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Hollywood Comes to the Bronx

Young people participate in a Ghetto Film School program. Photo courtesy of Ghetto Film School.

When most people think of Haiti they think of poverty, political unrest and natural disasters.

However Cathiana, a young woman who lives in the town of Jacmel on the southern coast of Haiti, wanted to pick up a video camera to make films that show the beauty and culture of that Caribbean nation.

“I want to be a filmmaker to make people see Haiti in a different way,” Cathiana said.

Cathiana got her chance to learn more about filmmaking through the Bronx, New York-based Ghetto Film School, an innovative program begun by social worker Joe Hall, MSW, in 2000.

Ghetto Film School’s website says its mission is to educate, develop and celebrate the next generation of great American storytellers. The school has four programs to help it accomplish these goals.

Ghetto Film School has a Fellows Program that prepares young people for a career in the film industry and runs the Cinema School, the nation’s first-ever film high school.

It operates Digital Bodega, a student-operated media company that has done projects for General Mills, Hershey’s and other big corporate clients.

Social worker Joe Hall (right) and a Ghetto Film School student. Photo courtesy of Ghetto Film School.

And it recently launched the GFS Master Class, a program that uses Google + Hangout video chat technology to connect Cathiana and other budding filmmakers from around the world with influential Hollywood filmmakers, including Lee Daniels (director of the 2009 film “Precious”), Spike Jonze (writer and director of the 2009 movie “Where the Wild Things Are”) and Catherine Hardwicke (director of the 2008 vampire romance “Twilight”).

Hall earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and worked mostly in community development and low income housing. Then he decided to pursue a dream to work in the entertainment industry and went to the University of Southern California to do a fellowship in filmmaking.

However, Hall found filmmaking was not for him.

“I had a new respect for bad films because I found out how easy they were to make,” Hall said.

Still, Hall’s experiences at USC sparked an idea. He noticed many USC film school students already had connections with the industry, usually  through family members. Why not create a program to give underprivileged youth back in the Bronx the same entry to Hollywood?

So Hall went back to New York City and launched the nonprofit Ghetto Film School as a summer program. Things went along that way until the third summer when the school hit it big.

A program intern who attended Amherst College got the chance to meet director David O. Russell, who was receiving an honorary degree. Russell is director of the hit films “The Fighter” and “Three Kings.”

The intern told Russell about Ghetto Film School and Russell gave him his telephone number and asked for Hall to give him a call. Hall and the intern talked to Russell, visited his home, and showed him one of the student films.

Russell was impressed and said he would like to be on the school’s board of directors so he could really help the project gain momentum.

Director Lee Daniels interacts with students through a Google+ Hangouts connection. Screenshot courtesy of Ghetto Film School.

“It was one of those moments where you try to keep a straight face,” said Hall, who could not believe his ears.

The tie to Russell got other Hollywood notables involved with the Ghetto Film School, including Jonze and directors Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson.

Several celebrities now sit on the school’s advisory board, including actor Mark Wahlberg, lifestyle entrepreneur Damon Dash and poet, playwright and actress Sarah Jones.

Hall said he never bought into the notion that nonprofits are the good guys and corporations are evil. Instead he said nonprofits and corporations can work together to help youth from disadvantaged areas. That is what he has tried to do with Ghetto Film School.

Some of the school’s corporate sponsors include Google, CNN and HBO.

About 400 youth have attended Ghetto Film School programs. According its website 100 percent of school attendees have graduated from high school and 90 percent have attended college, compared to a New York City rate of 63 percent and 53 percent, respectively.

Several students have landed jobs in the entertainment industry as editors or sound technicians. Hall said it is just a matter of time before one of the graduates makes a film that gets attention at film festival or wins an award.

“It hasn’t happened but it will at some point,” he said. “It’s a numbers game.”

Social workers help young people overcome life’s hurdles. To learn more visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” Kids and Families website by clicking here.

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