Jewish Journal

U.S. Teens Shoot Films in Israel

Actress Dakota Johnson (center) with the GFS students. Photo by Erica Lange.

A teenage girl dyes her hair blue, plays in a punk rock band in Tel Aviv and is torn between joining the Israel Defense Forces and trying to make it as a musician in London. A teenage boy spars with British colonists in 1930s Jerusalem and witnesses a potential horrific crime involving a Palestinian child.

These are the plots of two short films made in Israel from students of Ghetto Film School (GFS).

The New York- and Los Angeles-based GFS, founded in 2000, is a nonprofit that provides filmmaking mentorship and training to groups of high school students from NYC boroughs and Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Last summer, for their final project, 16 of the GFS participants spent two weeks in Israel filming “Charley Horse,” the movie about the punk rock girl, and “Be Free,” about the teenage boy. The films premiered in Los Angeles on April 25, at the Landmark in Westwood. Actress Dakota Johnson hosted the evening and FX Executive Vice President of Current Programming Jonathan Frank moderated.

“It was extraordinarily challenging directing a film in a foreign location,” said “Charley Horse” writer and director Luna Garcia in an email interview. “I was lucky enough to have an extraordinary crew to work with. I learned how difficult it was to both write and direct your own project.”

The L.A. premiere was a culmination of the 30-month GFS program, which is supported by Twenty-First Century Fox, Sony, HBO and Warner Bros. According to GFS Executive Director Stosh Mintek, his organization receives 200 applications for 30 spots. “We are looking for a few things,” he said. “Does this young person have that creative talent, that spark that ensures they will succeed? Do they have that ambition? Are they ready to commit significant time?”

Once students are accepted into the program, each has to study the films and the culture of the country GFS plans to visit, and then write an original script. Two scripts are chosen, and the screenwriters then hear pitches from students who want to be on the crews. Famous actors and actresses, as well as notable filmmakers, do table reads of the scripts and give the students feedback prior to the trip. The celebrity mentors for Israel included Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Ansel Elgort and David O. Russell. Arnon Milchan also led a partnership between GFS and his New Regency Productions company.

“It was extraordinarily challenging directing a film in a foreign location.” — Luna Garcia

GFS chose Israel for the latest trip because of  its relationship with Milchan and New Regency, and because, “for a relatively small country, you have such an incredible, rich storytelling culture, and that really appealed to us,” Mintek said. “To be able to expose students to art, culture and history was a special opportunity we wanted to take advantage of.”

Enrique Caballero, who directed “Be Free” and goes to school in the South Bronx, shot much of the piece in Old Jaffa. “It was cool to see the history of Israel and how it’s grown, and the dynamics between social classes during the times,” he said. “It was, in many ways, relatable to the different cultures here in the Bronx.”

The 18-year-old, who hopes to go to filmmaking school at USC or in New York City, said that through his experience he got “a lot out of it in terms of film techniques. While directing, I learned how to be a leader and more assertive with people. These are techniques that leaders learn throughout their lives and I’ve been exposed to it at this age. It gave me the tools to get ahead.”

Empowering students like Caballero, and supplying the knowledge they need to succeed in the film industry, is GFS’s mission.

“There is a general growing awareness in the creative industry that there are systemic obstacles for a lot of people to break through and into it,” Mintek said. “You don’t hear the solutions, like how you actually fix this issue and find voices from new places. We believe we found the solution to that.”