Filmmakers Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton have gone from the deserts of Spain (for their acclaimed film Lost in La Mancha about Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a Don Quixote film) to the Mojave Desert in California, for their latest documentary, The Bad Kids, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS March 20 at 10pm [check local listings].

They’ve dabbled in feature films as well — Brothers of the Head, about Siamese twins who become a rock music sideshow, is a cult favorite — but making documentaries gives them more freedom to follow their passions. “We have at many times in our career lost hope and confidence, particularly when spending many years trying to develop and mount productions within the Hollywood independent film world,” they told us. “We have the skill set to tell stories of positive social change, and because it doesn’t take a huge amount of resources to get a verité documentary off the ground, we feel much more in control of the means of our productions.”

The Bad Kids, “an insightful, affecting film that casts a sympathetic light on a neglected educational sector,” wrote Justin Lowe in The Hollywood Reporter, is a perfect example of that, and it came about a bit by chance. The filmmakers talked to us about how it came to be, about what the title means to them, what they learned about alternative education and at-risk youth while making it, and films that influenced them, in this interview. 

How did you first hear about Black Rock Continuation High School, and what led you to focus on it for a feature documentary?

A few years prior to making The Bad Kids, we worked on a number of short documentaries for a Gates Foundation initiative called Teaching Channel, for which we traveled around the country filming public schools and educators who were working with limited resources but making a huge impact in the lives of America’s public school students. On one of our research trips out to the Mojave Desert, our contact in the Morongo Unified School District was taking us to see schools and meet teachers and said that she had a school that she really wanted to show us. It didn’t fit the specific criteria for the projects we were working on, but she insisted that we see it.

The Bad Kids filmmakers: Lou Pepe left, Keith Fulton right
The Bad Kids filmmakers: Lou Pepe left, Keith Fulton right

When she described that it was a school for at-risk youth — many of them dealing with teen pregnancy, homelessness, neglect, abuse, addiction, probation — we were a little cautious. Like most people, we had preconceived ideas about these young people (hence the film’s title*). But the moment we entered the school, we were struck by what a positive environment it was. And after meeting Principal Viland and hearing about the school’s philosophy and success rate, we decided that even though Black Rock didn’t fit the brief for the jobs we were working on, it was definitely an amazing story that we wanted to come back to on our own.

We wanted to shed light on the trials of at-risk teens in our public school system and to deepen a national conversation about the fact that our rural and inner-city schools are not “failing.” Rather, we are too often failing to recognize that young people raised in poverty cannot be held to the same standards that policies like No Child Left Behind impose. At-risk youth have special needs that can be affordably addressed by schools such as Black Rock High School.

*What does that label and the title mean to you, “bad kids”?

People often ask us why we called the film The Bad Kids, especially because they don’t think that there is anything “bad” about the film’s subjects. We think that there’s a discomfort about the use of the label because people are well aware of their own prejudices about kids “from the other side of the tracks.” In presenting the film to audiences of kids from alternative high schools, we’re often approached by students who love the title and embrace the moniker with a sense of re-appropriation.

How did you gain the trust of the kids in order to film them so naturally?

We never begin a documentary production like this by simply barging in with the camera. We spent a great deal of time meeting, hanging out with, and pre-interviewing the Black Rock students before filming. We became part of the fabric of the school in the course of our two years of filming.

Principal Vonda Viland talks to a student at her desk, as seen in The Bad Kids
Black Rock School Principal Vonda Viland

What shocked you the most as you made this film and learned more about American alternative education and at-risk youth?

Was refreshing to hear an attitude about alternative education that views it as an investment in at-risk youth rather than a process that demands instant results.The biggest shock for us was seeing just how effective the philosophy at Black Rock High School really is. When Principal Viland talks about the power of positivity, it’s very easy to be cynical and dismiss her approach as naive optimism. It’s a different thing, though, when you witness the effect of that positivity on a young person. We forget how much it can mean to a student to have an adult say, “Good work!” or “I’m really proud of you for how you handled that situation.” Not only would it elicit a big smile but it would motivate the student to work even harder.

This effect was especially surprising to see over a period of time. The first day we filmed at Black Rock, there was a girl who got in a fight. Even we found her somewhat intimidating — cold eyes, mean-spirited, and aggressive — so we steered clear of her. But six months later, she was a different person: cheerful, smiling, and rapidly making progress towards graduation. In hindsight, her dramatic transformation makes perfect sense. Principal Viland and the teachers at Black Rock didn’t take a punitive approach to her and treat her like a “bad kid.” Instead, they rewarded her, with approval and acknowledgment, for anything positive she did, and that positive feedback motivated her to continue to learn, improve, and do well.

