GFS Master Class students hit Sundance to show off their films. Photo: Gloria Alvarez of GFS

Ghetto Film School Takes on the American Education System

Photo + Video + Film
by Eric Warren Aug 15, 2013

For the last 13 years, Ghetto Film School has been turning kids in the South Bronx into filmmakers.

What started out as a way to introduce diversity to the largely white male world of filmmaking has since grown to include the United States’ first cinema high school in 2009 and, more recently with their MasterClass, an international source of filmmaking education taught by top-tier directors.

I caught up with Gloria Álvarez, GFS’ MasterClass Producer, to talk a bit about the programs.

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EW: Can you give me a brief description of Ghetto Film School and how MasterClass fits into it?

GA: Ghetto Film School is a nonprofit organization created in 2000 by Joe Hall. Joe had done some social work here in the Bronx, and later he went to USC, which is one of the most important film schools in the country. What he saw at USC was a lack of diversity. The people that were attending the school were mostly white males. He had a meeting with the dean and asked why there isn’t a more diverse range of people being let into the school, and the dean told him they honestly don’t ever apply.

After Joe saw that, he wanted to make a more diverse film industry. He left USC, came to the Bronx, and rented a storefront in the South Bronx. He took the same handouts he got from USC — he didn’t even bother taking out the USC header — and started teaching a class.

It started as a summer program with kids in the neighborhood and, by the end of the class, they would make the six-minute short film. After he was done with the first class, he realized some of the films were actually really good.

I’m a graduate of the Ghetto Film School myself. I got involved with them in 2008. The way that the organization works is that we have different programs within Ghetto Film School. The first is the Fellows Program which started in 2000. The Fellows Program is a 15-month conservatory-style film school education. Many hundreds of students from all over New York City apply every year and only 20 get in. It’s absolutely free, and the coolest part is that at the end of those 15 months, the students work together as a class to make one film in an international location.

Our students are getting ready to go to Kiev next month to shoot their project. Last year the students went to Johannesburg, South Africa. The year before was Shanghai. The program takes them all over the place.

The second aspect of GFS is our in-house production company called Digital Bodega. Companies come to us wanting video solutions that have a new-media approach. Digital Bodega helps us because it connects us with companies where our alumni can work. These are paid opportunities for alumni so they can stay active in film.

We’ve also created the Cinema School, which is the first film high school in the country. It’s actually a public school, not a charter school. All of our students have to take math and science, but every day there’s some sort of film education included in the curriculum. We just had our first graduating class and are really excited. Something awesome about that class is that we’ve had a 100% graduation rate, and a 100% acceptance to college. It’s been performing very well, and we’ve been approached to set up a second Cinema School in Harlem.

Our last component is our MasterClass, which is a series of master classes with film industry directors and students from all over the world. Every session is centered around a different topic within filmmaking. Our students get a Creative Challenge to do before the class, and then, during the class, they pitch their ideas to the director. After the class is over, they each make a two-and-a-half-minute short film inspired by the session.

How does MasterClass work?

After the students apply, we have an interview with them. We want to work with people who don’t have the technical proficiency yet, but are definitely thinking visually and are storytellers. After they’ve been accepted into the class, they do a creative exercise inspired by the topic of the class. Our filmmaker decides which topic they’d like to discuss, and then we create a homework assignment to challenge our students to think differently.

One of my favorite examples of that is the class we did with Tamra Davis. She directed Billy Madison and some documentaries, but she’s most known for music videos. She wanted to talk about the relationship between music and film, so we came up with an assignment where our students had to create an idea for a 2-minute short film. The twist was that after they turned the idea in, we gave them a list of 15 songs that Tamra chose from her iPod. The challenge for the students was to choose a song and pair it to their story. Instead of using any dialog, they had to use a song that spoke for their piece. That could be either in the lyrics, or it could be in the mood of the song. It’s very cool to see how you can throw these students a curveball and see them come up with creative solutions to the problem.

After they’ve completed the Creative Challenge, we have an hour-long session with the director. Each student gets to pitch their story straight to the director, and the director gives them creative feedback. That could be a reference to a movie they might want to check out before starting their project, or it could be a few shot ideas of cool stuff they could try to do, or it could be character development. It could be anything.

