When it was Ashley Perez's turn to play director, she got straight to the point.
"You," she told her actor. "Look sad."
"And you. You're going to look dead. Like really, really dead."
So began the 14-year-old's first attempt at the art of filmmaking.
She and 24 other students make up the first class of Los Angeles' Ghetto Film School, a project that gives youths from disadvantaged areas a chance to explore careers in the movie and television industries.
Over 30 months, the teenagers from Compton, South L.A. and other neighborhoods will learn about storytelling, shooting and film editing. They will create a six-minute movie, enroll in college courses (while living on a college campus during the summer), complete an internship and travel abroad to shoot a film.
"These are sharp kids who may not have film school on their radar," said Joe Hall, Ghetto Film School's president. "We want to legitimize the idea and give them a viable path to a creative career."
A former social worker, Hall launched the nonprofit, not-for-credit school in 2000 out of a small storefront in the South Bronx. He was motivated in part, he said, by his experience while attending film school at USC — where he saw a lack of minorities and their perspectives.
He called the endeavor "Ghetto" to turn the stereotype on its head and give students without connections "a rich kid's experience."
Students regularly get visits from A-list directors such as David O. Russell ("American Hustle," "Three Kings") and Lee Daniels ("The Butler," "Precious"), who also are on the school's board of directors. Previous classes have spent time in Paris, Kiev, Mexico City, South Africa and Rio de Janeiro.
The programs include a New York-based film high school and Digital Bodega, a production company that gives work to alumni and pumps money back into Ghetto Film School.
The L.A. version of the program launched this month. It is housed near MacArthur Park, inside a building run by the Heart of Los Angeles, a community youth outreach program.
On a recent Thursday, students worked on their short films, which have sound but no dialogue. The 10 best works (selected by the students) will be featured in a public showing in the fall.
Perez, a freshman from Mid-City, held a big still camera up to her face and took shots for the assignment of the day: a photo collage. She said she had never thought of filmmaking as a career, but that it made sense.
"I'm good at art, I can sing, I can write, and I'm good at telling people what to do," she said. "I think it'll be great to put all my talents into movie productions."
Her six-minute piece will tell the story of a young girl who, Perez said, tragically loses her parents but finds the courage to save herself.
Some of the tales are violent. Others are scary, romantic, a bit nerdy too.
Instructor Alvy Johnson, a graduate of the school who is looking to break into screenwriting, said she makes it a point to never tell a student what to write.
"The whole idea is to diversify the industry with fresh stories," she said. "These students already have ideas that are wild, strong and original."
Carlos Galvez, a 15-year-old from MacArthur Park, is bringing to life a talented young soccer player who is too afraid to kick the ball into the net.
Krista Gay, a 16-year-old from Mid-City, wants to tell about a rejected monster who finally finds acceptance from a small boy.
Some of the budding filmmakers, such as Francis Arana, drew their ideas from personal experience.
The 17-year-old from Boyle Heights loves the horror genre. Her family, she said, hosts horror movie nights. And her grandmother used to practice black magic.
Arana would like to tell the story of two star-crossed demons whose love affair begins at an orphanage.
"It has to be really scary," Arana said. "I can't wait to see the look on people's faces when they see it."
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