Of course, this approach doesn’t work for every kid, and our film shows that not every student at Black Rock ends up a “success story.” But one other surprise occurred when we asked Principal Viland about the students who don’t succeed, about “the ones who got away.” Even when kids drop out, she doesn’t view them as failures. Rather, she says, “We, as educators, plant seeds, and we might not always see those seeds take root and bear fruit. It might not happen while they’re at Black Rock — it might take years. But they absorb those lessons that we teach them, and sooner or later those lessons have an impact on their lives.” It was surprising and refreshing to hear an attitude about alternative education that views it as an investment in at-risk youth rather than a process that demands instant results.

Is there a particular scene that stays with you?

There is a scene in the film where a young girl named Savannah shares with Principal Viland her terror of leaving high school. After filming this scene, we knew we had the opportunity to capture something unique at Black Rock High School. Unlike most high school students, who can’t wait to graduate and make their way out into the world, many of these kids have found love and compassion for the first time within the walls of Black Rock. They harbor a deep fear of repeating the lives that their parents have lived. This scene was the first one we shot that really gave us deep insight into what our film was about.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Our biggest challenge given our own relatively privileged upbringing was to fully understand how important a high school diploma is for kids who may be the first in their families to graduate high school or kids who don’t have supportive families to help them either financially and emotionally. We didn’t see these kids as “the bad kids” going into production, but I think we did carry with us some of the kinds of preconceptions that many American do that such kids should be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” regardless of the difficulty of their circumstances.

Read about 10 of Principal Vonda Viland’s Most Unforgettable Student Stories

Are there any updates on any of the student characters seen in the film that you can provide?

  • As a result of The Bad Kids playing at film festivals, Jennifer received a full scholarship to nursing school. She enrolled in the spring of 2016 and will graduate at the end of this year with her nursing degree.
  • Joey’s friend AJ, with whom he wrote and performed the closing credit song, is currently studying audio engineering at the Art Institute of Southern California. The L.A.-based producer who worked with them on the song is now helping AJ produce a full album of his original material.
  • Lee is still working on the final few credits he needs to complete his high school diploma. But he has stayed with his girlfriend Layla, who now works and attends community college, they have their own apartment, and they are raising their son together.
  • Joey has been in and out of rehab but has been clean now for some time. He regularly attends NA meetings and recently reached out to Principal Viland to help him get started in the high school completion program at the local community college.

Going forward, how do you think this film could be used as an educational tool, both within education communities, and for the country as a whole?

Other than the lower student-to-teacher ratio, there’s nothing at Black Rock High School that costs more than running a regular high school: there’s neither expensive equipment nor fancy curricula to purchase. There’s just a simple philosophy about seeing and acknowledging at-risk youth instead of writing them off as lost causes — an approach that focuses on empathy, encouragement, and life skills that can make all the difference for kids who have grown up without them.

A lot of conversations about public education these days focus on scalability and replicability, and yet human empathy doesn’t cost anything. Instead, it requires a shift in thinking: a shift in our attitudes towards these students, a shift in our attitudes towards public school teachers and the support we’re willing to provide them, and a shift in our attitudes toward the value of public education to our nation’s well-being.

Based on the outreach we’ve done with the film so far, we’ve found that it sparks very interesting conversations for lots of different audiences: for other at-risk youth, who realize that they’re not alone in their struggles; for educators, who are reminded that despite the hard work and emotional toll there’s a value to not giving up on at-risk students; for school boards and communities, who see that alternative education can play a vital role in strengthening their communities; and for general audiences, who discover that every young person we so easily label a “bad kid” also has the ability to learn and succeed if we take the time to get to know them, encourage them, and support them in their struggles.

Were there any interesting scenes you shot that you had to cut out?

During our editing process, we were always trying to include more illustrations and examples of Black Rock High School’s customs — specific teaching techniques, positive reinforcement practices, even community-building activities among the students — but these scenes always seemed to detract from the emotional motor of the film. Ultimately, we realized that audiences who are moved by the story and inspired by the school will want to know more about these pedagogical customs, and we’ve incorporated them into the materials that are part of our social outreach campaign.

What films inspired you while making The Bad Kids?

Fred Wiseman’s High School, Alma Har-El’s Bombay Beach, and Nicholas Philibert’s To Be and to Have.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t waste a lot of time trying to anticipate what other people want to see in your films. Films are like the blues: it’s all been done before in a million variations, but it hasn’t yet been done by you.