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Queens Chronicle

Teaching life skills from behind the lens

Parks Foundation documentary film program for inner-city youth

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Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:42 am, Thu May 30, 2013.

A group of young men sit in front of Mac computers, clicking through YouTube videos and clacking away at their keyboards. They are young. Most are between 17 and 19 years old and attend alternative schools at night where students who struggle at regular schools, either for academic or disciplinary reasons, can learn at their own pace.

But at the Lost Battalion Hall in Rego Park, these teenagers trade in their pens and pencils for a camera and boom mike.

Youth Made Media, funded by the City Parks Foundation, is a technology initiative that provides state-of-the-art production and technology training for high school- and middle school aged youth citywide.

“Over 60 percent come in here not knowing what they want to do with their lives but when they leave, they move on to college or at least community college,” multimedia instructor for YM2 Shawn Smith said.

In all, there are five facilities across the city that offer a YM2 program, or internship, as they call it. Students who are interested apply to the program and once they are accepted, they fill out time sheets that will count toward community service and add to their resume.

Smith, who has been with the program since its conception five years ago, is from Manhattan and splits his time working for YM2 at the Rego Park facility and one on the Lower East Side.

“This is embarrassing to say but I always wanted to work with Steven Spielberg but clearly that never happened,” he said while clicking through files of past students’ work.

While he hasn’t found work with Spielberg, Smith said the YM2 program has brought a level of enjoyment and inspiration that he had not gotten at any of his past jobs.

“I actually found a passion in helping youth find their voice because many of them, especially the ones in the alternative programs, are in that awkward phase,” he said. “They’re trying to get themselves through school, get situated in life, and they’re trying to go somewhere. This program gives them that voice where they’re able to be themselves, learn, produce and be able to do that without being under the umbrella of restrictions like they are under when they’re in school. When you let them do what they like, I found that they actually flourish. I’ve seen students come in here who have no interest, start being productive and start doing their school work.”

Students like Evan Jackson, a Rosedale resident who attends an alternative school, Downtown Brooklyn Young Adult Borough Center, at night, whose main passion is music, is working on a film about lucid dreaming — the ability to control what happens in a person’s own dreams. Jackson said he frequently suffers from sleep paralysis, which sparked the idea.

“One of my main ideas from the start was sleep paralysis, and that’s a main side effect of lucid dreaming,” Jackson said. “I knew what that was going into this because I experience it, and I’ve already done my own personal studies so I just revisited it for this project. I already knew people who went through it and I actually wanted to record it but I never had the means to.”

“I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to what topics they can cover,” Smith said. “I just don’t want to hear what the new rap video is, you know? I mean, if you want to show how Lil’ Wayne is not teaching society anything and is encouraging youth to be ignorant, then we can talk, but if you’re just going to say he’s a god and is going to save the world then I don’t want to see that.”

Smith pushes all his students to put their all into their projects.

On one hot Thursday afternoon, Jackson, who plays piano and guitar, was laying down an instrumental track for the opening of his film when his computer crashed. Since he had not saved it, all his work was lost.

“Evan, what are you doing?” Smith asked when he noticed Jackson looking up music on YouTube rather than working on his original material.

Jackson winced and told Smith that he didn’t want to have to create the song all over again and was just going to use a J. Cole song instead.

“I have told you all about this,” Smith said. “Do you think every time an actor messes up a line or an editor makes a mistake, they just quit?”

Jackson reluctantly opened the Garage Band music application and started over.

Daquan Herring, who has been working with YM2 since September, brought many of the teenagers into the program even though he himself is still in school.

“He’s become like, my super intern,” Smith said. “He does recruiting, he helps facilitate and helps the other interns feel welcome. If I could hire an assistant, it’d be him.”

Herring, 19, is from Brooklyn and is close friends with Jackson. He even centered his first film, which screened at the Reel Works festival at CW Post last month, on Jackson’s musical pursuits.

“My first project was called ‘Beyond the Block,’” Herring said. “It’s about two of my friends, Evan and Ricco, using their talents to overcome personal struggles that they were going through. Another film festival just emailed me about my film, actually. They said they like it a lot and weren’t sure it would be screened at the festival but they were going to help me get the copyrights for the music I used.”

“We do have a couple of success stories,” Smith said. “We had this one girl who was all over the place when it came to school. But then she got accepted to Columbia College in Chicago on a full scholarship to study filmmaking, and now she’s finishing up her freshman year with a 4.0 grade point average.”

But not all of the teens are looking to become filmmakers.

“I wouldn’t mind pursuing this but honestly, I’m just using it to gain more information,” Jackson said. “Regardless, I want to be in the entertainment industry, so any kind of information helps.”

Jackson, who said he’s putting out an album soon, is working on a public service announcement with Herring and two other students for the Parks Department that will be shown during movie nights at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“We want them to start off the program by reflecting inward and figuring out how they perceive the world around them, so the first assignment we give them is a self-portrait assignment where they answer questions about themselves,” Smith said.

Questions include “What does social change mean to you?” and “If I could change one thing about my environment, it would be …”

“We also ask them to describe Archie Bunker’s mentality,” Smith said. “It seems like a random question, especially since that show is so old, but really, Archie Bunker had such a negative mindset and saw the world in a negative way that having the students describe him can provide a lot of insight as to where they are mentally and how they perceive the world. These kids see people like Sway on MTV or these other idiots on YouTube acting like a thug. These kids have to understand that no matter what topic they’re approaching, they have to approach it as a professional.”

Next, Smith is hoping to incorporate graphic design into the core curriculum

“A lot of the kids are really interested in 3-D graphics and how to make them, so I’d like to do that,” he said. “Nothing’s finalized but it’s an idea.”

As the school year winds down and some of the students prepare for graduation — Herring is debating going to City Tech or Kingsborough Community College — each of the students will have an opportunity to show off their final projects at a screening that will take place at the recreation center, at 93-29 Queens Blvd. some time in June.

Welcome to the discussion.