December 22, 2016

'Bad Kids' at Black Rock: Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe Find Hope in High School

Black Rock High School. Photo: Low Key Pictures. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe's latest documentary, The Bad Kids, is an intimate portrait of at-risk students at Black Rock Continuation High School, located in Yucca Valley, California, within the Mojave Desert.

The teachers at Black Rock High are trying to make a difference one student at a time. They accomplish this not by lecturing from the front of the classroom, but by moving among the student body, engaging each student individually, asking questions about both their school work and their personal lives. Black Rock is a safe haven for listening, sharing and understanding, and this is not just teacher to student, but also peer to peer. It is a unique educational model, and judging from the rising number of graduates, it is one that is succeeding.

However, according to the philosophy of the school's principal, Vonda Viland, one should not solely gauge success by whether or not a student receives a diploma. For Viland that mindset is part of the problem with the way today's education system is functioning. Instead of focusing on test scores and GPAs, she feels it should look at the student as a whole person.

Fulton and Pepe embedded themselves at Black Rock for a two-year period. Over the course of filming, they found three students they felt provided an honest representation of the school's student body: Lee, an outspoken young man (and young father) whom they met on the first day when he came over and introduced himself; Jennifer, also outgoing and well spoken, but a student they felt did not appear to outwardly fit the role of a troubled teen; and Joey, the first student we meet, since it is his truancy that brings a probation officer, and the filmmakers, to his doorstep.

Filming for The Bad Kids started in November 2013, with the bulk of shooting taking place during the 2013-2014 school year, and additional filming occurring from August 2014 through March 2015. "In some ways, it is a three-character film," explains Fulton, "but when Lou and I were editing the film, we had these big keywords posted around our editing studio. One was 'mosaic,' and it was very significant to us. Even though all [the students] don't become main characters, we very much had a goal of coming up with a choral portrait of the educational culture at the school. We really felt that we were telling the story of this sort of collective student body. We're telling the story of these kinds of kids from all over the country, and it was important to us that the film had that feeling."

"When we were in high school, we couldn't wait to get out," Pepe adds. "But the thing that struck us so much while making this film is that all the teachers at [Black Rock] genuinely listen to their students, and they acknowledge them as people. And so much of the underpinnings of that approach are about being a witness. You, as a teacher, are bearing witness to what these kids are struggling with. You're not ignoring it. These kids are labeled as failures or dropouts or bad kids, but that's from individuals who don't ever take the time to listen to their stories and see them as people."

There is an unexpected moment about halfway through the film: A female student sits down with Viland, something that occurs frequently throughout the principal's day, and in the documentary. But after witnessing meeting after meeting about students falling behind and needing to apply themselves, the conversation with this student takes a different turn. As she is being told how well she is doing, and how close she is to graduating, she bursts into tears. She confides to Viland that she does not actually want to leave high school. With her confession, a realization hits: For all of their academic obstacles and economic limitations, the students of Black Rock High have something that is difficult to find in the world, let alone within the halls of public education: a sense of community. Far from wanting to distance herself from high school, graduation for this student means leaving behind the familiarity and comfort of her fellow students.

"And that scene," says Pepe, "was when we realized, 'Oh, we don't know anything about this world.' This tiny moment made us recognize that we didn't struggle against anything in our own educational experiences; that was our window into the process. It was the thing we always went back to, to remind us why we were making the film, and what made this place different from every other high school you've ever seen in a film."

Jennifer Coffield in 'The Bad Kids'. Photo: Low Key Pictures. Courtesy of FilmRise.

There is a discernible difference between sympathy and empathy, and this difference is keenly felt within The Bad Kids. For Fulton and Pepe, it is what drew them initially to the school; it is the glue that holds these kids together.

Viland is a straight shooter. She says on the film's website, "I am not going to lie to you: It is not always easy. There will be times when students will feel like giving up, and that is why the Black Rock staff is here. We have put together the best group of teachers to motivate, encourage and guide students."

"She had a tough childhood," says Fulton. "She identifies with these kids very powerfully, and you can sense her commitment, and the way she hand-picks her faculty; she chooses the most empathetic people, which is what you need to work with a fairly traumatized student body."

Decades before entering the doorways of Black Rock, Pepe and Fulton met as graduate students at Temple University, where they worked on each other's films and studied with visiting documentarians like Ricky Leacock. "Our heroes were the triumvirate of Wiseman, the Maysles and Pennebaker," Pepe recalls. "We were constantly citing them when we were in film school, and then returning to look at them as we were making The Bad Kids. Of course, we immediately went and watched Wiseman's High School again. We watched Salesman. We talked a lot about how those filmmakers embedded themselves in a situation, how they interacted with their subjects, and the kind of relationships they built with them. They were very much the models [for this film]."

Even though The Bad Kids would seem to have a very specific, education-based audience, interest in the film is proving to be more expansive. "During a lot of the festival runs that we've done," says Pepe, "we find that it really connects with young people."

Fulton adds, "It's appealing to a broader audience that is getting to see the movie because it is so deeply emotional. A lot of people say it feels like a fiction movie, and we're very proud of that aspect of the film. It's very much a vérité experience."

Fulton and Pepe first discovered Black Rock while working on commissions for the Teaching Channel, a Gates Foundation startup. Even though it was not a fit for that project, the experience stuck with them. As Fulton explains, "We told the guy who was running this, John Richmond, 'Look, we really want to go into schools that are considered tough schools, schools that are getting labeled as failing schools.' It became something of a political agenda for us because there's a tremendous amount of excellent teaching in public schools, but the problem is that so many of them are faced with having to serve student bodies that they just can't help. These are the kinds of [students] that go to Black Rock High School; kids who don't have conventional families, kids who were homeless, kids who don't have the kind of support that allows them to succeed at school. We were looking for difficult circumstances where excellent teaching was going on, and Black Rock was really interesting to us because it had a reputation. It was a place where the bad kids supposedly went, and the second we stepped into that school, we saw this incredibly warm, supportive environment where there was a tremendous camaraderie among the kids, and we're thinking, 'These are the bad kids? What's going on here?' And we quickly fell in love with the place."

"When we set out to make the documentary, it was just the two of us," explains Pepe. "No one knew what we were doing. We just went and filmed, and after we came back in June of 2014, we got a call from Caroline Libresco [Senior Programmer and Director of Special Programs at Sundance Film Festival]; she asked, 'Aren't you guys in the middle of working on something?' And we said yes. Turns out she runs the Catalyst Program at the Sundance Institute, which pairs filmmakers in need of financing with creative investors. And we ended up getting into the program, and that was really the unveiling of the project. Catalyst was amazing because we got a lot of very passionate investors and donors who wanted to support what we had been doing."

"We also had the Filmmaker's Fund, which contributed quite a bit of money, [as well as] Sundance's Documentary Fund and [IDA's] Pare Lorentz Grant, which we applied for twice, and managed to get the second time around," says Fulton. "All of these organizations—IDA, Sundance, Film Independent—were incredibly supportive because we were already running the race. There was a kind of momentum, and this was something we learned from [filmmaker] Terry Gilliam. He says, 'Filmmaking is about belief and momentum.' And because Keith and I really just went out there and started making the film, there was a lot of momentum that came from that."

The Bad Kids, which was also a project in IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, was released theatrically through FilmRise in Los Angeles on December 16, and it opens in New York on December 23, with other cities to follow. The films airs March 20 on Independent Lens and will be streaming shortly thereafter on Netflix. The film will also be screened at 75 different community screenings across the country through Independent Lens' Indie Lens Pop-Up Series.

Tom Gianakopoulos is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer.