At the screening in Chinatown Wednesday night of the four documentaries made by 12 young men in the Warriors for Peace pilot project, the excitement of having produced and appearing in publicly distributed content seemed to fascinate the 70 or so young people who gathered for the premiere. Many showed a familiarity with the stories told, and moments of silence punctuated a few intense scenes.
From dating violence to street shootouts, the documentaries explored some of the most pressing safety issues affecting young people in Oakland, highlighting at every opportunity that violence was avoidable. Warriors for Peace, a 32 week pilot project run by the Chinatown Youth Center Initiative (also known as The Spot) sought to help troubled teens learn from their experiences by providing counseling and teaching them how to use storytelling as a creative outlet for issues confronting young people.
Dating violence, probably a familiar subject with some of the teens who packed The Spot’s improvised showing room, was main focus of the first mini-documentary to premiere, Love, Coulda, Would, Shoulda, an emotionally charged story that encapsulates the challenges of violence within adolescent relationships. The story, almost entirely set in one room with two characters, a young teen couple, follows the escalation of a dispute within a relationship from just a mere disagreement to assault. A young man ignores his girlfriend to practice playing musical instruments at his home while she sits outside. The situation degenerates once he lets her into the house, and a fight ensues.
Real Life in Oakland (also known as We R The Realist), another four-minute story, depicted public perceptions of the state of violent crime in Oakland. Told from the perspective of residents through a series of interviews, Real Life in Oakland came the closest of the four productions to reflecting what daily life on the streets of Oakland looks like for residents. The story, accompanied by the distinctive rhythm of slain Oakland–raised rapper Tupac Shakur’s “Changes,” was probably the most compelling of the four, yet it steered clear of their personal experiences. Real Life in Oakland opens with scenes from some of Oakland’s neighborhoods, partially shot from a moving vehicle, and gives the viewer a touristy perspective of the city, before slowing down to halt and going into a few interviews.
“A lot of my friends were in gangs, and I realized that if I continued to stand by them I would become affiliated,” said Khalil Diego Phan-King, 16, who was on the Real Life production team. “I have learned a lot from working with others to make this documentary, and would like to work with at-risk youth.”
A third film, Where You From? Oakland was probably the most reflective of commonly held images of the state of violence in Oakland. The story opens with local television news coverage of crime scenes in the city, including some in which live gunfire was captured on camera. The producers go on to ask residents in different settings about the causes of violent crime in the city, showing the constant state of fear that violent crime has created among some residents.
“When I tell people I am from Oakland they ask, ‘So, are you a gangster?’” a man says in the film. “I am not a gangster.”
With all participants in the Warriors for Peace project being Oakland residents, there was a clear intent among participants to push back against stereotypical perceptions of the city as a hotbed of violence and explain the causes of the cases that do occur. Correcting stereotypical perceptions seemed to be the main theme of Town Stories, which sought to find out what people in Oakland think about violence by getting personal accounts from residents interviewed on the street.
The Spot had designed the Warriors for Peace program to provide an alternative outlet for young men to discuss the issues affecting them, including causes of violent crime and the use of illicit substances. Speaking after the premiere of the mini-documentary, Phan-King said many young people in Oakland lacked mentorship. “We need more male mentors in Oakland,” Phan-King, who himself lives in a single parent home in Fruitvale, said. “Many young people have no father figures. I love my mom, but there are things I don’t feel comfortable talking to her about.”
Darion Jefferson, a theatre major at San Francisco State University who worked with Phan-King on Real Life in Oakland, said although he had not personally experienced violence in the city, he wanted to use the skills gained from the Warriors for Peace project to make more documentaries. “I decided to join Warriors for Peace as a way of getting started in documentary production,” Jefferson said, “I learned to be patient, that persistence is key, and that people of different races have the same goals and aspirations.”
Project coordinator Michael Tran said The Spot would enter the mini-documentaries in film festivals for awards and upload them to social media sites for the public. Tran said the mini-documentaries had been restricted to four minutes as a way of teaching participants the importance of time management and editing skills.
The Warriors for Peace project cost $24,000 to run, according to Sherilyn Hue Tran, the director of the Chinatown Youth Center. The second run of the project is expected to begin in the fall, with some of the participants from the pilot project serving as mentors.
“It’s good to finally see the work that these guys have been doing over the last year,” said Lucie Chan, an Oakland resident who attended the premiere. “People listen when stories are told from the perspective of the affected young people themselves.”