A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Teacher Stars by Instructing Kids on Film


James Gleason was not sold yet on Doug Lopez, so he wanted some reasons to accept his pitch.

"I want to be a filmmaker," Doug told Gleason almost daily. "I'm going to make you proud."

Gleason, who teaches film, TV and video production as part of the Performing Arts Magnet at Pacoima Middle School, finally accepted the pitch and let Doug into the class. Students audition--and sometimes beg to take Gleason's class, where they discuss incidental lighting, camera angle and storytelling through film.

"I wanted to learn," said Doug, 14, of Van Nuys, one of several of Gleason's eighth-graders clearly looking ahead to careers as filmmakers, editors or camera operators.

"I wanted to make sure he didn't slack off," Gleason said.

Gleason's students watch television with a different eye than most. They bring in videotapes of good storytelling or visual effects through images, as well as mistakes they spot in films.

"I think he's great," said Ed Becerra, 12, of North Hollywood, one of Gleason's students who is interested in animated films. "In fact, I think he's one of the best teachers I've had."

Gleason, 45, who uses props and toys during class as part of his relaxed teaching style, encourages the students to look at their environment with a filmmaker's eye.

"If you live in Pacoima, there's a lot of interesting things to film around here," Gleason told the class, pointing to examples like railroad tracks, White man Airpark and other features in the community that he said "gives you that feeling of stark loneliness."

Always a movie fan, Gleason never had formal training. An English teacher with a fondness for Charles Dickens, Gleason was teaching at a junior high in Highland Park 10 years ago when he first picked up a camcorder and realized he might reach remedial reading students--including gang members--by first getting them interested in storytelling through a camera.

One of his first projects was titled, "How to Do a Term Paper." But he naively picked a rival gang territory for a location, which made some in the class wary.

"I was more oblivious than nervous, until I realized I was in a rough area," Gleason said. And although Gleason does not know if he reached any of the gang members, one of his more troublesome students from those days is now studying to be a teacher.

Since then, Gleason has slowly been learning the movie business, alongside his students. He came to Pacoima six years ago.

The walls of Gleason's film lab are covered with movie posters and pictures of stars such as Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. He encourages his students to watch films starring Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.

"He likes to mess around as much as we do," said Gwen Grande, 13, of Sunland.

"You can be as silly as they are at the right time," explained Gleason. "Sometimes, I let them go. They're creating."

Their creative energy has led Gleason's students into projects ranging from documentaries on eating disorders, homelessness and poverty to a film festival coming up next year spoofing "Schlocky Films." His students have also finished the first draft of a script for a feature-length film to be shot next summer tentatively titled, "Doing 10 to 20," about a teen-ager assigned to do community service in a nursing home.

Students line up professionals to help them as mentors in the film projects. They also are required to do their own research, writing and planning for shoots. One student last year talked his way into using a limousine for an hour and a half for free.

Gleason and his students hope to show their film at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a festival of low-budget films.

"He doesn't treat us like students," said Rosa Couch, 13, of Reseda. "He treats us like equals."

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