Cameras behind bars


POSTED: Sunday, January 04, 2009

Within days of watching the life stories of their incarcerated children told on screen through a new filmmaking program at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, two mothers recognized their own roles in their families' struggles and checked into drug rehabilitation centers. Some teenagers who finished their first films set new college or career goals after the experience. Others learned to work cooperatively for the first time. And these were just some of the tangible results.




Films by Youth Inside


Alex Muñoz's passion for filmmaking has changed the lives of troubled or incarcerated youth in Los Angeles and Guam since 2002, and now he's doing the same in Hawaii. Muñoz, who earned his master's in fine arts from the University of Southern California and has won awards for his shorts and feature films, launched the FYI (Films by Youth Inside) program to teach filmmaking skills behind bars.

Getting the program to Hawaii - a priority for Muñoz, who is a Pacific Islander himself - proved challenging. But he finally succeeded last month. “;It took a lot of patience and a lot of politicking, but for me this is really important because my No. 1 objective is to empower them,”; he said.

At a cost of about $1,000 per person, Muñoz's program taught young adults at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility to write and direct their own films, usually about their personal journeys. Shooting ended in December, and the films premiere in March. Sony provided high-definition cameras, and many people donated time and talent, including local filmmakers Marilyn Mick and James Sereno, who will continue the curriculum, educator Dennis Imoto and other actors and editors. Private funding took care of the rest, so the state paid nothing.

  Certain benefits are clear. Breakthroughs occur when the teenagers learn new skills, like working a complex camera or setting up lights. These skills, in turn, prepare them for jobs. Writing develops literacy, and round-table reading-aloud sessions encourage critical thinking.

But so many more advantages can't be measured. Rebelliousness and isolation fade in a program like this, noted Martha Torney, executive director for the Office of Youth Services. “;You could see the camaraderie developing, and that was really heartfelt.”;

Muñoz agreed: “;What people don't realize is that filmmaking is this great medium to learn collaboration.”;

And he hopes the program in Hawaii doesn't end here. His goal is for local filmmakers to continue with new groups here so he can return to his work in Los Angeles and eventually expand into the Pacific. “;I really believe that Pacific Islander youth are underrepresented,”; said Muñoz, who felt a special connection to the teens in Hawaii. “;Our values are different from mainlanders, so I was able to relate to them on another level.”;

Any kind of program that helps kids on probation saves money for the state and improves society over time, according to Elizabeth Rice Grossman, a philanthropist and Kailua resident who sponsored the FYI project in Hawaii. “;If we could replicate what Alex does on the mainland, we could be successful,”; she said.

“;People tend to notice the things (these kids) don't do well,”; added Torney. “;Instead, this is strength-based. They kind of all rose to the occasion, and it built their confidence.”;