Cine Joven Sin Fronteras

Teaching technology, telenovela, and how to straddle two countries and two cultures with a camera

(l-r) Diana Alemán, Alejandro Trejo, Melanie Alemán, and Omar Barrera at work at the Austin School of Film
(l-r) Diana Alemán, Alejandro Trejo, Melanie Alemán, and Omar Barrera at work at the Austin School of Film (Photo by John Anderson)

Lou Dobbs is not going to like this: The kids over at the Austin School of Film's Cine Joven ("Young Cinema") program are making their own telenovela from scratch, one that's based on their own teenage lives as the children from first- or second-generation Latino families, the bilingual, cross-cultural sons and daughters of both newly arrived immigrants and Mexican-American professional parents from every level of Austin's Latino community.

They are following the template laid down over the past 50 years by dozens of outrageously popular (and populist) Mexican and Latin American telenovelas and very much in the style of Televisa's wildly popular 1987 series Quinceañera, which followed the highly melodramatic lives of a group of young people as they came of age in a modern Mexico rife with illicit pleasures (the lure of the street) and the established traditions of family and home life. At the heart of that popular telenovela (currently running in syndication) is the titular quinceañera, the traditional celebration of a young girl's 15th birthday, a rite of passage that marks the journey from childhood to adulthood, and a cultural life marker that's echoed in, among many other culture-specific rituals, the Jewish bar and bat mitzvah and the debutante balls of the American South.

You know what else Lou Dobbs isn't likely to like? The telenovela that the kids have been working on every weekend for the past two months (the actual shoot began last weekend) is going to be in Spanish. With English subtitles. Which just goes to show, you can talk about building all the walls you want, metaphorically and otherwise, but the kids will always find ways around them, because the kids are all right, still.

Monica Santis, ASF's director of outreach and the director of Cine Joven for the past two years, knows telenovelas. But more importantly, she knows kids, she knows Austin's Latino community, and she can find the intersection of the two. The idea for the Cine Joven kids to make their own telenovela, all the way from concept to screen, was dreamed up by both her and ASF Education Director Anne Goetzmann Kelley.

First, though, a little background: Cine Joven was founded in 2004 by Goetzmann Kelley and former Cinemaker Co-op head/avant-Godardian-cum-UT film instructor Barna Kantor at San Juan Diego High School. In its earliest incarnation, it was a bold experiment in class- and culture-hopping, social-engineering outreach. Goetzmann Kelley and Kantor's reasoning was, essentially, if Austin's Hispanic youth was underrepresented at the Center for Young Cinema, then why not take the CYC – instructors, gear, and all – to the Hispanic youth? The plan worked enormously well and soon moved into the Motion Media Arts Center (located at the Downtown multimedia hub at Fifth and I-35). It was the perfect way to offer both younger kids and older teens from the potentially lower-income Latino, Mexican-American, and immigrant communities a way to find their own unique voices in a rapidly expanding global media-scape.

Austin's kids love movies and are uncannily good at making them, if given the right tools and instruction, and ASF offshoot the Center for Young Cinema proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt some years back. But while there are plenty of places a young person can explore the art and craft of filmmaking in Austin, they're not always cheap, nor have they ever been – in Austin, at least – specifically geared toward a Spanish-speaking (or, more commonly, Spanglish-speaking) teen demographic. To adapt to the economic realities outside its door, Cine Joven offers a sliding-scale-style fee payment system.

"Cine Joven is open to anyone age 14 to 19 and within the program," Santis explained. "We have the telenovela class, which we're doing for the first time this summer; we have the regular summer camps that start at the beginning of June and August; and then during the school year, we have classes that meet once a week for 10 weeks, where the kids make a five-minute short, which is then screened at the ASF's Loud & Clear Film Festival in the following March.

"We've been building the Cine Joven program for four years now, and it's still very much in development. We're still learning. We're trying to serve not just the Hispanic community but also the Spanish-speaking community as a whole and also those people who are connected to that culture. In essence, Cine Joven is trying to give a voice to young people without having them tell the usual immigrant-crossing-the-border narrative. Of course that's a pertinent theme, but we're really just experimenting and trying to discover what other genres kids will tap into."

