Storytelling, Ghetto Film School-Style In a converted former piano factory overlooking the East River in the Bronx, kids learn top-notch film school techniques — and don't pay a cent for the experience. It's the Ghetto Film School, and its mission is to teach the art of narrative storytelling to kids from New York City.
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Storytelling, Ghetto Film School-Style

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Storytelling, Ghetto Film School-Style

Storytelling, Ghetto Film School-Style

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Let's drop in on some particularly edgy filmmakers now. They won't be up for Oscars tonight, but they've only got a few more weeks before their big premier.

Ms. NEA FIELDS: (Editor, "Live, Joseph"): (Unintelligible) And when he buys his suit and his motorcycle, that's definitely going to have to have music because…

LYDEN: They're teenagers about to graduate from the Ghetto Film School in the South Bronx. They shot their live-action short, "Live, Joseph" on location in Uganda last summer.

Okay, it's not opening at a theater near you unless you live in Lower Manhattan. And come to think of it, even if you do, its screening next month is a one-night-only affair, no breaking the rope line. But we can still eavesdrop on its creation because right now, the filmmakers are racing the clock to get it done.

Ms. ALMA OSARIO (Student Director, "Live, Joseph"): And as far as, like, the type of music, we definitely want to keep it ethnic. So, things in the nature of, like, African drum beats or like, mostly like percussion sort of things would go with that so that it stays in the theme of Africa.

LYDEN: Alma Osario and Nea Fields are the student filmmakers. They're working on their original music score in lofty, Lower Manhattan editing suite. But their film is set a world away, and they're talking to a real film composer, Gil Talmi.

Mr. GIL TALMI (Film Composer): Well, I think you're on to a lot here. I mean, I think it's very important to respect the cultures. And certainly, if we put a Viennese Waltz in there, that would be strange. But having said that, I want to throw this on the table. It's also important to allow a story to become more universal than just its location.

ECKELS: Student director Alma Osario explains that the plot of "Live, Joseph" is kind of a stand-in for their own filmmaking experience, carpe diem.

Ms. OSARIO: "Live, Joseph" is about a man who is not happy with his life, and one day he gets bitten by a snake that everyone knows that once you get bitten by that snake, you die in 24 hours. So what he decides to do is do different things that he never did in his life before in those last 24 hours that he has to live.

(Soundbite of film, "Live, Joseph")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Joseph) I don't love you. I never have. I always wanted to marry Mila(ph), and the only one good thing that could come out of this is that this marriage is over.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) You are a miserable man, Joseph.

ECKELS: The Ghetto Film School is exactly where Joe Hall thought it would be when he founded it nine years ago. Before that, Hall was a social worker in the Bronx for almost a decade. In 1999, he wanted to take what he'd learned there to film school at the University of Southern California.

Mr. JOE HALL (Founder, The Ghetto Film School): The Bronx was coming back. It's an amazing story that still hasn't been told. And I also knew that people's idea of the Bronx is pretty much "Fort Apache, The Bronx." It was a really awful film that tells a story that, to this day, really hasn't been repudiated by anything else.

(Soundbite of film, "Fort Apache, The Bronx")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) You all just take a look (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of gunshot)

LYDEN: That film was made in 1981. Two decades later, when Joe Hall got out of film school, he didn't become a filmmaker, but he gained a filmmaker's sensibility.

He brought the tools he got at USC back east to start a film school in the Bronx.

Mr. HALL: Ghetto Film School was founded as this middle broker organization that was going to connect disparate communities, different ghettos, right? There's the Hollywood ghetto, there's South Bronx, what have you.

LYDEN: And when he sat down with young people in the Bronx, they knew just what they wanted and didn't want.

Mr. HALL: They didn't want another project that was going to treat them as at risk. And then, someone said, yeah, it's not like we want a ghetto film school. And everyone laughed, and I thought that it was a very interesting name because no one ever forgets the name, and it is provocative. It makes people ask the question. If someone's going to move beyond YouTube, I think they're going to need to know how to connect the dots. And more than anything else, that's what our program is teaching them.

LYDEN: This film school meets for 15 months of after-school and summer sessions. It's also free for the students, underwritten by the City of New York and companies like JP Morgan Chase and Time Warner.

The Ghetto Film School students make narrative fiction films. They use industry grade equipment, and they learn the critical art of networking, boosted by support from top-flight directors like David O. Russell who made "Three Kings" and was Hall's first board member. And when the students shoot their annual thesis film, they do it in a foreign country on a budget of just under $100,000. Last summer, they went to Uganda. That was a real challenge for student cinematographer George Velez.

Mr. GEORGE VELEZ (Student Cinematographer, Ghetto Film School): It looked like it was going to rain. Then the next minute, the sun would come out, and it would be like such an unforgiving sun. The lighting needs to remain consistent. You know, you can't have a cloudy day and then have it sunny in the same scene because, you know, for continuity and the scene doesn't flow as easily.

LYDEN: Founder Joe Hall is insistent that the program be judged on the quality of the film not on the quality of the students' relative experience. Hall says that for a young director, not every choice is about a shot or a cut.

Mr. HALL: The young woman who was 15 at the time in crewing the project that went to Uganda did not select her best friend in the group. And I thought that was pretty amazing at that age to be able to think here's our friendship, but I also need the very best group that I can put together to go to Africa and make a film.

LYDEN: Alma Osario wants to make films with integrity, hopefully a word she'll still be able to use when she's a professional.

Ms. OSARIO: I think what makes a good story is when you're passionate about it because when you - if you care about a story a lot then that's when others will begin to care about it also. So, it just - it has to be something that means a lot to you, even if it's the weirdest thing. If you're passionate about it, then other people will learn to find it important also.

LYDEN: Each of the 20 or so class members writes a script for the annual project. Then, they get together and vote on the one they want to shoot. The winning writer chooses the director. Hey, in your dreams, Hollywood screenwriters.

The director chooses the crew. Editor Nea Fields knows exactly what she wants people to take away from "Live, Joseph."

Ms. FIELDS: I want people to actually kind of do stuff with their life after they watch the movie because some people just lay around the house and, you know, watch soaps and stuff like that, which isn't a problem. But like, you know, do stuff you always wanted to do. Go to trapeze class or something. Like, I know it's weird, but that's kind of been something I wanted to do, so…

LYDEN: In September, New York City and the Ghetto Film School will open a public high school in the Bronx devoted to filmmaking. It's going to be called the Cinema School. Most of these kids in the Ghetto Film School want to go on to college at Hall's alma mater, USC. Cinematographer George Velez turned 17 today, Oscar day. Sometimes he feels like pinching himself.

Mr. VELEZ: If you would have told me this when, you know, when I was like 12, you're going to shoot a movie in Uganda when you're 16, I'd say you're crazy.

LYDEN: And tonight, the Academy Awards? You know, these kids sound like Indie filmmakers already.

Mr. VELEZ: Oscars is more kind of shady sometimes. If you're a filmmaker, at least it's not now, somewhere down the line, you kind of want one or you would like to get one one day. I'm not sure, like, why some stuff gets chosen. I think that's just my taste, though.

Ms. OSARIO: I don't really like award shows very much because I don't feel like, you know, someone's success should be measured by, like, what award they got. My goal in the future with film isn't necessarily to be the most popular or the one with the most money. If you did a good project, then you feel comfortable with it, and that's what makes you successful.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That means everybody wins, right? Not like the Oscars. "Live, Joseph" screens on March 27 at Red Bull Space in Manhattan. To watch a clip from last year's Ghetto Film School thesis project, "Et Alors, Charlotte," visit

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