Monday, November 22, 2010

Meeting Tony

The story of my current film project WT: Citizen is told from three primary perspectives: the one of Deputy Flores a custody deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, Diego, a normal teenager with a solid upbringing drawn to his local street gang and Flaco, a young, hard core street gangster. In order to tell this story authentically and as realistic as possible I am collaborating with people who want to contribute their knowledge and their experiences and thus make it possible to develop an organic story that is rooted in every day life.
On a Volunteer Orientation Day (after two months I am still waiting to be approved) at the Southern Youth Correctional Reception Center and Clinic (SYCRCC) in Norwalk, CA, I met Tony (name changed), a soon to be released inmate and former gang member. 
Tony is part of the Incentive Program at the Center, which gives inmates not only the opportunity to earn certain luxuries and privileges but can also help qualifying for an early release. On Monday, November 15th I had a meeting with SYCRCC staff and Tony’s treatment team to discuss the potential of hiring him as a Technical Advisor and possibly talent in the film.

I arrived at the center a little late. 11AM was the time set for the meeting with Cassandra Stansberry the Superintendent of the center and Tony’s parole team. I didn’t know the members of that team and I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was going to be a review of the proposal I submitted a couple weeks earlier. In that proposal I wrote that I would like to meet Tony, interview him to see if he’s interested and then step by step introduce him to the story and ideally hire him as a Technical Advisor to develop the script together and possibly bring him on board later on for a job in production.

I asked if on that occasion I was going to be able to actually meet with Tony to pitch him the project and get to know him just a little better. That was confirmed. Anyway, I arrived and after making it through security I was welcomed in a conference room by William Jones, the head of Tony’s treatment team, Pamela Robinson, the Public Outreach Coordinator and Richard Laffin, Tony’s Parole Agent. I briefly introduced myself and the project and there wasn’t much time to breathe before a mountain of potential and very likely obstacles was unloaded on me. I’m a pragmatic realist so I appreciated that very much – to know what I might be looking at here.

Initially, we had somewhat of a minor misunderstanding since it was assumed I wanted to bring Tony on board while he was incarcerated. Even though that is actually possible, it would mean I have to go through the Justice System with my proposal, show credentials and the single most important thing, which I don’t have, a broadcast sponsor – an entity they can rely on. That all makes sense of course and there are alternatives to the sponsor but I’m glad I don’t have to go through that time and eventually money consuming process because Tony’s release seems to be a matter of weeks. (After their release inmates go on parole and the first phase of that is a kind of halfway house. Parolees spend 30-60 days in “isolation” to insure as smooth of a reintegration as possible. Tony will be going to a Southern California farm.) This still involves a certain amount of bureaucracy and obviously there are a number of restrictions for the parolee, but if this co-op in its infancy turns out to be fruitful we won’t be stopped by those.

The “official” meeting was over and Mr. Laffin took me out on the yard to meet with Tony. When I first met him on Orientation Day it was him and his friend Will (name changed), who helped the Volunteer Coordinator run things. Will is also part of the aforementioned Incentive Program, which consists of dozens of youth. I was told if anyone at the facility has a shot at turning their life around or rather continuing what they started in Norwalk, it’s Will and Tony – both former gang-members incarcerated for attempted murder.

Mr. Laffin and I walk outside. A group of youngsters, counselors and foster-grandmas stand together. This sounds harmonious, and it is and overall I have the impression that this facility has many great, inspired folks working with the youth. But it hasn’t always been that way I was told and of course the tough, really serious cases don’t have the freedoms that many others at the center have.

Tony saw us walk up and he comes over to greet us. He’s a social, soft-spoken, communicative guy so it doesn’t take long to get a casual conversation going after we sit down at one of the picnic tables. The main objective really was to figure out if he was genuinely interested and down to do some work together. Even though I did have the feeling he was and I think we laid down a solid, first foundation, all that, including trust building and ideally a dedication from him to the project we’ll have to take step-by-step and constantly re-evaluate. He’ll have to understand the scope of this potential collaboration and all that aside, this kid has the toughest five years of his life ahead of him. And this project, this job has to help him in that way otherwise there is no point in working together.

It was suggested to me in the “official” meeting before, that Tony and Will work best as a team so after an hour Will joins us at the picnic table. Both end up openly sharing their stories and I might go into these another time if I’m given the permission too. Not surprisingly these two both had to grow up in non-existent or dysfunctional family environments. Nonetheless both left a fun, social and smart impression on me today with a certain kind of enlightenment I dare to say. After it’s been screened by the administration both will receive a treatment of the story we’re going to be working with and I’m now waiting to hear back from them. I’m very curious to see where this goes. And I hope you are too.

Stay tuned!

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