Mexican filmmaking is enjoying a spectacularly vibrant resurgence these days – you need look no further than the holy trio of neo-Mexican cinema, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, the Hellboy series), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), to see it – but that cinematic rebirth is running counter to an increasingly hostile view of Latino immigrants emanating from El Norte's right-leaning pundits and politicos. It's a peculiar parallel, and it's happening smack dab in the middle of what's shaping up to be the most important election year the U.S. has ever known. You don't have to be a regular viewer of Lou Dobbs Tonight to feel the xenophobic currents eddying through the American airwaves, either. And while the Cine Joven program is viewed as an unqualified success by both its instructors and the kids themselves, that politicized miasma can pose a problem when it comes to recruiting new students and has even concerned some of the more recently Americanized parents of potential students, who fear that enrolling their creative-minded offspring in a film program that emphasizes a bilingual curriculum might not be the best route toward assimilation.

Santis: "Obviously, there is a debate about race and immigration going on throughout the country, as well as here in Austin. ... And, sure, there's also the whole idea of assimilation, which is a genuine concern to some people and can be a reason why people might shy away from possibly enrolling their kid in Cine Joven. It can feel as though it's taking a risk to expose your culture or experiences – that's often just scary in general – in the midst of the current charged political and social climate.

Monica Santis
Monica Santis (Photos by Todd V. Wolfson)

"The first question most parents had was, 'Is this a remedial course?' And no, it's not at all, but from the parents' point of view, with a lot of classes, when you arrive in public school and you don't speak perfect English, you get sent to what they consider to be a remedial class or something that feels like a remedial class, which to the kids and the parents is just as bad.

"And I always tell them," Santis continues, "that if anything, this is an advanced course not in spite [of] but because it is bilingual – the kids are creating projects using two different languages. Parents can also have a feeling of: 'Is this going to serve the kids at all in the future? Because we don't want to get their hopes up, and we don't want to waste their time.' And, you know, to paraphrase from one of the reality shows popular on TV right now, 'It's really hard to be creative if you don't have the means to do it.' With a lot of these kids, it's very hard to even find the time to be creative, because they go to school, and then they go to work, and that's it. There's not time for dilly-dallying or creative endeavors. It's survival. It's work."

There's also the sheer creative stopping power attached to the fact that lower-income families generally tend to have less financial wherewithal to purchase often-pricey computer and filmmaking gear (or acting classes) – which is what makes Cine Joven so important.

"That's another big part of our outreach program at ASF and Cine Joven," adds Santis. "We want them to have access to the tools of filmmaking and media production, and we've got those tools right here. I think they can be just as media-literate and -savvy as anyone else if they were trained. That's what we do – we train kids to be active media-makers. And because we get funded by grants and private donors, we get kids in here for a fraction of the cost of other film programs.

"Ultimately, we've found that the parents usually get on board once they realize that their kids are going to be learning not only filmmaking but also life-building skills and skills that will help them academically in the future. In the past, some parents have arrived with the idea that Cine Joven was just another extracurricular activity, and so they weren't all that interested in enrolling their kids. But once we get the parents in here and they actually see the technical aspects of the program – obviously, as part of the ASF, we're Apple-certified, and we have access to all the cameras, computers, and editing software we need – and how multidisciplinary the program is, be it via career-building or creating a portfolio that these kids can use when they apply to college or just by learning basic creative skills, then the parents really get behind it. You know, we can actually get away with having these kids write a lot if we tell them it's a film or telenovela script. And they love it!"

It's a Saturday afternoon on the dog-end of June, and outside the Austin School of Film, it's a scorching 100 degrees. Inside, however, it's cool and dark and crowded with a group of kids (almost evenly split down gender lines) who are learning how to create their own telenovela. Three 10-minute episodes have already been written and are currently being revised (and revised yet again, and then again – welcome to the world of professional screenwriting, kids!), but shooting has yet to begin.

Nobody is a born screenwriter, and several talented scenarists have helped out with the telenovela's writing, including director of photography and executive producer (and Austin actor) Paul Galvan. Also helping out is the invaluable Luna Rodriguez, whose extensive background in film and television production in her native Monterrey, Mexico – not to mention the fact that the telenovela's native tongue is her own – has, in the eyes of the Cine Joven kids, instantly discredited that persistent myth that filmmaking is a boys' club. At least, not here, anyway.

Rodriguez also helped to finesse the telenovela's script into shootable form, working alongside Carlisha Bell, a UT film studies graduate, professional teacher, and another recent addition to the ASF's burgeoning, omni-disciplinary ranks.

