MOVIES : Hangin' With the Homegirls : A woman director has a new take on gangs: She's focusing on Chicanas and integrating gang members into the cast and crew

Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It's nearly 2 a.m. and tensely quiet at the corner of Sunset and Echo Park. The streets are almost empty, and when a battered blue Dodge comes creaking down the hill, a cop flags it over for no apparent reason.

A couple of homeboys who have just gotten out of prison swap stories with some other neighborhood guys in the parking lot behind the Los Burritos stand and the Centro Medico.

Nearby, half a dozen younger cholos and cholas hang out by a Dumpster marked with the neighborhood tag, EchoXPark. One boy shows off a shiny multi-gadget switchblade that glints in the neon light cast by the Pioneer Chicken across the street.

A woman in a red sweater, a couple of decades older than the kids, approaches the pack. Without a hint of fear, she whisks out a measuring tape and goes to work checking one of the boys' jackets.

The intrusion doesn't bother anyone, but this isn't your typical pack of adolescent cholos . Although the woman clearly belongs to the film crew at work in the same back-alley parking lot, the homies are in fact real homies. It's just that some of them also happen to be acting in a movie this night.

On any other evening in the Echo Park barrio, you could easily tell the homies from the Hollywoodies. But not tonight, the final night of location shooting for director-writer Allison Anders' "Mi Vida Loca" (My Crazy Life). The first film about young women gang members--and the first mainstream picture to focus on Chicanas--the movie is as unusual for its subject matter as for the way it's being made, mixing real gang members into its cast and crew.

"Mi Vida Loca" is produced by Cineville Inc.--which also backed Anders' soon-to-be-released first feature, "Gas, Food, Lodging"--in conjunction with HBO Theatrical Showcase.

Anders' film has been cast with mostly unknown and slightly known actresses and actors, although higher-profile names such as the musicians Los Lobos, music supervisor Jelly Bean Benitez and rapper Kid Frost (who plays a cameo) are also on board. The director of photography is Rodrigo Garcia, son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Based on the young Latinos Anders met during the 10 years she lived in this neighborhood, "Mi Vida Loca" has integrated local residents with industry professionals. This mix has made the ride rough at times, but the hope is that it will give the film a ring of authenticity that would otherwise have been unattainable.

It is a project that would have seemed to have three strikes against it from the get-go. First, it deals with Latino culture, which remains an amazingly rare topic in Hollywood. Second, the story focuses on women, a first for the gang genre. And third, it is written and directed by a woman, still far from the industry's norm.

"The Chicano culture hasn't had much attention or validation as a whole, and there hasn't been any focus on the women," Anders says. "There's still this macho thing that (says) the hard core is in the boys' story. Well, this is about girls getting pregnant at 13 and getting thrown out of their homes. That's hard core to me.

"The real hard-core reality in this country is raising your child by yourself when you don't even have the Equal Rights Amendment to protect you, you're not getting the same wages (as a man), and there's nobody hunting down your old man to make him pay child support."

While "Mi Vida Loca" won't change all that, it could make one part of Los Angeles less invisible. "My hope is that it humanizes these girls--and boys too--so that when people walk down the street they don't think there's nothing valuable about their experience," Anders says. "I hope that they realize that there's stories in every single one of them."

Her long red hair is pinned on the side with a huge yellow daisy, framing intense blue eyes and ivory skin. Tattoos peek out from the neckline of her multicolored print dress, where strings of beads point down toward black tennies. She sits cross-legged on the floor of her office at the Lacy Street studios during a break in filming, trying to wolf down a few bites of dinner as she gives an interview.

Allison Anders could well be, as she quips, "some older hippie baby-sitter," but she's hardly that laid-back. Warm to the point of effusiveness, she seems to know virtually everyone, never forgets to use your name and is quick to launch into intense discussions.

The bohemianism comes naturally to Anders--the product, perhaps, of a relatively rebellious life. She grew up in rural Kentucky, running away from home as a teen-ager and landing more than once in foster homes or jail.

She came to L.A. at the age of 15 and took off for England at 18, returning home somewhat later with a baby daughter in tow. The daughter of a single mother who is herself a single mother--as well as an ex-waitress/philosophy student/childbirth teacher/poet and UCLA Film School graduate--Anders has now made two films that treat the burdens of women raising children alone.

"Gas Food Lodging," which opens in New York on Friday and here on August 14, came about because Anders knew producer Bill Ewart from their days at UCLA film school. "I owe my career to Bill," says Anders of the man who, as part of Cineville, gave her the break. "They wanted to do a woman- centered film with female characters controlling it and they thought that I would be good for the project because I was a single mom."

