Growing up, Marquise Ortiz, 15, of South Central Los Angeles, saw his local Helen Keller Park as gang property. Murders were the norm. Kids, keep out. Ortiz’s after-school options were nil — the closest movie theater was 30-plus miles away. In eighth grade, his negative attitude hit an all-time low, and his grandmother worried, “What now?”
That same summer, in 2005, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles began screening free new-release movies in the 50-person Helen Keller Park meetinghouse. Ortiz became a regular.
The woman behind the projector was Katy Haber, “Blade Runner” producer, BAFTA/LA board member and community activist — she founded Dome Village, a Los Angeles homeless shelter. The theater-in-a-park idea started with South Central resident Cameron Bonner, whom Haber met doing volunteer work. She invited him to a BAFTA/LA board meeting, where the committee embraced Bonner’s pitch.
“We do 100 screenings a year for the members for voting reasons, so we’re really good at that thing,” says BAFTA/LA exec director Don Haber (no relation to Katy).
“It was a no-brainer,” adds Katy Haber. “It was not expensive, and the returns are amazing.”
Since June 2005, BAFTA/LA has screened one indie a month, movies with positive messages that get the audience of children, ages 8 to 18, talking.
Women’s basketball drama “Heart of the Game” and “Mighty Times: The Children’s March,” a docu concerning the brave kids who came to Martin Luther King’s activism aid, both sparked lively discussions.
“Shackles,” about a Rikers Island prison teacher, features rap music by Jerry Quickley. As the movie’s credits rolled at Helen Keller, Quickley surprised the kids by stepping from behind the screen to rap with them.
“Tsotsi” played the park last February, shortly after its Oscar nomination was announced. Hoping to generate buzz, Miramax hoisted a tent in the park and served refreshments. Director Gavin Hood and actor Presley Chweneyagae conducted an enthusiastic Q&A with the aud afterward. The event landed write-ups in the Los Angeles Times and the London Times.
Everything seemed to be going so well. Bonner and park director Marvo Hider had spoken with every longtime gang leader in the area. Ten key leaders had agreed to name the park a sacred space, free from crime. Then one gang leader took angry issue with a line in the “Tsotsi”-related newspaper coverage that suggested the L.A.P.D. had a firm grip on gang activity in and around the park.
“The O.G. — that’s ‘original gangster’ — came to me,” Bonner says. “I asked does he want me to stop the screenings? Look, I’m not trying to get killed. But he said, ‘No, you’d have a problem if you did stop. We’re proud of you.'”
Bonner and the gangster smoothed things over. The happy end sticks for now: No crime has occurred in Helen Keller Park since BAFTA/LA stepped inside.
“The amazing thing that has happened is people with funny accents coming from across the water, from a whole other nation, have embraced us,” Bonner says. “The community is blown away. Not only do the kids appreciate the BAFTA members, they look forward to seeing them — they know them.”
BAFTA/LA aims to take the screening program to other inner-city parks, so the board is reaching out to sponsors such as British Airways and Volvo for long-term support. Already, org has arranged for Helen Keller Park to have its own Netflix subscription. Popular movies screen every week.
A mentoring program is the order of business in coming months. Kids will study camera technique with a working cinematographer, directing with a real-live director and so on. BAFTA/LA hopes to send the more driven kids to night classes in film studies at UCLA.
Ortiz says he’s out of the doldrums and busy dreaming up a short film about skateboarding.
“A lot of times, at the movies, they explain to us how we could do it, how we could get into that field,” he says. “That’s made me determined to go that way.”
“If we can get this program going stronger, I really believe that some of the greatest stories out of the inner city have not been told yet,” Bonner says. “Life imitates art. I want to show the other side of the story.”