Reel Joy, a local short film festival, featured films made by inner city kids. The films took on the theme of "becoming a young hero."
On a Wednesday evening in early March, the Flagship Theater near the University of Southern California was unusually crowded. Though there were no posters announcing a blockbuster screening – or even a free movie screening – dozens of people waited patiently to get in. A sheet of white paper taped to the entrance simply said “Reel Joy screening tonight at 7 p.m.”
Inside, the theater was bustling with teenagers. Dressed in T-shirts, hoodies and canvas shoes, they sat giggling and talking excitedly. Some were in groups, while others were accompanied by their families. For most teens in that group, it was the first time they were going to see themselves on video – and on the big screen.
As part of a youth group called Redeemer Community Partnership, an evangelical faith-based community development group, the teens had spent February working on four films, each 5-6 minutes long, related to topics from their life. This year’s theme was "becoming a young hero," and tonight was the first public screening of their work.
Youth pastor Elliot Ling bustled around, trying to coax people from Church of the Redeemer to give up their seats so that parents of the teens could be accommodated inside the theater. “We will have a repeat screening later this week, where you will get first preference,” he said, acknowledging that the turnout of about 300 people was much larger than he expected.
Redeemer Community Partnership and Streetlamp Studios, a nonprofit theater company, have been organizing Reel Joy for the past three years. Its mission is to teach art and drama to inner city children, especially those between 6th and 12th grade, in the area between Adams and King, and between Vermont and Western.
While Ling and his group stress the importance of faith and following the teachings of the Bible, filmmakers from Streetlamp teach the children to express their creative side. “We want to encourage the youth to believe in themselves, dream big and make a difference to the society around them,” said Ling.
Anna Klein from Streetlamp Studios said her group wanted to invest in the people, especially the kids in the neighborhood. “There’s a lack of theater or artistic opportunities because of budget cuts in the education program, and we wanted to fill that void in this neighborhood,” she said.
Ling said a lot of the children in the group share a common background. Some come from single-parent homes – other parents are either too busy to spend time with their children or are financially unstable.
Damion Horsley, 17, was among the 30 children who participated in the project this year. Horsley said he grew up without a father, in projects in Watts and South Central Los Angeles. “This exercise taught me you don’t need superpowers to be a hero ... all you need is courage and faith and strength,” he said.
Horsley has been taking part in Reel Joy for the past three years and said the project has taught him to be more patient. “I don’t have an attitude no more, and I don’t cuss. I focus better in school.”
Brainstorming for ideas for the project began in February. The filmmakers gave the children a bare-bone outline of a script, and helped them fill in the details. “A lot of times they wrote about their own lives,” said Ling. Which is why the plots of the films revolve around skateboarding, school bullies and single mothers.
In one film the oldest sister of the family tries to take care of her young siblings. In another, a girl teaches her friend to stand up to a bully; in yet another, a boy who gets picked on in school because he is a nerd acquires mind-reading powers and helps keep other kids from getting picked on.
Through the month that they worked together, the group faced some challenges. Some were logistical, like coordinating rides and snacks for the children. Others were related directly to the project – like when multiple children clamored to play the lead role.
Ling said that the South L.A. kids can have a territorial attitude. “In the past we’ve had name calling, punches thrown ... we had fights because everyone is taught to act like they have a reputation to protect,” said Ling. “The challenge is to get kids of different genders, races and neighborhoods to bond and get over some of the differences.”
The rough neighborhood also meant Ling and members of Streetlamp had to handle the children with a lot of sensitivity. “You never know what’s happening with a kid on a particular day. They might come in with an attitude even though the rest of the week they are really sweet,” said Ling. “Maybe somebody’s sister went to jail that day." Ling added that it's hard to know what's going on, but what's needed is patience.
Like Horsley, Justin Wiley, 19, has been participating in Reel Joy for the past three years. In the previous years, being in front of the camera helped him get over his stage fright. This year he decided to work behind the camera, helping direct one of the movies. “I didn’t want to take the spotlight for myself,” he said.
Wiley said he used to be a poor student in school, disobey his parents and do the opposite of what he was told. But being in the youth group and participating in its projects helped him change. “This year I got straight A's. Just looking back, I feel the way I acted was not good,” he said.
Back in the theater, as the lights dimmed and the first frame of a movie jumped into focus, the audience erupted in cheers. “Oh my God, I am a movie star,” someone whispered excitedly in the darkness.