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Laura Fernandez, program director at the Incarcerated Mothers Program (IMP), works to increase options for these at-risk kids. When the Maysles Institute approached IMP with the concept, she says, "I was very excited by it because I'm a big believer in the creative arts, and in kids being given opportunities to learn new skills and to meet with people like this and have an experience that they wouldn't normally have. I feel like poorer kids get cheated out of art and creativity in their schooling."
Viewing some of the output so far from On Our Side's pilot program, one sees the heretofore untapped talents and creative ambitions. In one of the first assignments, the kids were given small cameras to take home to make videos. Most of the kids came back with casual tapes of their family or pets, but an otherwise shy 12-year-old we'll call Christine (to protect her privacy) showed up with a 10-minute interview with the owner of Rao's restaurant on East 114th Street. In the clip, set up like a television chat, Christine wears a smart pink suit and asks her questions from memory without cue cards. "She's all set to be a journalist," Philip Maysles says with a laugh. "I mean, that's when we knew that she was really serious about this."
While Downtown Community Television in Lower Manhattan has offered Pro-TV, a documentary production program for older teenagers, since 1978, On Our Side gears itself toward the younger set. And whereas DCTV focuses on community reportage and political engagement on the youth-media model (a recent production, for example, documents the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans), On Our Side is more open-ended, showing kids the possibilities of using nonfiction filmmaking for more personal expressionhow to suss out the "human element" of a moment. On Our Side's Laura Coxson reports that the children were versed in "the Maysles tradition: Shoot a little bit of your home life, what you do know, and then a bit of what you don't know." Rather than strict assignments, she says, the topics "just emerged out of doing it."
Christine, for example, created a series of segments about her home life and family, including a winsome portrait of her foster brother pouring cereal from a box twice as big as his head, and a document of her grandmother's sumptuous Puerto Rican cooking; Christine shoots herself eating shrimp in a single shot from the nose down as she narrates. "Everybody wanted to be on camera," Christine told the Voice, "but my grandma, I had to pursue. I kept on asking her to please, please, please say yes!" So Phil Maysles offered her some time-honored vérité advice. "He said if a person doesn't want to get on [camera], we should leave them alone, and then later when we ask them again, they might say yes."
Another participant created a music video to rapper Juelz Santana's "Clockwork" by shooting clocks in stores, in restaurants, and on the streets of his neighborhood. The result captures the flavor of Harlem in the summertime; a shot of a tired-looking woman sitting beneath a clock in Burger King has the mark of a budding Rudy Burckhardt.
A number of kids, including Christine, created "video letters" for their parents, showing them bits of life back home. The Maysleses intended to send these as DVDs to the parents but so far haven't been able to do so. ("Getting anything done in a prison is practically impossible anything creative, anything different," says Fernandez.) A screening for other family members is planned for the cinematheque when it's complete. In the meantime, On Our Side is seeking more funding and people power to expand their operations, perhaps even franchising it to other communities. "We're in touch with the right people," Albert Maysles says hopefully. "We're spreading our tentacles. . . . I see it getting more and more connected in the Harlem community."