What I really like about those interactions is that our students might be a little star-struck to be talking to a famous filmmaker about their idea. After a while, when they have one-on-one time with them, they realize [the filmmakers] are just people, who, like our students, are very passionate about what they do. They just love movies. It’s awesome to watch them go off on an exchange of cool movies they saw. It’s very refreshing.

After the session is done, our students each go out and have one month to turn that idea into a two-and-a-half-minute short film, and then we have a second session where we all watch each other’s films within the same [Google] hangout platform, and give each other creative feedback.

Can you give another example of an assignment?

Another one of my favorite Creative Challenges was from Spike Jonze. The students had to come up with a metaphor on what it feels like to be alive right now. Then, they had to come up with a film idea inspired by that metaphor. It was really interesting to see how the ideas evolved to their final pieces, because a lot of it was very experimental — some people went with an experimental narrative route, or using some animation. It was very cool for us to see how different all of their interpretations were. It was also something very personal.

So most of them get into a personal place?

That’s the best kind of storytelling, really. Something that’s very honest and raw in that it couldn’t come from anywhere else but you. That’s something we’re always encouraging. Even in the interactions between our filmmakers and our students, they’re always trying to get to that little seed of authenticity, to make it the most personal film possible.

What kinds of collaborations happen between your students?

Right now we’re working on an exciting one. We hosted a showcase at Sundance Film Festival. We selected the 6 best short films that were made during the first season of MasterClass, and we flew those 6 students to Sundance to showcase their films. And from that, the “All-Star Challenge” was born. What we’re going to be doing is a collective film that’s going to be directed by these six students. The film is going to be shot in six international locations, too. It’s also very cool that, because we’re all in different cities, the way we’ve been doing all the pre-production for it has been through the Google Plus platform. We “hang out” every week to have pre-production meetings, and exchange production documents through Google Docs. We’re hoping to shoot it either later this summer, or early fall.

It’s going to be awesome to see how we incorporate the six different cities, and the six different styles, since the students are all very different.

What makes GFS and MasterClass unique?

I think one of the things that makes GFS and our approach unique is our emphasis on the importance of creative education. We are very passionate advocates of the importance of a creative education. We believe that while science and math are very important, a creative education is something that can help students with skills like socializing and problem-solving, which are transferable to the rest of their lives. Through the school, we are proving that our curriculum works in the context of public education.

We also never approach our students as being “at-risk.” We don’t want to define our students in any way other than amazingly talented storytellers. I think that from the first day we interact with any of our students, we work from the notion they’re already filmmakers. It’s not something they’re trying to become as they’re going to school. They’ve already started as a filmmaker. We have not only incredible faith in them, but we also have a lot of expectations. I think that is translated in the quality of their work. When they feel someone believes in them and someone is expecting a certain quality of them, they’ll definitely step up. We have absolute faith that they can do it and they will be awesome.

It’s interesting to see that kind of thinking applied to our high school and fellows program where our interaction can be a lot more hands-on, but it’s been very interesting to see that it also translates to MasterClass, where all of it happens through distance learning. Having those kinds of high standards and high regard for our students translates into the final product that we get from them.

Are you planning on expanding MasterClass, and if so, how will that work?

After completing the first season of MasterClass, and getting such amazing feedback, not just from the students but also from the filmmakers, we are moving forward with season two to try to make an impact on public education. Our mission here at Ghetto Film School is to educate, develop, and celebrate the next generation of great American storytellers, and we think that through MasterClass we can do that. Now it doesn’t even have to be limited to just New York. It could be anywhere in the US. What we’re looking to do is to make MasterClass a resource for professors to make their lessons more interactive. If a professor in Ohio wants to teach filmmaking in her class, or a history teacher wants to give his students an assignment to make a short film about a subject within history, he can use MasterClass to do it. We see ourselves making an impact in public education in the US in general, and this platform lends itself perfectly to do just that.

We are always looking for more students, so I would suggest anyone who is in any way interested to apply, and even if they don’t make it into the class, even learning from being a spectator and watching our live sessions or watching our sessions on YouTube — those are definitely great resources for learning. Last season we had an age limit up to 22 years old. We had some students approach us who were over 22 but still really wanted to learn and wanted to participate, so we would send them the creative exercises that the students within the class did, so they could participate and make their own films. They could always count on our feedback if they needed any type of help.

Of course, this is always free. So we’re receptive to anyone who wants our help and wants to contact us. I encourage applying and contacting us if there’s any type of interest.

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