Ben Caldwell's 'Fresh' Approach to Film Making

Small-scale independent productions are commonplace, but the unlikely genesis of film maker Ben Caldwell's "I-Fresh" is a far cry from standard Hollywood fare.

It's an outgrowth of a project--the "I-Fresh Express"--that Caldwell inaugurated on a California Arts Council grant to "pass on mass communications skills to black youth."

"I'm trying to create an environment where we can get more actively involved with the (film) medium," Caldwell, 41, explained recently at the I-Fresh studio in the Crenshaw District. "I don't want to work with people who have been hurt in the world so I've been working with youth.

"They think there's nothing that can't be done and I like that attitude. What I want to do after the film is done is to back it up by hiring them on another film, and keep that up until we die."

Caldwell's first California Arts Council artist-in-community grant came in 1986; he recently received his third to extend the program through 1988. The $1,200 monthly stipend he receives is designed to establish the artist within the community and enable that artist to pass on his or her skills.

At the I-Fresh creative workshop, he helps performers hone their skills as dancers, singers and rappers. Another class focuses on the technical aspects of writing, camera operation and direction. Caldwell estimates that 300 to 500 people have passed through the workshop; he has a standing pool of 75 youths to work with.

To date, he has made four non-feature films that were exhibited on the museum circuit. He co-wrote the "I-Fresh" film with Charles Burnett and Mel Preston, describing it as a love story that follows a black youth from his final months at high school through his first weeks at college. Caldwell stressed that the "I-Fresh" movie is a separate project produced by his Video 3333 company; none of the funding from the arts council grant for the I-Fresh Express workshop is being used to finance the film. The cast and crew include professionals working for nothing except career exposure, but 75% of the cast, most of whom will be featured as performers in nightclub scenes, have gone through the workshop.

According to Caldwell, the initial impetus was the three years he spent teaching film and television at Howard University in Washington from 1981 to 1983.

"The youth movement in D.C. was called go go, and I really got involved with it," he recalled. "I said I'm going to find out what the youth culture in Los Angeles is about and evolve a project that lets the L.A. youth define it.

"It was like demographic research, trying to figure out what it was the kids wanted and how to give it to them. I don't try to define their parameters--I just help them sophisticate what they're about."

After 18 months of research, Caldwell observed that rap music and graffiti art were the chosen creative forms. His interest in those styles initially aroused skepticism.

"The first time I met Ben, I thought he was a con artist," said Stacie Barnett, 17. "When you see an older man dressed like a teen-ager and using teen-age slang words, you think he's joking. I was wondering if he was for real until we started talking and I found out he was really serious."

Favorable mention from early participants drew teen-agers to the I-Fresh Express workshop from as far away as Compton and Long Beach. Then Caldwell faced a different challenge: deflating the fears of parents who weren't too enamored of their children spending time on rap and graffiti art.

"All those things disappeared almost the instant they saw a full-grown adult with a gray beard sitting here," he said. "It helped being a Howard professor because that's like Harvard University to the black community."

In financing the film "on a wing and a prayer," Caldwell has relied heavily on volunteer services and funds from parents and friends. High school teacher Charletta Johnson, 36, impressed by his efforts, not only steered students to the workshop but also volunteered the use of her Windsor Hills home for interior film locations.

"We black people have to help ourselves," she declared. "Working with images is a big responsibility. It's a power, a weapon that's been used to manipulate us."

Caldwell has virtually completed shooting of "I-Fresh," and now his chief concern is shepherding the film through post-production.

"I've hunted for financiers and we're doing that now," said Caldwell. "I'm doing it as a means to develop a way for us to have our own viewpoint on the screen and fight for it to the point where we'll suffer with next to nothing now."

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