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18 Years of the Ghetto Film School

September 19, 2018
3 min read time

 The legacy of the Ghetto Film School (GFS) is one that echoes: Inner-city youth graduate, become leaders and feed the rise of the next generation of artists like themselves.

That’s according to Sharese Bullock-Bailey, the school’s chief strategy and partnership officer.

“[The students] are creating an industry … of hardworking, multitalented emerging voices like their very own,” she said.

This positive cycle started in 2000 when GFS’s president, Joe Hall, founded the school. A former social worker, Hall wanted to create opportunities in film for young people in the South Bronx.

“If you walked into the South Bronx back then, you would realize very quickly that there were very few … structured opportunities in schools for any arts education program,” Bullock-Bailey said.

“The goal specifically was not only to create a safe environment, but a space that would really give deep honor and development for [the students’] artistic growth and creativity.”

As for the name, “ghetto” is an ironic play on words.

“It’s that whole idea to put a positive spin on that negative sentiment; that something in their community would actually have great worth and value,” Bullock-Bailey said.

An influence far and wide

Eighteen years later, GFS has grown from after-school workshops to a non-profit organization. Today, GFS also offers two 30-month fellows programs; one in New York and one in Los Angeles.

These programs, according to Bullock-Bailey, were created to educate, develop and celebrate the next generation of American storytellers.

“We do that in two ways: By identifying talent in the communities that we serve and providing [our students] with … the resources to pursue creative careers,” she said.

Thirty students between 14 and 18 are selected for the fellow programs, which are tuition-free.

According to Bullock-Bailey, the school gets up to 220 applications for the coveted spots and staff do not preselect those with backgrounds in film.

“We really find young people who have a creative drive and hunger, but might not have had that exposure in the past and certainly are willing to commit to the program,” she said.

“We don't get involved in their day-to-day life or anything outside of GFS. We will really only focus on their commitment and dedication exclusively to storytelling and filmmaking.”

Community educators, career counsellors and guidance counsellors help identify youth who are interested in the school. The youth then submit a written application and some are selected for an interview. While there, they complete a creative exercise as well.

“[They] are asked to put together a pitch based on visual images …Based on their merit and commitment and that story set-up, we are able to choose and curate the students,” Bullock-Bailey said.

For 30 months, 1,000 hours of coursework are completed as students learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking; from writing a script to production and lighting. Throughout the program, they are introduced to opportunities that make up the film industry.

Most importantly, they make several films of their own — once, as international thesis students, with the opportunity of a production level of $100,000.

In previous years, thesis students have traveled as far as London and Tokyo for their films.

As committed as students are to their education, so is GFS to students — even beyond graduation.

“We really follow them to the point where you say you never really leave the GFS family,” Bullock-Bailey said.

“It really is an investment in their long-term career and lifelong development as artists and leaders in the creative world.”

Chris Butler, who graduated in 2009, has maintained the mentorship of founding member David O. Russell, for example.

Butler is a now a production coordinator at advertising company 72AndSunny. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles to start his career, initially landing the role of agent with Paradigm.

“He was able to make sure to contribute to GFS in terms of time and being someone … who can open doors for other students,” Bullock-Bailey said.

Alvy Johnson, another graduate, went on to Columbia University for her graduate degree in filmmaking production. Recently, she made it into some writers’ rooms.

“She … was dedicated to her teaching career at GFS while building up her own career and building up her credit as a writer,” Bullock-Bailey said.

While no one can predict the future, Bullock-Bailey believes the students and alumni of GFS — and their legacy — are “truly changing the way.”

“They are not just getting a job or filling a role, but leading with their vision,” she said.

“They don’t just have a seat at the table but in many ways, they are creating their own.”

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