An old piano factory in the South Bronx might not be the first place you’d look for a movie studio, but that’s just where you will find the Ghetto Film School and a group of aspiring teenage filmmakers putting the finishing touches on their first movie — shot on location last summer in Uganda.
“When they first walk in the door, everyone wants to be Spike Lee,” said Joe Hall, the school’s president. Using his vacation time away from his consulting job for non-profit groups, Hall started the program in 2000 out of a storefront as a series of workshops to teach kids from his neighborhood about movie production.
Just before starting the school, Hall spent a year at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program. He found the program lacking in class and racial diversity, and many students already had connections to the movie industry. The experience inspired him to go back home to the Bronx and foster the talent that did not have access to such prestigious programs.
The Ghetto Film School fellows arrive with very little or often no film experience. They are thrust into a rigorous summer schedule that covers all aspects of filmmaking, concluding with a screening at Lincoln Center of the best shorts to come out of their workshops. In the fall, they switch to weekends, covering basics like resume writing, college applications, networking and job hunting. Come January, they turn their focus to a bigger collaborative project. They submit original scripts (no documentaries allowed), one of which is chosen to be filmed abroad, and then audition for spots on the crew.
Peppered throughout the year are lectures and meetings with some of the industry’s top names, including Jim Jarmusch, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell. During their second summer they are placed in internships that let them utilize their new production skills in a professional setting.
The latest batch of Ghetto Film School fellows made their way to Uganda last summer to tell the tale of a man bitten by a poisonous snake who has just 24 hours to do all he’s ever wanted to in life.
For high school junior and Bronx native, Alma Osorio, the trip was her first time out of the country, and she was in the director’s seat, overseeing a cast of local actors older than her. “It scares me just thinking about it,” said Osorio. “The moment I realized we really got through this was just today, when I saw a version of the final cut I really liked. And it surprised me a little bit.”
Said cinematographer George Valez: “What we wanted to do was show a lot of Uganda and show the Uganda experience. Show the color of the dirt, the exteriors of the country and try to take that all in.”
The program has garnered fans and financial support from many Hollywood heavyweights and the New York City government. It is moving out of the piano factory to a new editing and production space nearby, partially financed by a $1.2 million grant from the city. In addition, just weeks ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the creation of the first high school focused on filmmaking. The Cinema School, slated to open this fall, will be run by the Ghetto Film School and will also offer regular liberal arts classes.
Hall does not want it to stop there. The new production space will also house Digital Bodega, a professional production company for graduates to come work after they finish school. “I love the idea that someone who is 21 or 22 is earning money and creating an opportunity for a 15-year-old they do now know yet,” said Hall.
Editor’s note: The short film made in Uganda is in the final stages of post-production and is expected to be finished sometime in March. We’ll keep you posted. And thanks to the Ghetto Film School for use of the above clips.