Based in Gowanus, Reel Works provides a unique chance for teens to tell their stories through documentary film. Their free filmmaking programs started in 2001 as a single workshop with 17 students at the Prospect Park YMCA. Since then, Reel Works has grown to provide free after-school and in-school programs to give a voice to over 500 youth citywide.
The inspiring program was founded by John and Stephanie Williams, both veteran writers/directors/producers who left behind their jobs in the for-profit media sector to develop Reel Works.
“Using a unique, one-on-one mentoring model, we challenge at-risk youth to tell their stories and have their voices heard,” they say. “In turn, they build vital skills of literacy, leadership, and self-confidence to create productive futures.”
Reel Works just launched a Kickstarter to help fund their first feature, a comedy based on the lives of the teens who will create the film, so we asked them about the project, the process, and how Reel Works has influenced the lives of those who’ve participated so far.
Why did you decide to do a feature-length film?
Last July, during our Spring 2013 Lab graduation at the Time Warner Center, one teen film stood out: Bilal Ndongo’s 72 Hours: A Love Story?, which follows the filmmaker and his friend Cesar on a journey through Brownsville in search of… a girl. This film was a great example of the kids that come through our doors. Smart, caring young adults who have incredible stories to tell. When was the last time we saw a depiction of young black men searching the ‘hood for love? Bilal and Cesar are hilarious and streetwise, but they are not gangbangers. In fact, they are smart and ambitious young men whose life journeys are likely going to take them far away from Brooklyn and the poverty and distress that currently surrounds them. Also, it was a great story and a great opportunity to take our students’ development to a new level by having them work on a feature-length project.
This winter, we hired an amazing theater director, Jenna Weinberg, who taught our teens to improvise and develop their documentaries stories with fictional characters. Not surprisingly, we found that we had some great young actors who also had a wonderful sense of story — because they had lived it. Over ten weeks, the team created a narrative of interwoven characters and plotlines — sort of an American Graffiti. In Brownsville. In 2014. In April, we hired filmmaker Raafi Rivero, who is now collaborating with our teens to craft a screenplay. Production is slated for August.
How did the kids working on this film get involved with the project?
The kids are all lab students who have worked with Reel Works. Each one was paired with a one-on-one mentor who took them through a storytelling process through film. Their development met the high expectations of our lab program, and they are now in a summer Master Lab session where they are learning advanced techniques in film, storytelling, and creative writing.
Why did you launch a Kickstarter, and what will the money be used for?
We launched it to do outreach into the community that shares the same borough as this story. We also love the momentum of this project and saw this as the best way to raise funds and excitement. Every cent of the Kickstarter will be used to fund the production costs of 72 Hours.
Have Reel Works students continue on with work in film?
Our results are impressive, with 99% of our grads finishing high school, 88% entering college, and 43% of currently working in film and media in NYC. We also have a professional paid internship program (Reel Futures) that places students in organizations such as HBO, Viacom, Steiner Studios, and much more.
What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve learned from one of your students?
They have such a talent for storytelling and expression, and, given the right opportunity, thrive in a learning environment that makes them better storytellers and better students.
“Every dollar and share counts,” they tell us, so if you’d like to help make this film a reality, make a donation to the Kickstarter. And for more info, or to visit their film lab, contact them at 718-768-9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.