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To help keep at-risk teens out of trouble, a Tenderloin nonprofit gives them cameras to make films about their lives. The movies win awards, but do they keep kids off the street?

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
David Mark leans against a parked Honda Civic on the corner of Hyde and Ellis in the Tenderloin. It's a hot June afternoon, and his friends, Cambodian-American teens like David, seek the shade of the trees that line the sidewalk. Some of them sit on overturned milk crates, some crouch low to the ground.

Several of the kids, including David, borrow a sense of style and speech from gangsta rap. They've got the white, ribbed tank tops, and the "bling bling" of flashy jewelry like earrings, nose rings, and gold necklaces.

David, who is 18, strikes up a conversation with a friend, and the topics bounce among girls, pot, and raves. Between the banter are periods of silence weighted by boredom more stifling than the hot weather.

"This is it," David says, nodding toward the guys milling on the corner. "This is what I do."

David will admit his life can be a little dull. Sometimes, the only excitement in his day comes from watching a drug addict stumble by, or getting "jacked" -- randomly frisked by the police for drugs.

He says he hangs around on the streets because he has nowhere else to go. When he's in San Francisco, he doesn't like to venture out of the TL -- the Tenderloin -- that much, and there's nothing in the neighborhood to occupy his time. He doesn't have a job, and he dropped out of school a year ago because all his friends did. So he began loitering on the streets, spending hours playing basketball at the Tenderloin Recreational Center. David ran with a Cambodian gang "for protection" for a few years, but he says got out because he didn't want to die.

And yet it was only this past March that the routine dullness of David's life was turned upside down by one of the biggest adventures of his life. For two weeks, the kid who likes to stay in familiar territory found himself on the other side of the world -- traveling through the countryside of Cambodia making a documentary film.

The documentary, with a working title of In Front of My Face, is about three young men from San Francisco who take a trip to Cambodia in search of long-lost relatives. It grew out of an annual summer video program at the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, which uses the arts to work with primarily at-risk South Asian teens in the Tenderloin.

For 12 years, the center has used video cameras to teach teens how to express themselves. Its hope is that filmmaking will introduce kids like David to discipline and structure, and show them that opportunities do exist. The organization knows its program can work; instead of spending time on the streets last summer, David was making films in the center's Tenderloin offices. By the end of the six-week program, he had teamed up with a friend, Sophal "Paul" Meas, to complete two short movies, and he had been invited to join the Cambodia documentary project that was filmed in March of this year.

But as David's life now shows, the long-term results of the program can be mixed. Some of its past participants have gone to college, while others have gone to jail. David, for example, experienced an incredible arc of growth while he was involved with the video program, only to slip back into the same unproductive lifestyle once he got back on the streets.

The youth center, like most organizations dealing with at-risk teens, has had to deal with a difficult reality: It may be wildly successful at producing films, but a single program cannot change the lives of its clients.

"People want to hear the success stories and not the issues that remain, like the race problems in the [public housing] projects or the problems in the schools," says the center's program director, Glades Perreras. "There's no problem with that. In the funding world, that's what they want, they want their hero of the month. But you can't expect it to always be like that. It's not always that easy."

In the back room of the Vietnamese Youth Development Center's modest Tenderloin offices, filmmaker-in-residence Spencer Nakasako thumbs through a thick binder of yellow notepad paper, reviewing the nearly minute-by-minute handwritten notes of 72 hours of footage for In Front of My Face.

An independent filmmaker who looks much younger than his 46 years, Nakasako is known for being intense and brutally honest to the point of being raw. His films often reflect this commitment to honesty, and though he has worked on features, he is often associated with the "video diary" documentaries he has made with kids at the youth center and elsewhere.

For a decade, Nakasako has been teaching the center's six-week summertime video program, running it like a film school, with regular hours, assignments, and deadlines. Any local teen interested in filmmaking can sign up for the program, though most participants are affiliated with the center. With Nakasako at the helm, the young filmmakers learn how to operate a camera, use editing equipment, and tell interesting stories about their lives.

Because of Nakasako's emphasis on storytelling, the youth center has built a reputation for producing truthful glimpses into the lives of young people, even if the camerawork can be a little shaky. In their finished pieces, young filmmakers have addressed everything from break dancing to basketball to brothers who were shot dead.

The program's videos air on PBS, and they annually make the rounds of the independent film festival circuit. In 1997, one of the center's filmmakers, Sokly Ny -- David's uncle -- won an Emmy for a documentary called a.k.a. Don Bonus.

But the organization did not set out to be a high-profile media center. When it opened its doors in the early 1980s, it focused on helping the tens of thousands of new Southeast Asian refugees survive in the Tenderloin, their new home.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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