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August 13, 2007

Ready for Their Brooklyn Close-Up

826NYC and BAM team up to give some (very) young filmmakers their night in the sun

Perhaps the oddest "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" photo ever: Young filmmakers at work (Photo: 826NYC)

I'll admit at the outset that there was very little chance of the following being anything but a love letter. But how lucky it is, and how rare, when biased attention and unbiased intention yield the same, impressive dividends; it's like finding out the nerdy kid you pined for from behind your juice box and a veil of furious, fourth-grade derision grew up to win the Nobel prize and start his own country.

826NYC, the Brooklyn-based, nonprofit writing center for local students (one of a growing number in major cities across the country), is actually a whole crew of those nerdy kids -- and please note that the usage here indicates what every former nerd means when they use that word: talented, motivated, creative, devastatingly attractive -- along with an unsinkable staff of directors and educators and a flotilla of volunteers. And this week my crush will be vindicated for the umpteenth time as BAM's Brooklyn Close-Up series hosts a free screening of short films from the 826 summer filmmaking lab.

In addition to its popular drop-in after-school tutoring and writing workshops throughout the school year, 826NYC has offered labs in disciplines including young-adult novel writing, animation and filmmaking. The BAM event features work produced in 2006 and 2007 by participants ranging in age from 10 to 14, revealing some of the remarkably accomplished, sharply funny and occasionally disturbing things the children of Brooklyn can do with a bullhorn, a boom mike, and a little encouragement.

I recently visited 826 headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to meet with education associate Anthony Mascorro, a facilitator (along with executive director Scott Seeley) for one of the two films being produced by the lab this summer. Full disclosure: I have spent time as both a tutor and an editor for a summer young adult writing lab behind the trick bookcase that separates the Superhero Supply Store from the work space in the back. But I had never seen it look quite like this: One of this summer's films (a sci-fi short) was still in production, with half of one wall covered by what looked like ominously barren rock formations and sparse foliage giving way to a backdrop of green screen.

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The majority of the equipment marshaled for the lab, including four mini-DV cameras, clip lamps and boom mikes, is donated (as are most of 826's resources), and the two groups of six students each are encouraged to get hands-on experience at every stage of the filmmaking process. In some cases this can be something of a rude awakening -- or yawning. "It's more tedious than they think it is," Mascorro told me. "The first lesson the kids learn on the first day of shooting is that they can't just set up a shot and shoot it -- there is too much going on for it to happen quickly."

Before shooting, of course, comes the Big Idea. The best way to narrow the field of subject matter, Mascorro noted, is to introduce the kids to the concept of genre, which most every kid will recognize even if they've never heard it named as such. This summer, one pocket auteur stunned his group by citing The Maltese Falcon as a prime example of film noir (the genre chosen for the second film), and the others agreed that it was de rigeur to shoot their noir in black and white. The chosen genre gives other structural guidelines to work within, and screenwriting, storyboarding, shooting (often around the store's Brooklyn neighborhood), acting, scoring and editing take place collaboratively over 10 summer sessions. "It sounds corny," Mascorro said. "But they're really good -- the stuff they come up with is great, and they're good actors in addition to being nice kids."

To wit, I took in a private screening of two of last year's productions, both of which will screen at BAM (the program comprises four shorts, two animations, one claymation and two music videos). First up: The Adventures of Buddy and Fry, a wry, jolting short animation involving a French fry with a beret and a pencil moustache, a fork with piercing, angry eyes, some vague Moby Dick allusions, a romantic ending and a very funky soundtrack. Death is Calling, a short horror film that hits most of the genre's sweet (and creepy) spots, is also indicative of what Mascorro notes is a definite slant toward the dark side (SPOILER ALERT: As with a couple of these shorts, everybody dies in the end.) "We don't want to censor," he said, "but there have been a couple times when we've had to draw the line. If there's going to be violence, we try and go for the silliness in the violence."

Death is Calling owes part of its impressive, professional look to Mascorro's input; he has studied cinematography, and brings more than a passing interest in filmmaking to the lab. "It's usually more interesting for the kids when we are interested in it too," he said. "The two things we aim for are to give them something that is theirs and that they can feel ownership over, but also an experience that they wouldn't be able to have on their own."

In other words, try to imagine your fifth-grade speech, or the collected works of your acrostic poems, or your science fair reproduction of Mount St. Helens -- or your short film about death and destruction and the end of the world -- being rewarded with the attention it deserved in your community. And then try to imagine not heading down to BAM for an evening of inspired and inspiring films from the hardest working kids on Fifth Avenue.



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