Rest assured, the ideas that went into the script came straight from the kids, but a smidgen of screenwriterly supervision was understandably necessary in, as Bell puts it, "getting these kids' stories out of their hearts and onto paper." And from there onto digital video and beyond.

But all that can wait. At the moment, Galvan is fielding my queries to the kids, who range in age from 9 to 19 years old, with an average age of 15. There are frequent linguistic assists from Santis and Rodriguez, both of whom instinctively draw the kids out of themselves and into the discussion by offering a bilingual buffer zone for anyone who might not be entirely comfortable speaking their minds (and hearts) in front of newcomers.

They're not all shy, though, and at this point in their budding film and acting and screenwriting careers, there's no paparazzi present, per se, but you get the feeling that may just be temporary: These kids have things to say whether there's a camera on them or not.

Humberto Perez
Humberto Perez (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Take, for instance, José Luis Manzano, already something of a Cine Joven veteran at 19 years old. His short documentary, "Stories of the Homies," recounted the flirtations of his circle of friends – and his own – with the gang lifestyle. Raw and emotionally honest at the least expected times, it's a quietly powerful piece of work from a kid who, by his own admission, stumbled into the Cine Joven orbit while he "was actually looking for a way to get out of work. But then I really got into the class, and now I'm thinking I might make a career out of it, you know?"

Being asked what their favorite films are – or if they have any directors or actors they wouldn't mind emulating – elicits this from 16-year-old Alan Garcia: "I like Scorsese. He's Italian-American, which is kind of like being Mexican-American."

Cool frijoles, Alan. Anything else you want to add to that?

"Yes. I'm interested in depicting my family's struggle. My parents immigrated to Austin from Mexico City in the Eighties. Do you know the director Alejandro González Iñárritu? I enjoy his work, because it shows the realism and background of actually living in Mexico. Hispanic culture is such a vast and interesting culture that to have it represented in the arts and in film by the standard images of gangs and criminals is just insulting. [The 2007 Larry the Cable Guy film] Delta Farce is a good example of just how much of an insult it can be. I think we can do better than that. I know the new generation of filmmakers will do better than that."

And then there's Omar Barrera, 14, who points out that what really got him interested in Cine Joven was his love of and skill at video games – "especially the Dynasty Warriors series, where you could create your own characters." Gaming has become an increasingly common gateway to filmmaking.

"Later on, as I got more and more into [gaming]," Barrera says, "I thought, 'Wow, I could make a movie out of this.' And the only way I could do that was through Cine Joven. Now I want to learn how to act. I know I can do this, but I always say it takes time to fulfill dreams."

Clearly, there's no shortage of ambition here or, for that matter, optimism. Despite what the parents might think about the future career benefits of Saturdays spent at Cine Joven, the kids themselves are fiercely devoted to the idea that they can make a movie, and they will make a movie. And soon, too.

Cut to a couple of weeks later on, same location, and Galvan's screening David M. Evan's 1993 kidhood classic, The Sandlot, for the kids and urging them to develop their own characters' hooks and mannerisms. "Practice making faces in the mirror," he tells them. "Create a backstory for your character. ... What do they do when they're not doing what's in the script? Who do they hang out with? What sets them apart from all the other characters?"

Puzzled semifrowns thicken for a moment, but with more clips from The Sandlot and more encouragement from Galvan, they start to get it. Later, I ask Galvan about the script, which I've read, but which also has gone through any number of revisions since I received a copy two months ago.

"I've been talking to the kids," he tells me, "about what separates them from the other people that live in Austin and what's common to Mexican areas [of town]. And we've decided that there's multiple levels: On the one hand, there are the newly arrived immigrants, who are really struggling to make it happen but who can only afford to live on the poorer side of town, right? And then on the other hand, you have the immigrants that have already made it and become supersnobby and are very prejudiced against their own kind because they're at that higher level. And then you've got a full spectrum in between those two extremes.

"That idea of class and social boundaries is a big part of what we're doing with the telenovela. It's going to be kind of like The Sandlot, where you have that happy kind of feel of what it's like to be just a kid with a normal life in a normal neighborhood, with kids doing all the things kids do. Kind of like the rich, privileged Little Leaguers versus the scruffy sandlot heroes, but in our case, they're all Hispanic. And they're not playing baseball."

