In "A Time for Life" (at 8 tonight on KTLA-TV Channel 5), a frail teen-age boy fishing over the side of a boat is having trouble reeling in his catch. An older boy, excitedly urging him not to give up, braces him and helps hold the fishing rod steady.
Nothing much to that scene, unless you know that the younger boy, part of a loving family, is incurably ill and that the older one has been legally labeled "a menace to society" and is on temporary leave from a maximum-security juvenile prison camp, where he is serving time for selling drugs.
The two had met, warily, for the first time that day.
This is the sixth in filmmaker Lee Stanley's unorthodox series of documentaries, which include the recent "A Step Apart," a candid exploration of step-family stresses, and the 1988 Emmy Award-winning "Desperate Passage," an ocean odyssey that pitted seven hard-core juvenile offenders against the elements aboard Stanley's 58-foot sailboat.
Stanley, a burly 49, doesn't simply film what's happening; he is the reason it happens. Given unprecedented access to the juvenile authority system, Stanley has been combining social work with sailing for the last nine years; he has been involved with violent teen-age criminals as both a volunteer chaplain and as a filmmaker for 11 years.
Of his most recent venture, Stanley said it was his son, Shane Stanley, 21, who suggested that "we take three hard-core guys, locked up for violent crimes, and bring them together with three kids who are critically ill but cherish life. Our hope was that it would pass on the joy of life to those who have little value for it."
In the film, circumstances shorten the planned three-day voyage off Catalina Island, but the show's follow-up report suggests that at least one teen-age offender was affected enough to try changing his life.
Stanley began working with incarcerated youths after a chance meeting in 1982 with an inmate at Camp David Gonzales, a California facility for juvenile offenders.
"He absolutely hated life," Stanley said. "He hated me, hated everything." Stanley, an independent film producer and director, said he realized then "that there were young people who had no idea how to live their lives and no one to teach them."
He and his wife, Linda, who had been a special-education teacher and is now his colleague on the films, committed themselves to helping. They formed the Wings Foundation, a nonprofit organization that for several years helped released youths deal with their lives on the outside.
Meanwhile, Stanley said, he became a minister in his church in order to volunteer as a chaplain for the juvenile authority. Two years later, authorities were willing to entrust inmates into Stanley's custody. He showed them how to crew a sailboat.
"I love sailing," he said. "And I thought that by getting kids out of their circumstances, they'd be more willing to think about their lives."
Backed financially by ex-police commissioner and Galpin Motors owner H. F. (Bert) Boeckmann and his wife, Jane, Stanley began to film his efforts.
In the films, his young charges respond to their experiences with anger, tears and humor. Stanley said he does not manipulate them for the camera. "I have a mission," he acknowledged, "but you don't get the emotions and the feelings in our pictures by controlling them."
Stanley said he knows his films make an impact on those involved "because we stay in contact with the kids who are featured in our projects," noting, for example, that "five out of seven kids who were in 'Desperate Passage' are doing OK." He added, however, that he is not making the films for them, but rather to raise public awareness.
Juvenile authorities themselves don't keep track of what has happened to the young people in Stanley's films. But Stanley's work, said Barry Nidorf, chief probation officer for the L.A. County Juvenile Authority, is "as far as we know, without any negative side effects and has a fairly large potential for positive effects. We're all for it."
"We don't really know what it takes to turn (the youths) around," Nidorf said. "We know they can be. Sometimes it's as simple as a look or a kindness expressed in normal routine."
"When a kid is in (a juvenile detention) camp, he's vulnerable," Stanley said. "He's teachable. He's around people, number one, who care, number two, who can teach him the very basics of how to survive in civilized society, and thirdly, he's not looking over his shoulder wondering who's going to blow his head off."
Walt Renzi, deputy probation officer at Camp Gonzales, agreed: "This one-on-one contact . . . does have an impact because (the inmate's) self-esteem is so battered it makes them think, 'Maybe I can do something with my life.' "
Stanley speaks about the youth offenders with brusque sympathy. His toughest talk is saved for another group--their parents.
"These kids don't know how to live their lives in society and play by the rules," he explained. "No one's taught them how to succeed. In the gangs, they feel accepted, appreciated and loved. . . ."
The way to stop the gangs, he said, "is called parenting. Nothing can take the place of a parent's love, admonishment and direction. I wish there was a consequence for parents who don't parent their kids. You and I end up their victims, and you and I end up supporting them. It takes about $30,000 a year to house a kid.
"You brought them into the world, you are responsible for their well-being. There are no excuses when you don't meet that responsibility."
Stanley's next project is a feature film based on "Gridiron Gang," a documentary he directed about a prison youth camp sports program.
"What I hope I'm doing," Stanley said, "is inspiring people, and not candy-coating anything. I do what I do because I love making pictures, I love my life, I love the lord Jesus Christ with all my heart, and I don't get discouraged."