BAFTA/LA program loses cherished participant

In 2006, Marquise Ortiz was a 15-year-old boy in South Central Los Angeles for whom movies were a metaphorical lifesaver.

Ortiz was featured in a Variety story about a program initiated by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ Los Angeles chapter. BAFTA/LA had helped rehabilitate Helen Keller Park, situated in a gang-populated, crime-infested area, by offering monthly free screenings of new movies in the park’s meetinghouse.

Ortiz not only became a regular there, often serving as the screenings’ projectionist, but he used his interest in film as a springboard to graduating from Gardena High School and attending San Jose State U.

“A lot of times, at the movies, they explain to us how we could do it, how we could get into that field,” he told Variety. “That made me determined to go that way.”

But on a visit home from school, Ortiz was killed Jan. 24 in a drive-by shooting, devastating those who not only loved him but saw him as a beacon.

“If you got Marquise to come (to the park), you would have a lot of his friends,” says Cameron Bonner, the local resident who was the brainchild behind the free screenings program, bringing the idea to BAFTA/LA through board member Katy Haber. “He had a lot of kids that followed him. The sad part is his spirit was of a leader.”

At Ortiz’s funeral Feb. 2, Haber talked about his passion.

“He loved the movies, loved the whole process,” she said. “I remember how mad he was at me, when (“300″ producer) Jeff Silver and I came to help students fill out applications to go to the Inner City Film Makers program, because we told him he was too young, and needed to finish high school first. All he wanted to do was make his own movie about skateboarding, and he wanted to make it immediately.”

Ortiz was emblematic of the importance of the program, which created a haven for neighborhood kids with promise but lacked an outlet.

“He was a good student, but (he and his family) were cooped up, they were stressed out,” Cameron said. “Imagine a kid that’s in Haiti or a kid that’s in Iraq that’s going through war. How can they breathe when they’re worried they can’t even walk two blocks home from school?

“At the time, they were so stressed out that he couldn’t see the future. So what this program did was give them back their childhood. It allowed him to experience things that most kids in inner city don’t get to do.”

Another step forward for the program will come when a new community center is built, with the screening room dedicated to Ortiz. But the park’s resources remain limited, and the circumstances around Ortiz’s death underscore the need for improvement.

“He was outgoing, helpful, friendly to be around, nice,” says his younger sister, Salena. “He was a leader.”

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