By Sarah Jesse
On a sweltering afternoon in July, three boys excitedly entered the San Bernardino Art + Film Lab. Judging by their giggly assuredness, it was clear they hadn't stumbled upon the Lab merely looking for air conditioning. The brothers, all under the age of ten, timed their visit to coincide with the drop-in oral history hours. They didn't need much prompting from LACMA staff or their dad when we hit record on the camera. They were ready to talk.
Andres, the oldest, mostly spoke for the group, but it was clear his siblings concurred with his sentiment. He expounded in vivid detail some of the fun times shared between family members and his affection for his brothers. He said he liked Alberto because "he's curious in his imagination," and Santiago because, "he's spiritual, likes to kiss people, and say nice things about people." As he spoke, Santiago simultaneously smothered Andres with kisses. Andres then disclosed that his grandfather had recently passed away and concluded, "Ever since my grandpa died I figured I should spend time with my brothers and have fun with them while I still have them." It was only day two of our five-week residence in Perris Hill Park, but it already appeared that our time in San Bernardino would be special.
In conceiving the project, one ambition for the Lab was to serve as a vehicle for collecting stories. Our premise was that it isn't just artists and filmmakers who make compelling storytellers. We all have it in us, provided we have a forum and the ability to capture our stories via the right tools. The unabashed sincerity that Andres and his brothers exhibited were common in many of the folks we met. This openness was reflected in the oral histories we gathered from the residents and the video artworks that they produced within the Lab. By the end of our residency, countless histories emerged, each one subverting the specificity of the narrator to uncover a larger narrative about the community.
It's not controversial or even debatable to state that San Bernardino has had a bad rap. As we prepared for the Lab's launch, many locals pointedly asked us why we picked the city as one of the nine sites for the Lab tour. "Nothing ever happens here," a group of friends declared at the opening night party. A young woman lamented, "We don't usually get stuff like this. We've been forgotten." The city's underdog status was further cemented last year when it was officially declared bankrupt. Following the announcement of the financial situation, the narrative surrounding the city largely became about the staggering unemployment and foreclosure rates, the dwindling police force, and subsequent increase in crime.
Gearing up for our post, we discovered firsthand that the external perception of the city was just that -- perception. Typical of public opinion surrounding places that have admittedly seen better days (Detroit, Cleveland, etc.), the summaries offer only sweeping generalizations and an incomplete picture. The perseverance and vitality of the city and people are impossible to overlook. So many of the locals we approached referenced big and small ways they were helping elevate their community and make their lives more livable. Perris Hill Park, in particular, is a nucleus of activity. On a daily basis, one can find families enjoying picnics or celebrating birthdays. Neighbors walk their dogs, dominoes enthusiasts host tournaments, and vast networks of ground squirrels feverishly expand their underground empire.
Still, it would be disingenuous and naive to ignore the atmosphere of hardship of the city. It was certainly palpable in the content of the oral histories that we gathered. Most of the stories we accumulated addressed stressful situations in some form. A girl recounted a drive-by shooting that took place at her home during her eighth-grade graduation party. "A bullet has no name on it," she said over and over again. A Vietnam veteran talked about battling post-traumatic stress disorder. A husband discussed his struggle to stay alcohol-free for his wife. A photojournalist visited the Lab to take pictures, noting, "I'm tired of covering homicides." This thread of adversity was also prevalent in the video artworks created by the community members.
In one of the hands-on workshops, two friends, Sid and Norm, set out to make a documentary about the people in the park. They asked a simple, open-ended question to jumpstart conversation -- "How are you?" Their search for an interview subject led them to a man sitting slumped at a picnic table, looking defeated.
Sid: "Hey, can we interview you for our documentary?"
Man: "What do I have to do?"
Norm: "Nothing. Just answer the question -- how are you? Will you do it?"
Man: "OK, but I'm going to give it to you real. Are you sure you want that?"
The man spoke openly about his struggle to make ends meet with only a part-time job. As he spoke, the filmmakers varied their shots. At one point they zoomed in for a close-up of his hand movements. At another interval, they set up a long shot to show the context of the park and his bicycle in the background -- mise-en-scene to create a richer story.
Another vignette centered on two shy teenagers. After posing the catalytic question, the young filmmakers then panned their camera lens down to reveal a baby in a stroller. This small camera movement changed the focus of their profile from one of an awkward teen couple, to one about teen parents. Later, at a screening of their work, LACMA staff talked to the group about open framing, a device filmmakers use to expose something outside of the initial frame (like a baby stroller) in order to surprise, delight, or stump the viewer. Despite not having the background to identify the very technique they employed in their short film, Sid and Norm, armed with excellent instincts, created a captivating account of a day in the park.
Ruminating on these kinds of experiences in San Bernardino, it seems five weeks really is enough time to build relationships within a community. Yet, precisely because of that, it could also feel fleeting without the capacity of film to immortalize these unique moments and interactions.
Special thanks to Jose Aguirre, Mitch Assumma, Henry Duro, Rebekah Kramer, Agustín J. Jiménez Santana, Jesse Sandoval, Andy Woods, and The James Irvine Foundation for supporting this project.
Additional contributing from Kate Marks.
The Altadena Art + Film Lab runs from Friday, September 13 to Sunday, October 13 in Charles White Park, Altadena. Opening night features live music by jazz quartet Louis Van Taylor band, and a special outdoor screening of the film Le Havré by Aki Kaurismäki. Hot dogs and chips are being generously provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. For more details, check out: www.lacma.org/artfilmlab.
Top Image: San Bernardino Art + Film participants capturing sound for Soundscape. | Photo: Duncan Cheng.
About the Author
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