Lonnie Harris is composing a soundtrack. Perched in front of a row of shiny white e-Mac computers in the Memorial Academy charter school library, he tips back in his chair, a black Fender baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He experiments with blending beats and melodies, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he creates new tracks. The mustached 17-year-old says his dream is to become an architect, but considering the pleasure he displays while mixing music, he may eventually want to consider moonlighting as a DJ on his off days.
No matter what the future holds for Harris, right now his task is to finish the soundtrack for a 10-minute documentary on health issues in Barrio Logan. One of nearly 30 kids participating in the Media Arts Center San Diego (MACSD) Teen Producers Project this year, Harris' soundtrack will accompany one of the seven documentaries-on history, public health, education, activism, arts and culture, employment and housing-to be shown at the Media Arts Center's Barrio Logan: Youth Voices, Community Stories screening at the Central Library on June 26.
Thanks to the Teen Producers Project (TPP), Harris is now skilled in camera operation, sound, lighting and editing. But he was initially introduced to video production at his high school, the Toussaint Academy of Arts and Sciences, a juvenile court and community school for homeless and at-risk youth where filmmaking is an integral part of the curriculum.
"My favorite thing used to be editing, but I edited my senior project and now I'm sick of it," Harris explains. "Now I like doing soundtracks the best."
Jodi Cilley, a part-time instructor at MCASD who also works at Toussaint, encourages budding filmmakers like Harris to join the TPP so they can hone their creative talents and take their production skills to a more professional level.
"We want to encourage those with even a slight interest to at least try," says Joaquin Ortiz, MACSD's only full-time instructor. "We want to communicate that video [production] isn't all about technical know-how, that the ideas are just as important, how to communicate a strong message."
Ortiz says he is always struck by how aware kids are about the things going on in their neighborhoods.
"They are acutely aware of what's going on," says Ortiz, "but they feel like there's nothing they can do about it."
"I see people litter all the time," says 17-year-old teen producer Synquetta Hughes, a junior at Toussaint who lives downtown at the Joan Kroc Center, a residential rehabilitative community for families struggling with poverty and homelessness. Until Hughes started producing with the TPP, she says, "I didn't really think people cared."
The documentaries Harris and Hughes are working on are composed mainly of personal interviews, interspersed with clips of the neighborhood to re-enforce issues being discussed by the interviewees. The instructors-including Ortiz, Cilley and others-are good at their jobs; with the exception of some minor spelling errors in the subtitles, there is nothing in the films that exposes the relative youth of the producers. The camera work is steady, the subjects always in focus. The interviewees are well-lit and audible, and the original music blends nicely with the mood of each piece.
Now approaching its fifth anniversary, the TPP developed out of the Latino Film Festival, when festival director Ethan van Thillo began to see models of community-based youth media coming out of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Inspired by what he saw, Van Thillo-who started the nonprofit MACSD seven years ago to function as the infrastructure for the festival-decided to expand MACSD to support local independent filmmakers and encourage youth-produced media.
"The goal [with TPP] was to work with youth who don't otherwise have the opportunity," says van Thillo.
"The broader goal is to promote the idea of community-based storytelling," he adds, "to tell stories not being told in mainstream media."
In the past five years, the TPP has amassed a collection of more than 200 films. The two- to 20-minute videos cover a variety of topics, from lighthearted skate and music video emulations to documentaries that address more serious issues like migrant education, 9/11 and the local Somali refugee experience.
A large component of the TPP's success has been its site partners, explains van Thillo. The MAAC project, a nonprofit that works to provide affordable housing, offers up community rooms in each of its apartment complexes to serve as MACSD classrooms once or twice a week. Memorial Academy lets MACSD students edit on their library computers, and the Barrio Logan College Institute (BLCI) also lets the MACSD team bring their portable editing equipment to their facility.
"We've even done media editing at the Chuck E. Cheese in San Marcos," van Thillo adds with a grin.
In the future, van Thillo says he'd like to see the focus of the documentaries shift from broader social issues to personal stories. He'd also like to see more kids have the opportunity to get extra credit for their participation in the TPP.
"Lots of arts-appreciation classes are seen as unimportant," he says. "We want to do a better job connecting to parents and schools.... Parents need to understand that it's more than after-school childcare."
Harris certainly seems to agree.
"I would say that this type of project will help out anybody," says Harris enthusiastically. "With this, I'm like, wow, I should be out there helping my fellow man with their dream like they're helping me with [mine]."
Barrio Logan: Youth Voices, Community Stories will be screened at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 26, at the San Diego Central Library Third Floor Auditorium at 820 E. St., Downtown, and will be followed by a Q&A with the student producers. www.mediaartscenter.org.