongue-in-cheek travelogue extolling the virtues of incarceration at Camp Holton. Samuels crystallized the experience: "Kids—even 'gangsters'—hunger for recognition and for validation of their own talent is. Our hope in the DocuFest Outreach Production Workshop was that we could begin the process, for some kids, of believing in their own potential."

The success of the Camp Holton Program led to a bolder, further extended Outreach Program in 1995 that was able to use the 2nd International Documentary Congress (IDC2) as a springboard. On October 27, four hundred students and teachers from throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District gathered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to attend a documentary screening series. Each class, prior to their attendance at the Congress, viewed Robert Drew's L.A. Champions, a verite film about high school basketball in South Central Los Angeles. Evaluation forms were sent along with the videos for the teachers to use in the classroom to help jump-start the critical thinking process.

As a comparative piece, Hardwood Dreams—another film about inner city high school basketball, produced by Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins—was screened at IDC2 and was greeted with much enthusiasm by the young audience. As a contrast to these films about high school basketball, the opening ten minutes of Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm—a film by Geller/Goldfine Productions, following ten students from different ethnic, religious and class background s through their freshman year at Stanford University—met with mixed responses. Many of the students at the Q&A session with the filmmakers said they could not relate to the characters in the film and did not understand why this clip had been shown to them: after all, they wouldn't be able to attend a university such as Stanford. "What they did not seem to realize," remarked Tom White, Development Consultant for IDA's Outreach Program, "was that the captain of the basketball team in Hardwood Dreams also came from the inner city and had his sights set on attending Stanford."

Student difficulty in relating to the subject resurfaced this year at DocuFest Outreach with students from Venice and Hollywood high schools: they were shown a variety of styles of documentary filmmaking, to inspire their thinking about the project they would want to produce when they advanced to the Documentary Production Workshops. Ed Landler, Project Director for Venice High, noted, "On the whole, [the students] related to work that somehow touched their own experience." Said Kerry Neal, Project Director for Hollywood High's Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: "I showed them three films that represented various documentary styles-personal, social issue and process... They weren't interested in the documentary about process; they were most interested in the documentary I showed them about kids their own age."

Prior to working on the video projects, logistical problems had to be managed. Venice High School's filmmaking class had an unwieldy 30 students for one IDA project director and one teacher; so a selection procedure was created whereby the decision of subject matter for the group project also became the way of selecting students to participate in the project. At Hollywood High School, the Humanitas class consisted of only 12 students, buy access to equipment was a major problem. This was resolved when the school discovered that the ROTC program on campus had cameras not currently being used.

Keeping the students motivated throughout the workshop also proved to be a challenge. Some students did not take the same initiative as others did, and having to work as a team was a novel situation for many. Both productions ended up with a core of less than half the originally selected individuals doing most of the work. According to Neal, the Hollywood High students were not as interested in the editing process, showing more enthusiasm during the actual shoots. By contrast, Landler students at Venice High "developed a real momentum and a sense of excitement about what was coming together during the editing process."

Despite the roadblocks along the way, there were significant triumphs. Kerry Neal reported that one student had never picked up a camera before and after doing so, was reluctant to let it go. "He's a natural and could be a good camera person with training." Landler reported that a student at Venice, "one who had contributed the best camerawork, applied and was accepted to the [Cal Arts] summer video program on the strength of what he had done."

As a direct result of watching the students in action during the Documentary Production Workshop at Venice High, the American Jewish Committee became convinced that high school students have the capability of telling a story through the visual medium of video: the AJC began to fund more produc tions with the filmmaking class.

Also important was what the project directors personally gained from their involvement in the workshop. "The workshop gave me the chance to re-experience making a documentary at its rawest level," said Kerry Neal. "It sharpened my creative and problem-solving skills; it's good for all filmmakers to go back to that stage."

Said John Langley, a major sponsor of the program: "I merely provided the opportunity. IDA provided the educational guidance, and the students provided the talent. Personally, I'm very proud of their achievement."

The workshops culminated with a public screening at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies on May 15, 1996. In a panel discussion, moderated by IDA Executive Director Betsy A. McLane, the students talked about their experiences in making the videos, what it was like to work closely with their classmates, what part of the production they enjoyed the most, and how the production came together. It was exciting to see the pride with which the students talked about their work, and—although some of them were shy about speaking in front of an audience—it was evident that they enjoyed the experience and appreciated the opportunity provided to them.

While the immediate educational benefit of the workshop program is a heightened appreciation for the aesthetic and practical facets of non-fiction, these workshops also provided educational dividends in other intangible areas, such as self-expression, appreciation for the creative process, and the dynamics of collaboration. It is Outreach's belief that the workshops have sparked an interest among these young people for the documentary, affecting the way they view the world around them, and empowering the youths by introducing new skills and a forum for self-expression.

In future projects, IDA hopes to be able to captivate the younger generation with what has become an alternative form of media—in a society inundated by works geared towards seducing an audience with unrealistic heroes, sexual icons and violent scenarios—by encouraging curiosity in this audience about the world around them.

Because of cutbacks in funding from the Cultural Affairs Department, IDA has been unable to continue the workshops for 1996 or to plan for 1997. Yet, the project directors, teachers and staff remain hopeful that a way will be found to continue reaching out to a young constituency.

 

TOM GIANNAKOPOULOS is administrative coordinator for IDA.
GRACE OUCHIDA is IDA's special projects coordinator.
Photos by Neil Fitzpatrick and Tom Giannakopoulos.

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