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The Ghetto Film School

Since its inception in the summer of 2000, the Bronx-based Ghetto Film School has provided an education in the art of moviemaking to underprivileged high school students. Featuring a rapid-fire, nine-week program that provides students with the skills necessary to make their own films, the Ghetto Film School emphasizes a hands-on approach to moviemaking and a rock-solid belief in the storytelling abilities of its students.

MM spoke with the Ghetto Film School’s president, Joe Hall, about the organization’s history, philosophy and plans for the future.

Saul Austerlitz (MM): How did this project get started?

Joe Hall (JH): In 2000, I’d returned to New York from a year at USC Film School. Previously, I had been a social worker, based in the Bronx since 1989. I really wanted to start an organization that would help young people get into the film industry, or get into a place like USC or NYU—really good film schools. Because when I was at USC I found that it was not really a diverse student body, at least in the grad program. And I thought that part of the way to address that problem was to expose people on a neighborhood level to cinema—how to make films, the study of films. So my friends and I set up a nonprofit and we went from there.

MM: How would you describe the Ghetto Film School’s mission?

JH: It’s really just to train people that want to learn how to make films and videos. We do that in three ways: We have a high school, we have a summer fellows program (with intensive training) and then we have a student-run business called Digital Bodega. So our mission is really to expand access to the industry and the world of cinema, and we keep it really focused on that. We’re not a youth program that sees moviemaking or videos as a prevention of drug use or a prevention of violence. It’s very much an arts organization—nothing more and, hopefully, nothing less.

MM: What are the methods your school’s instructors use in teaching the students about film?

JH: I would say the overarching pedagogy is something called “assets-based development.” Assets-based development is saying your interaction with the student should really be to approach them as having knowledge and experience that is already useful in the creative process. Today what you have is most of the interaction with these young kids from the Bronx and Harlem has been the deficit approach—most of the programs set up for them in the city are really looking at them as a potential problem to solve.

Our approach is saying that from their experience they have something that’s useful for creative endeavors, so we never dictate the content of what they do. They can write whatever story they want. We have some basic guidelines, but the approach overall is saying from day one that you’re a filmmaker, and we’re here as a resource.

The very first day people take cameras home to practice with them, but we don’t ask them to sign out anything, which is very different from their experience in high school, where they’re walking through a metal detector. When you form a relationship with young people, using an assets-based approach, you get a lot more done in a much quicker amount of time. Because we’re only with them for nine weeks, people find it hard to believe that they can write a script, storyboard, do shot charts, cast actors, shoot and edit everything all themselves, with no prior experience. Again, I think that’s due to the assets-based approach—you’re celebrating them.

MM: Have students from past summers continued on as moviemakers?

JH: Since we started in 2000 we still have that crew in college. Some of them are in NYU Film, some in Brooklyn College. We get a lot of them into internships—they’ve been in everything like MTV, VH1, Lee Daniels Entertainment. So some of the past students are doing that and some of them don’t go on to do any filmmaking, which is fine. That’s not really my barometer; our barometer is the quality of the projects they make.

We’re not measuring self-esteem or these less tangible achievements. But I do suspect that in a couple of years we will see some of that original group working in film or video companies. A couple of our students are going to be given apprenticeships on the new Jim Jarmusch film. That’s the other thing we do—we try to get a lot of working professionals to come in and talk to the kids. We’ve had Jarmusch, Peter Sollett, Bryan Buckley. Editors, actors, sound designers—people coming in and talking to them about their thing.

For more information on the Ghetto Film School, visit http://www.ghettofilm.org.

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