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After the screening of the great documentary by YES Philly students, Pushouts, which was featured on NBC 10 recently, it’s clear that the field of youth media in Philadelphia is (finally) rising in visibility and importance. More than 700 people packed the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue on Tuesday evening, June 7, for the premiere of two videos produced by by Philadelphia teens participating in a program developed by the Village of Arts and Humanities and The Well Productions.

The Voices of Youth Anti-Violence Project was funded by Zane David Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  He explains the project as helping to break the cycle of victimization through crime, and conveying a message about the impact that violence has had on the lives of young people, their families and their communities. In a very real sense, youth media programs provide opportunities that can, both literally and figuratively, save people’s lives.

“Know(the)Ledge,” a film produced by students under the supervision of The Village’s El Sawyer and Jonathan Kaufman, offers a postmodern narrative about the consequences of hanging with the wrong people. The film begins with a boy, face down on a police car, being handcuffed by an undercover cop. In the story, we meet this alienated young man, whose spirit awakens through participation an after-school poetry program. His desire to attend a poetry slam weekend leads him to join a gang of teens planning a robbery.

In this film, it’s clear that young people were smack dab at the center of the production: they developed the story, wrote the script, shot the footage, and edited the film. The film includes some unexpected moments as the girlfriend notifies the police about the impending crime (causing a mix of laughter and sneers from an audience inured to Philadelphia’s “no-snitching” code). There is a lovely scene where the boy’s profound anxiety and confusion about his participation in the crime is palpably depicted through a combination of acting, camera movement and editing. And there is the requisite police chase scene, where it looks like all the young actors are having a lot of fun running through hallways, lawns and down back alleys, playing cops and robbers.

“My Block is Crazy,” produced by Ozzie Jones and Will Brock, offers a pastiche of images of city life, including images of walking broken city sidewalks, taking the subway and driving down N. Broad Street late at night. These images are interspersed with interviews with teens themselves about their definition of violence, webcam footage of themselves talking about the challenges they face growing up and the impact of violence on members of their family.

In this film, we sense that teens who participated in the project were the subjects, not the authors, of the film. It’s unlikely that youth participants edited the film. However, it’s clear that students held the cameras, interviewing themselves and each other. One of the most poignant moments in the film depicts the story of a young boy who describes being bullied for identifying himself as gay.

Clips from local news about last summer’s flash mobs add color but don’t offer much in the way of critical analysis of news representations of violence in the city. In this film, we see elements of the program in action: students had opportunities to learn about violence in Philadelphia from leaders in juvenile probation by attending special seminars. Students also conducted an interview with Major Michael Nutter in a conference room setting but the sound quality limits its value – as is the challenge in several other interviews as well.

The most disturbing moment in this film included in the rambling montage depict what appears to be documentary footage of two girls fighting on a city street, with hair pulling, shoving, hitting and taunts, and the usual spectators hanging on, themselves also cheering, pushing and shoving. I found myself wishing that this footage had been treated with more care. Are these teens being re-victimized by the film footage itself, in an age where “happy slapping” YouTube videos makes real (and re-enacted) fights another form of entertainment? As it is, we viewers are positioned as helpless spectators as the film makes no effort to interrogate the responsibilities of either the participants or the spectators of violent acts.

For young people growing up in Philadelphia today, the topic of violence is probably the most relevant and important issue in their lives. Growing up in a media-saturated society, where movies and TV shows depict violence as an essential component of storytelling, these teens are attempting to unravel complex sociological phenomenon by means of personal storytelling. That’s not an easy business.

But students who participated in making these film got a real gift:  a chance to develop trusting relationships with peers and adults, learn the joys and challenges of collaboration, and see themselves as capable and competent communicators who can use language, image and sound to convey ideas.

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