Arts Establishing shot 

At SAY Sí, young filmmakers find their focus by trying on all the hats

With wavy blond hair cut long and combed forward to swoop over his eyes, Travis English looks like a 17-year-old surfer caught miles away from the water. But while wake boarding is a hobby, English dreams of more than big air and Canadian Bacon jumps.

"I really admire George Lucas because he's managed to build a film empire," he says. "That's what I'd like to do, so I could be the head guy, and be able to do the editing, visual, and sound for all my films."

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Film students Travis English and Sara Hinojosa work with a computer editing system at Say Sí in the Blue Star Arts Complex. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

English is finishing up a summer in the SAY Sí media arts program, a year-long class that teaches inner-city kids website development, animation, digital photography, game development, graphic design, and filmmaking. For the last five months, English and fellow student Sara Hinojosa have worked with classmates to produce the 30-minute films they wrote, directed, and in English's case, edited. This week, 26 Mirror and El Mar, English and Hinojosa's respective films, will screen at Santiko's Mayan Palace.

The goal of SAY Sí is to give kids not only a creative outlet, but also a marketable skill and the confidence to use it. "I try to teach the kids to dream unreasonably, take unreasonable action, and get unreasonable results," says Pablo Veliz, media arts instructor at SAY Sí. "You can be a kid and make a feature film. Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) did it at 23."

These words are like a mantra to Veliz, a graduate of the SAY Sí visual-arts program. After high school, he earned a fine-arts degree in painting from San Antonio College. While there, he became obsessed with filmmaking. Rather than change the course of his degree, he studied how-to books at the library, teaching himself the basics of screenwriting, directing, and editing.

Last spring, he premiered his first serious work, La Tragedia de Marcario, a short film based on the true story of 19 illegal immigrants who died in 2003 in a trailer en route to Houston, to an audience of 800 at McAllister Auditorium. "An unreasonable number," he says. How did he get them there? "I invited them. I just told every person I met we were making a film."

At 22, Veliz admits that, although extremely focused and serious, he is still just a kid and that makes teaching at SAY Sí a challenge at times. "For kids, work occurs as play, which is fun, but not when we are making a movie. When there are professional actors on the set, we can't be playing around. So I have to be a little strict; they don't like that."

El Mar and 26 Mirror

Thu, Aug 11
$5 suggested donation

Santikos Mayan Palace Theater
1918 SW Military
For information, call SAY Sí 212-8666

"It's interesting working with Pablo," adds English. "Sometimes he's your goofy friend, and other times he's the producer saying, Get this done!"

English's film is a "tragic drama," in which six people - a drug addict, a married couple, a cop whose wife has kicked him out, a girl visiting her boyfriend, and a painter - stay in the same hotel room at different times. As the film bounces between short scenes, there's not a lot of dialogue to guide the audience. Instead, English relies on subtitles to carry the narrative, much like a silent film, while the actors quietly emote. For inspiration, he points to Sean Penn's performance in Mystic River. "With just a look, you can tell what he's feeling, the emotional struggle, that's what I wanted," he says. "I also like the bizarre, choppy editing style of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I tried to put that in my film, too."

For the most part it works, and English is able to bring the snippets full circle, but some of the depth of his plot synopsis is missing from the film, perhaps because that wasn't his focus. "It isn't exactly a plot," he says, "just lives. I got the idea one day while I was talking on the phone in the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, There's a drug addict. That's where it all came from."

English is very clear that, although he enjoyed working with co-author Fred Wood to turn his story idea into a screenplay, he prefers to work alone. "I like to do it all," he says. "I didn't want to write `the film` unless I got to direct it. Someone else's vision might not be right for what I wrote."

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Hinojosa, on the other hand, is not interested in becoming a film mogul. "Directing was pretty great, but my main passion is writing, that's what I focused on," she says.

Her film is about a single mother, Victoria, struggling to provide for three children. Her youngest, Julieta, has a mysterious illness for which she can't afford a doctor or medication. While she works, her son cooks dinner and watches out for his younger sisters. "The story is based on a boy I met while vacationing with my family in Oaxaca," Hinojosa says. "He had a brother that was sick and he was selling gum on the street to make money for his family, but he was still in school. He was only 10, but he was so hopeful."

For Hinojosa, the most intimidating aspect of making the film was the table read, where they shared their scripts with the class and solicited feedback. "It was my first critique situation," she admits. "It was very scary. I couldn't look at anyone; I just stared down at the page because I thought they would hate it."

But it went well, she says. "It was really surprising, everyone loved the idea. One of the girls even cried - it was great. That sounds funny, but it was cool to affect somebody like that just by writing."

In the end, the group's greatest concern was that the mother sounded like a 16-year-old. "I had to bring in my own mother and my friends' mothers and really study them," she says. "Victoria is a lot of my mother."

"I got the idea one day while I was talking on the phone in the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, There's a drug addict. That's where it all came from."

- Travis English

Hinojosa's dialogue is Spanglish poetry; it's more elegant than the way most of us express ourselves, but it conveys the emotion and it's clear she enjoyed writing it. "I think I'm more of a fiction person than a screenwriter," she says. "In screenwriting you are constrained by dialogue and setting. In fiction, you're free to invent, it's more personal."

Like English, there's also the small issue of creative control. "I'm pretty satisfied with the film," Hinojosa says. "I wanted the actors to be exactly like the characters were on paper, and that didn't work out. But a lot of the success of the writing came out because of the actors."

English wishes he'd had more time. "A lot of the filming, I had to do things because it was the easiest way to get it done, not the best," he says, "and I would have liked a longer film, so that I could have had more time to redeem the characters."

As for Veliz, he only hopes the kids picked up some of his zeal for filmmaking along the way. "Sometimes the kids forget they are at SAY Sí for a reason: to be passionate filmmakers," he says. "I could teach them skills and knowledge, but I just never figured out how to teach them passion. And I see so much stored energy just not being used - but I know that all of them could be passionate."

By Susan Pagani



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