Getting evicted sucks. Getting evicted when you have kids that depend on you is even more terrible. And getting evicted when you are providing an invaluable service to the community’s at-risk youth is a travesty.
This is all happening to Youth CineMedia, a non-profit organization that teaches at-risk youth state-of-the-art technology fundamentals for digital video, music production, photography, and other media. Not only does this education foster confidence and expression, the students are using the equipment to create thoughtful and thought-provoking, inspiring pieces that promote social dialogue.
Recently, The Independent sat down with Youth CineMedia Co-Directors Osiris Casteñeda and Regina Ruiz to discuss their latest project, My Life: Real Stories by Incarcerated Youth, and also to discuss the financial problems they are grappling with in order to keep their dream and location alive. The original funding that Youth CineMedia received in 2005 has nearly run out and now the organization is in the process of working out payment arrangements with the City of Santa Barbara to stay in the Westside Community Center.
A sense of peace and calm pervades their studio at the Westside Community Center. There’s a pool table, a drum-set, a half dozen Macs, film equipment, and various musical instruments as well as local artwork all over the walls. A young man with tattoos on the back of his head and neck is sitting with Osiris talking about working on a resumé; he just got out of jail and wants to get his life together. This is Felix Hernandez; just a couple weeks out of Santa Barbara County Jail, he spends most of his time at the Youth CineMedia studio.
Here, Felix can work on starting his new life outside of County. “When I am here I am staying out of trouble, and I can work on what I want to do with my life,” he said. He is not the only one. Youth CineMedia works with a multitude of youth on the Westside, not only giving them a place to hang out, Osiris emphasize, but “developing the skills and passions that already make these kids great.”
Casteñeda, who has worked with and directed stars like Zach De La Rocha and Edward James Olmos, began his film career working with the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico. Casteñeda began his latest project, working with juvenile inmates, using the same camera that De La Rocha gave him as a gift over a decade ago.
My Life is a project funded primarily by New Mexico’s “Cambiar” (Spanish for “Change”) program, which says it “emphasizes a focus on rehabilitation and regionalization rather than confinement and punishment.” The inmates, mostly young adults between the ages of 16 and 22, are at a facility called “Camino Nuevo” (New Path) which is under the Juvenile Justice Services/Facilities (JJS) of New Mexico. These young men and woman have been convicted of very serious crimes, including voluntary manslaughter.
What may be most alarming about the lives of the kids in New Mexico is how familiar their stories sound. Their film lets the viewer ride along through roller-coaster childhoods filled with trouble in school, drug addictions, neglect, abuse, abandonment, violence—all ending up in Camino Nuevo, hopefully to find a new path. The incarcerated youth took a six-week, five-day-a-week, six-hour-a-day course preparing them to make their movie.
With technical advice from college-level instructors as well as mentoring and a tour of the set for ABC’s Scoundrels, by famous producer Ken Topolsky (The Wonder Years), these young adults put together a magnificent movie that showcases the capacity art has to change anyone’s life. Under New Mexico’s program many of these inmates will be released in a much shorter time than other youth who have committed similar crimes.
Casteñeda champions this type of rehabilitation. “If we give the community the resources to generate their own income, they can help themselves,” he said. “Many times I have heard my kids say, ‘Give me the tools, and I’ll do my job.’”
For nearly a decade Youth CineMedia has worked with at-risk young people all over Santa Barbara, making films, music, and art. Its website showcases some of the films, including one about Chicano youth designing and constructing a natural water filtration systems on the Eastside.