March 5, 2004

Teen Producers Put It On the Big Screen

By Raymond R. Beltrán

Ethan Van Thillo wears many hats in San Diego’s active media communities, one of which is co-founder of the San Diego Latino Film Festival beginning next week. In sifting through hundreds of film submissions each year, he began to recognize “great projects” coming from youth in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, leading him to ask, “Why not locally?” In answering his question through action, he and a staff of media arts educators organized and created the Teen Producers Project.

“It’s not to make the next Spielberg, although that would be nice, or to make it to Hollywood,” says Van Thillo, executive director for the MACSD (Media Arts Center San Diego). “It’s getting at-risk youth interested in education, and video does that easily.”

Teen Producers, Stephanie (with camera) and Blanca Romero, have recently produced a short documentary, Donde Yo Viví, about the affects of gentrification in the Sherman Heights community due to the new Petco Park. Photo by R. R. Beltrán.

The Teen Producers Project is a program geared toward teaching at-risk youth how to operate film equipment in order for them to creatively tell the Latino stories that are usually glossed over by mainstream media. This project that has been adopted by many low-income housing complexes in San Diego, such as Southeast San Diego’s John Adams Manor, Barrio Logan’s Mercado Apartments and the Laurel Tree Apartments in Carlsbad, has produced a variety of short films and documentaries. Currently, they’re in the process of being turned into television shows in a public access series called ¡Tu Voz!.

The fundamental $9,500 needed for camera equipment came from the San Diego Foundation. With the funds to begin the Teen Producers Project, the MACSD began to subcontract their program to the MAAC Project as well as housing projects, mentioned above, in order to reach a particular group of teens. In their three years of existence, the classes have not yet made it to the status of a required curriculum in high schools, but they’ve become a popular after school project, where Van Thillo says they’ve had up to 300 students from Orange County to San Ysidro at one time.

“I wanted to get to youth that don’t have the opportunity to express their views, to participate in democracy by exploring issues, like gentrification and foster care, through media,” says Van Thillo. Much of what he’s seen in film festival submissions, as far as teen film producing, has come from a fortunate class of youth. He says they’re still good films, but they lack alternative content that could make for more accurate and real depictions of people sprouting from Latino community issues.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival recently adopted the Teen Producers Project’s films for a half hour segment. Among the films are stories about alienation, religion and war, one of which, Markus Haynes’s Street Knowledge, is documented through rapping and hip-hop music. One documentary that is receiving much attention from barrio residents is Donde Yo Viví, directed by two sisters from Sherman Heights, Blanca and Stephanie Romero.

The story reflects the process of gentrification and is set in the context of the family unit. The approximate twelve-minute film explores the community and familial affects of Petco Park in Downtown San Diego and how gentrification has financially displaced many Sherman Heights residents from their homes.

“We knew of all these people getting kicked out of their homes because the ballpark started getting built, and a lot of houses were getting torn down and remodeled,” says 16-year-old former Sherman Heights resident, Stephanie Romero. “Prices started getting higher, and we were scared it was going to happen to us.”

Having to move to the Mercado Apartments across from Chicano Park, the Romero sisters became involved in DURO (Developing Unity through Resident Organizing) and also peeked an interest in the Teen Producers Project, which was available to them through their new residency.

The documentary is as independent as they come, and their aren’t any stars playing the lead role, but aside from that, its greatness comes from the fruition of a silenced community making it to the big screen and it having been made by barrio teenagers struggling to deal with the influx of an outside force.

Only after their instructor, Sebastian Hernandez, began to shop the film around were the two young women starting to recognize the social weight of their project.

“It forces the students to look at themselves in the mirror,” says Ricardo Favela, Teen Producers Project instructor. “There’s historical stories, heroic stories, about leaving your homeland to find a better life. That’s what’s unique about our communities, there’s eventually a common thread.”

Favela, who works with North County students living in migrant communities, has been an instructor for two years and perceives the migrant experience as a common denominator in the Latino culture, a subject that dominates his media-teaching curriculum. He assigns his students to form a production crew amongst themselves, then, they have to compare and document their own family incidents in search of a topic worthy enough to make a documentary or short film.

The outcome of these assignments were films like La Donacíon de la Ambulancia (directed by Oscar Lita, Maria Araujo, Mora Azucena, Alvaro Vidaña and Julio Lopez), which recognizes the accomplishment of North County residents’ struggle to have their town donate an ambulance to Puebla, México. Another film is Puri and Mariluz Sanchez’s narrated documentary, Un Soldado Mexicano, about the story of U.S. Marine Jesus Suarez who was killed in Iraq. Un Soldado is narrated by Jesus’ father, Fernando Suarez del Solar.

Teen Producers Project films will be part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival’s segment titled after the soon-to-be television series ¡Tu Voz! They will begin viewing on Wednesday, March 17th at Madstone Theaters (7510 Hazard Center Drive). A free student screening will be held at 10 a.m. the same day.

“Our community is mostly Mexicano, so, not everybody here has the resources to start something like this, and to know what is needed to get it started,” says Blanca Romero, teen co-producer of Donde Yo Viví. “I think it’s pretty cool that we decided to try it out, because all this wouldn’t have happened, so, I just wish more youth would try it out also.”

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