Pleased with her work on "Gas Food Lodging," Cineville was eager to do "Mi Vida Loca." "It was the subject matter and that I took a humanistic approach," says Anders. Originally budgeted at a meager $300,000, it will probably wind up costing about $1.5 million. "'Plus there weren't any gang projects out there at the time. They felt that they were seeing something that was inside the lifestyle of people they were afraid of."

Anders spent two years researching her script. On daily walks around the park, she noticed the young girls hanging out. "I was so intimidated by these girls, which is why I wanted to write about them," she recalls.

The hardest part was breaking the ice. The first person she met was 13-year-old Nelida Lopez, a.k.a. Whisper, who is now 16 and making her acting debut playing herself in a major role in the film.

When Anders finally began talking with Whisper, she told the young girl that she wanted to write a film. Anders asked to meet with Whisper and her friends about the project. "They'd say 'yah, sure, we'll meet you at the gas station at 5,' and I'd go, but they wouldn't show up," she recalls.

This routine went on for months, until Anders enlisted the help of a couple of locals--including one guy who used to sell drugs in front of her house--to break the stalemate. "I said 'just tell them I'm not a cop,' " says Anders, paraphrasing her instructions to her new intermediaries. The strategy worked and Anders got her meetings with the gang girls.

Anders then wrote the script in short order, consulting with the gang members along the way to make the dialogue and situations as realistic as possible.

The story Anders began with remains one of the script's central plot lines. Based on an actual situation that Anders learned about from her daughter Devon, it features the characters Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousie (Seidy Lopez), two girlhood pals who become pregnant by the same boy.

They then become archenemies, but the fact that they eventually realize their power together exemplifies Anders' feminism. As well, in the shifting roles of gang members, Anders found a generational change in the women that became central to "Mi Vida Loca."

"It used to be that the older homegirls were appendages to the men, the girlfriend," Anders says. "Now, they back up the boys, but they have their own deals and meetings."

These changes are the result of both increased violence in gang life, due largely to the drug trade, as well as other social realities.

"While this was always a dangerous subculture, the drive-bys have made it totally different," Anders says. "The girls get pregnant much younger than they did in the older generations. And the boys are getting killed, maimed or put in jail much younger. So the girls are left to take care of these kids on their own. Economically, it's become a lot different."

Moreover, she says, feminism has reached the cholas : "It's affected them as much as anybody else. They're not getting slapped around and told what to do by these boys. They're fiercely independent."

Says musician-producer Jelly Bean Benitez, the film's music supervisor: "The women in Hispanic society have always been secondary. It's an old-world value. But there are a lot more Hispanic women in college, more doctors and lawyers and women in the work force, so the values are changing. Whether the male population is ready for that, I don't know."

But feminism has yet to beat the increasing feminization of poverty. "I don't believe in the family unit as this great big wonderful thing," Anders says. "It's just that the economic burden of raising a child alone in this society is disgusting."

The weekday afternoon sun shimmers off Echo Park Lake as clusters of teen-agers, men and women with children stroll the palm-lined pathways. A vendor in white sells flavored ices to a doe-eyed young couple, as a cop on a bike stops to look over the playground.

As a father pushes his son on the swing set, two young mothers gather up their children and head up the hill. They are halfway toward the top, just past the man hawking inflatable toys that hang from a red-white-and-blue umbrella sticking out of a grocery cart, when someone shouts, "Cut!" and all the movement comes to a halt.

Once again, you can't tell the real Echo Park folks from the fake ones, as the "Mi Vida Loca" filming continues. Today, some of the locals have been turned temporarily into day players, hired on the spot as extras to do exactly what they were doing: hanging out in the park with their kids.

Only when the "cut" call comes and one of the young mothers runs to pass off her screaming infant to its real mama--a less glamorous woman in a teal fringed outfit--can you begin to tell the actresses from the Echo Park women. That the two groups mix so well is one of the achievements of "Mi Vida Loca."

"We always anticipated that the mixing of the gang kids and the actors was going to be one of the challenges," says HBO's Colin Callender. "But we thought it would give the whole film an edge to put in this mix of talent."

Using the real thing, however, created problems of its own. For one, the gang members are in fact kids, and minors require work permits. Yet to get work permits, the producers had to prove that the gang members were in good standing in school--a problem since most of these young people don't go to school at all.

"These kids have slipped through a system," says producer Dan Hassid. "They're ready to be passed over, so it tests your mettle. It's not like you just say, 'Here's your call time, see you then.' "

More serious problems arose when the limits between the real and fictional worlds got blurred. One night, for instance, the camera car drove into a rival gang's turf. Cholas on the street flashed their gang sign to the actresses riding in the back of a vehicle being towed by the camera car. The actresses threw back the Echo Park sign--just as they had been coached for the shoot--and shots rang out. The bullets bounced off the windshield and no one was hurt, but it was too close for comfort.