Volunteers Paul Galvan (center left) and Luna Rodriguez (far right) with Cine Joven students Alan Garcia (far left) and Diana Alemán (center right)
Volunteers Paul Galvan (center left) and Luna Rodriguez (far right) with Cine Joven students Alan Garcia (far left) and Diana Alemán (center right) (Photo by John Anderson)

Any film, no matter what language it speaks, is born first from an idea, a story, a primal urge to communicate with others. But minus the technical tools and the know-how to use them – the film or digital video cameras, the boom mics, the editing and soundtrack software, and the computers to run it all on – all you've got is a good idea on paper and not much else. (Books, they used to be called.)

Enter Humberto Perez, Cine Joven's new master instructor as of this spring. Perez teaches video technology at Connally High School in Pflugerville, with a student body that's already, as he wryly observes, "fully 50 percent Latino and 50 percent everybody else. And that's because so many people who used to live in Austin just can't afford it anymore."

A graduate of the University of Houston with a major in Spanish and a minor in theatre, Perez is the perfect blend of artist and hands-on tech teacher for Cine Joven. And as he explains, he might not have even discovered the ASF and Cine Joven were it not for one of his students at Connally High, who saw the school's ad for their annual M.A.F.I.A. (Make a Film in a) weekend event during last spring's South by Southwest Festival and decided he wanted to give it a shot. The universe is random that way, but Perez met up with Monica Santis over that weekend, "and then things evolved."

What they evolved into is the linchpin of Cine Joven's future success: Perez, a teacher/filmmaker with his metaphorical feet on film but his eyes on the digital media-saturated future, is the nuts and bolts of the program. He teaches the nuts and bolts, actually.

"I'm teaching the kids the whole production process," he explains, "from preproduction, through production, to postproduction, and giving them the basic skill sets that they need to get out there and make a film.

"I try to teach them as much as possible from a technical standpoint, and it's tough, because they're all over the place – they want to get out there and do it already. It's tough to teach filmmaking in general, but it's even more difficult to teach kids. As adults, we're able to think a little broader, but they don't have that ability just yet. So what I do is teach them the basics in just a matter of days, really. But I take them through the process in little steps so that it doesn't seem so tedious or overwhelming.

"Now they have a pretty clear idea of how filmmaking is done so that when they're writing, they can think ahead to what sort of camera angles they might want, what kind of editing choices they might need to consider, all that. They're able to visualize ahead of time what might or might not work."

And that, as any filmmaker worth his Sekonic light meter will tell you, is half the battle.

You've got to wonder: Do his incoming students (and their parents) have any inkling of what they're getting into? Or of how much this just might change their lives for the better?

Not usually, says Perez.

"They kind of come in with the idea that they're just going to take a video camera and go shoot something. But actually, today's class was really amazing because I was introducing them to [film-score software] Soundtrack Pro. I showed them how to take a video clip, put it into Soundtrack Pro, and then start adding music. And when I showed them how to do it, how easy it was, their eyes got really big, and you could just feel the energy in the classroom kick in. And they were excited because, suddenly, they understood that this is how movies are made. Suddenly, they get it.

"That's important and exciting to me, too, as their teacher, but it's even more important when you stop to consider that, in our global economy nowadays, it doesn't matter anymore if you know Word and spreadsheets. That literally doesn't matter at all. But you've got to know how to design Web pages, and you've got to learn how to use video, because that's where everything is going.

"When you learn filmmaking and when you're involved in filmmaking, you're also learning all these other things: You learn how to manage your time efficiently; you learn how to organize; you learn how to plan; [you learn] leadership skills, communication skills, so many things. And when you get out into the real world, you're going to need that to be successful."

So here it is, Cine Joven in a nutshell: While some in the adult world worry themselves sick with talk of building walls to keep people out, the telenovela kids are trying to figure out how to get more people in – into the show, into the shot, and into the program – because at the end of the day (or at the end of the film shoot), it's not just the American dream; it's everybody's dream.

"Speaking for myself," Monica Santis says, "as a first-generation child of immigrant parents, I can recall going to a school where I was the only Hispanic kid. And, you know, I was a little shy at times. Actually, I was shy for a really long time. But filmmaking allows you to come out of your shell and express yourself. You can always hide behind the camera, sure, but more importantly, it affords kids the opportunity to get comfortable with who they are and say what they want or need to say. Because there's a lot to be said."  

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Cine Joven, Austin School of Film, Monica Santis, Anne Goetzmann Kelley, Barna Kantor, Paul Galvan, Luna Rodriguez, Carlisha Bell, Alan Garcia, José Luis Manzano, Omar Barrera, Humberto Perez

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