When you think of American film-making, chances are you think of Hollywood, but there's movie making going on all across the United States, by all sorts of movie makers. In Philadelphia, for example, you'll find an award-winning production company made up of teenagers.
It is a cold and rainy afternoon in Philadelphia. In a converted office on the 16th floor of a highrise building, a group of young actors and actresses is gathered around a table rehearsing their lines.
"You stupid broads," recites one young actor. "No, don't say that," says another.
These teens are students at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia. They are learning the art of filmmaking while earning credit towards their high school diplomas. It's part of an unusual after-school program called the Big Picture Alliance. The non-profit consortium of filmmakers, teachers and community groups sees the creative outlet of filmmaking as an antidote to the hopelessness that often plagues teens living in poor inner-city neighborhoods.
The Big Picture Alliance began as a small picture: a 1994 documentary about violence in Philadelphia. Community activist Jeffrey Seder had recruited an old friend, veteran Hollywood actor Jared Martin, to help produce the film. Mr. Seder says being on location in North Philadelphia inspired the idea that turned into "the Big Picture Alliance."
"We had the crew there and we were mobbed with teenagers," Mr. Seder recalls. "And some of them were just interested, some of them were trying to get in the picture. I realized you know everybody wants to reach these teens. If I put up a casting sheet, they are going to sign up. I talked to the crew and we put up a casting sheet, said we need to do something at the rec[reation] center on the corner that weekend. And 10 teams signed up and we went and did it with them and that's how it started."
Seven years later, the Big Picture Alliance has produced more than 50 films. The student filmmakers have won awards at national and international film festivals. La Broma, a film made by a group of Hispanic teens in Spanish with English subtitles, won the silver plaque at the 1998 Chicago International Children's Film Festival. The teens, mostly African-American, Asian and Latino, come from low income families. They're referred to the Big Picture Alliance by teachers, counselors and community leaders.
Jared Martin, best known for his character, Dusty, on the popular 1980s night-time soap opera, Dallas, now spends his days producing the students' pictures. He acknowledges that working with troubled teens is quite a change from his Hollywood days, but he says the kids have helped him as much as he helps them.
"Sometimes I will come into the office and it's a grim day, a Philadelphia winter," he says, "and you go out and you hang out with a group of kids and they are all excited about what they are doing and they show up on time and you absorb their energy and it turns you around and you go back and it makes you feel like you are 16 again."
Mr. Martin says that the best way to capture the kids' attention is by immersing them in a film project. He lets them gravitate toward their talent naturally instead of assigning duties arbitrarily. He says that benefits the students and the film. "They don't come up and say I want to be a gaffer or I want to do Chyron animation [computer-generated text on screen] because they don't know what those things are," he explains. "But we try to fill the table put as many opportunities and availabilities out there for them. They will select and they will nestle down and they'll take ownership for that particular part of the project."
These projects are definitely low budget. The students often shoot scenes right in their own homes, with family members recruited to be in the cast or play extras. The students do everything from writing the script, to running the cameras, to editing the final cut, but almost all of them say their favorite job is acting.
"I am acting a violent role today," explains Everett. "I am playing the role of Aviion who is Yanni's best friend," says Sharron. "I am playing Ayanna, the abused girlfriend," says Ivory. Ivory Morris, 17, is a junior at Dobbins High School who has been in the Big Picture Alliance for two years. She has made three films. Besides acting in the lead role in this movie, Ivory wrote the script and is also the assistant producer.
"The scene we are about to do is about the climax of the movie," she explains. "The abusive boyfriend hits her for the last time. Then she calls her best friend to come help her leave and it's a big conflict because the boyfriend arrives when they are leaving and he doesn't want her to leave, so it's a big confrontation."
Many of the films made at the Big Picture Alliance focus on issues uppermost in the kids' lives - gangs, drugs, violence and pregnancy. But Jared Martin encourages the students to branch out by exploring other types of stories like science fiction or comedy. He also encourages the young filmmakers to explore opportunities beyond the after-school program. With the help of the Alliance, graduates have gotten scholarships to college and some even got lucky enough to land a job in Hollywood.
Ronald Johnson will graduate from Dobbins High School in June. He says his four years with the Big Picture Alliance gave him experience and direction. "I do mostly everything," he says. "I acted in eight movies. I do tech most of the time. I'm going to college in the summer for acting."
The goal of the Big Picture Alliance founders is not necessarily to see the students become filmmakers. Rather, Jared Martin says he wants them to realize the benefits of being creative - no matter what path they choose to follow. "Whatever they are going to do, they are going to need imagination just to round themselves out as people," he said. "So we are working the imagination aspect of this. They work it as a muscle. We are trying to articulate it. And tell them in any kind of given situation, 'Use your mind. Use your imagination. Be inventive.'"
He likens filmmaking to sailing a very big ship. "There are a lot of sails to be raised, a lot of oars to be pulled. Things to be done on this ship to keep it going," Mr. Martin says. "That's what makes it a very good teaching tool for kids because they can all climb on board and there is a place for them."
Photos courtesy of the Big Picture Alliance.