There were also initial tensions between the actresses and the gang members who were acting. "Obviously, the gang girls are intimidating," Anders says. "That's their whole deal. They were checking (the actresses) out from head to toe."

In fact, a pre-shoot picnic for the cast, crew and neighborhood got lousy reviews. "It didn't work," recalls Christina Solis, a Chicana from Oxnard who plays the gang member Baby Doll. "(The gang girls) were all in their little cliques. I felt 2 inches high."

Time, however, softened the relations between the gang girls and the actresses. "Now I understand that they were reluctant to have people come in and portray them," Solis says.

On the other hand, there were those who welcomed their lives being put on film, including Anders' former Echo Park neighbor Rudy Bermudez, a.k.a. Joker Bird. Panchito Gomez's character in the film is based on and named after Joker Bird.

"I'm privileged," says the outgoing Joker Bird, when asked how he felt about an actor portraying him. "I feel good about it. I must be something."

Other gang members helped in other ways. "When I did my role--an ex- cholo who leaves the life and gets married--we asked the vatos and homegirls what would have happened in this situation," says actor Ric Salinas of the comedy group Culture Clash, who was himself near-fatally shot by a young gang member a few years ago in San Francisco. "They knew, and they were telling the cameraman. Allison was working with them side by side."

"Allison didn't go into the stereotypes," Salinas continues. "White people who don't live in the barrio wanted to dirty (the interior scenes) up and make it look poorer. Allison made a point of making it like it really is, poor but neat. That was responsible."

The kind of pride expressed by Joker Bird and others who have participated in the production is similar to feelings evoked by previous gang films. "That was the value of 'American Me' and 'Boulevard Nights,' that their experience was on the screen, without a moral judgment," Anders says. "You go and hear your lingo and see your clothes and rituals and rites of passage."

Yet none of the gang films have approached the lifestyle from this film's female perspective. " 'American Me' validated the experience for the boys, but not for the girls," Anders says. "Most teen-age girls have a lack of self-esteem. Gang members have a greater lack than most young people, partly because their experience is never validated."

Actress and gang member Whisper concurs: "Things have been mostly based on the guys. People don't see that the girls have the same pressures. They get shot and go through all that too. I'm sure it will change some people's minds. They should have done it a long time ago."

Yet even though film has now begun to include the woman's side of gang life, it still needs to move beyond gangs. Recent films such as Edward James Olmos' "American Me" and Taylor Hackford's upcoming "Blood In, Blood Out" may be investigating gang life from new vantage points--and providing work for Latino actors, albeit in all-too-familiar kinds of roles--but the emphasis on gangs just reinforces negative stereotypes. Especially in Los Angeles, where 40% of the population is Latino and includes people in all income brackets and lifestyles, the time seems ripe for Hollywood to leave behind this limited vision.

"It's always the subculture that gets exposure first; then you're able to open up into other stories," Anders says. "Latino and Latina actors and actresses won't just be playing gang members. There'll be other stories to tell."

Yet for all the excitement a film like this can generate, it also stirs its share of controversy, partly because the issues of representation and cultural equity it raises are so far from resolved.

Not everyone in the Latino community is thrilled with "Mi Vida Loca." While acknowledging the diversity of its cast, critics argue that even though it's a Chicana story, none of the key power-wielders--from the writer-director and the producers to the editor and the design team--are Chicano. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Garcia is a Colombian-born Mexican citizen.) It is yet another example of how few opportunities Latinos have had to tell their own stories in the mainstream film and television industry.

Then too there are the effects of the filming on the Echo Park neighborhood and the gang members to be considered. "I know that the effect will be lasting, although it's not up to me to decide what the effect will be," Anders says. "Early into the shoot, they started talking about what happens when we leave. I told them that I'll try and keep them involved as much as possible."

Anders plans, for example, to screen early cuts of the film for gang members who worked on the project. Also, some of the teen-agers have expressed interest in pursuing acting and other film work. While they'll be able to count on help from the director and her contacts, that may be a difficult transition to make.

"Our hope is that we are able to touch these kids' lives," says producer Hassid. "It's not just (a situation where) a bunch of people from Hollywood come and use it as a backdrop and then leave."

Still, once the production is over, the jobs are gone. Whatever the benefit to the Echo Park cholas , it won't be as significant as the film's potential impact on the viewing public.

"I have grandiose hopes that there'll be support for these girls and their babies, options from the communities they live in," Anders says. "Instead of yuppies buying their first home in Echo Park and then deciding, 'Let's get rid of these gang kids because they're writing on our walls,' they'll stop to think about what's going on here.

"There's a need. Otherwise, these kids would not be putting their names all over the city. They're trying to make themselves heard."

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