By Albert Samaha
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Adding new names to the Hollywood repertory is not the priority of the Downtown Community Television Center, whose very essence is the antithesis of Tinseltown artificiality. Through their lens, real life is unflinchingly captured by homegrown auteurs who shoot it like they see it.
Since 1972, the center has given young people not only access to the most influential medium of this century, but the technical means to make an impact on it. Nine-time Emmy Awardwinning independent producer Jon Alpert and his wife Keiko Tsuno founded DCTV fueled by the belief that increasing minorities' presence in the electronic media arts will lead to a better democracy.
The center provides more than 6000 low-income and minority teens a year with the skills intensive video production and experience that most will convert into higher education and, hopefully, a career in this field. Moreover, they are able to incorporate their cultural backgrounds into their work and what results is what program director Hye-Jung Park calls "confidence training."
"Here I'm learning that I have a lot of talents and I'm able to do a lot of things," says B.B., an 18-year-old student.
"Instead of being on the street corners, they are here, making their own television shows," says Alpert, who's carved out a reputation as an activist and independent documentary filmmaker.
Located in what used to be a firehouse, DCTV continues to explore incendiary topics. Immigration, unemployment, exclusion, and racial issues are just some of the issues on the students' agenda. "We all come from very different backgrounds but have the same goals: to succeed," says 16-year-old Aaron.
These budding documentarians challenge social problems and use the camera to translate them into brutally frank documentaries. In 1992 DCTV students investigated one story which featured the exploitation of Asian, black, and Latino workers at the Shin Wa restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Later that year, when Chinese workers were excluded from employment on two large federal construction projects in Chinatown, the students reported the Chinese reaction, determined to prove that racism still underlies economic oppression.
"From humble beginnings we have gradually established a community-based foothold within an art form dominated by large corporations," says Alpert.
DCTV's first days were spent in a frail mobile unit, a $5 truck with TV sets on the side playing tapes Chinese operas and English language lessons for passersby in Chinatown. Over the years it's expanded into its own community center, where over 150 free or low-cost video-training workshops are conducted, available in Chinese and Spanish as well as in English. Most of the programs are specifically designed to meet the needs of the city's myriad minority populations. It also offers access to video equipment for hundreds of independent videographers and community activists, and runs the most heavily attended ongoing video screenings in the country.