A gang flaunting guns surrounded the car from which filmmaker Jennifer Rodes, journalist Will Tizard and Oscar Ordonez, reformed gang member, were training a video camera on Ordonez's former East Los Angeles neighborhood. "Why are you filming us?" someone shouted. "Give us your camera."
"I was so scared, my mind went blank," says Rodes, 34. "Will muttered something about working on a student film. Oscar said, 'Be cool, homies. We're just looking for the church.' I don't think they bought that story, but for some reason they let us go. Oscar said, 'If it wasn't for God, we'd be dead by now.'
"Afterward, Oscar told me he was kind of scared, but wanted us to know what it felt like to have that fear. He said, 'This was my life for five years.' "
Her anecdote is one of the stories of the making of "Inside Voices," a documentary that chronicles the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the verdicts in the first Rodney G. King trial. The film explores the lives of several South-Central, Koreatown and East Los Angeles residents from the viewpoints of videographers who share their subjects' race or who live and work in their communities.
"Inside Voices" is the brainchild of Maxi Cohen and Wendy Apple, both award-winning documentary filmmakers as well as independent feature film and television producers based in Los Angeles.
"After the riots, I realized that instead of everyone getting closer, we were getting further apart out of misunderstanding and fear," says Cohen, who is perhaps best known for "Joe and Maxi," her 1980 documentary about her relationship with her father. "That's when I thought about giving cameras to residents in South-Central and other neighborhoods. I thought that if people had the chance to tell their stories from the inside out, it might help create greater understanding and compassion not only between white and black people, but between all the minority groups."
By the end of filming, in January, 1994, their two-dozen-member production team had amassed more than 400 hours of video. Apple, who has directed and produced television specials starring Bob Dylan, Lily Tomlin and Kenny Loggins, oversaw the editing of "Inside Voices" to 90 minutes. That version appeared to critical acclaim on German and French television last fall, but she and Cohen still want to raise more money for a completed American version.
So far, they have amassed $250,000 from sales of foreign television rights, private donations and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Ms. Foundation and the California Council of the Humanities. It premiered recently as a work-in-progress at the Dallas Film Festival in anticipation of the April 29 three-year anniversary of the riots.
In April, 1993, after a year raising money and following leads from area film schools, neighborhood meetings and gang leaders, Cohen, as producer and director, and Apple, as co-producer and editor, began a four-month search for a racially diverse group eager to film stories about their communities.
The final recruits, ranging in age from 17 to 33, were a gathering of whites, African Americans, Latinos and Korean Americans that included two ex-convicts, a mental health clinic teacher, a homeless high school student and five, young, working or aspiring documentary filmmakers. An additional 35 assistants came on board to help translate, record sound and work in post-production.
And so, armed with $200-a-week stipends, eight video cameras and guidance from Cohen, Apple and four industry professionals of different races, they went off in small groups to find their stories. Many of the interviews were conducted in Spanish, Korean and street lingo, and are subtitled in the film.
While the final cut addresses issues of racism, poverty and intergenerational and inter-class struggle, it also captures residents trying to better their communities. More than a dozen stories were shot, and they include a police officer helping to reform a young gang member; former gang members maintaining truces and bringing jobs into their communities; a Korean immigrant accused of setting fire to his store during the riots, and the leader of a vigilante group.
Unpredictability complicated the making of the documentary. Story subjects constantly disappeared, moved or reneged on agreements to be filmed. "I had gangsters calling me at 2 in the morning," Cohen says. "There were people getting killed around our subjects all the time."
For the videographers, who come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, the project has been a highly charged emotional experience. Some have reunited with their roots and reassessed the complexities of urban life, while others have further separated from their communities. All have had to dance delicately between observer and participant.
"I was supposed to be recording events as they unfolded," says Francisco Leon, 27, a film school graduate of Mexican descent who filmed Latino merchants affected by the riots. "But they are my blood. At what point do I compromise my artistic expression to help my community?"
Adds videographer Diana Lee, a Korean American filmmaker now working as a KCET associate producer and researcher: "I used to be more critical of Korean American merchants, because I'd heard they were racist and rude to African Americans. But now that I've talked to a lot of victims, I see it's a lot more complex. It's not so much a matter of race, but the economic situation and the crime that results."
Lea Edwards said her filmmaking efforts attracted the attention of police, who hovered in a helicopter outside of her fifth-floor apartment window. "I found out I was under surveillance because of the kind of people I'm talking to," says Edwards, 33, a mental health clinic teacher who filmed gang life in her South-Central neighborhood. The process had her torn between telling their stories and inadvertently portraying African Americans in a negative light.
"One of the reasons I got involved was because I was tired of seeing the same stereotypical images of black people--in chains, on drugs and in jail--and there's more to this community than that," Edwards says. "But this project has made me so sensitive. The people on my block see me with a camera and think I'm a cop or an Uncle Tom."
But the producers believe that the videographers' internal conflicts and their desire to portray a more intricate and positive urban tapestry will in turn educate those who view the finished product.
"The videographers have the opportunity to bring a unique insight and viewpoint," Apple says. "When you meet them, start to care about them and see what's happening in their communities, it allows you to be more receptive and intimate with what's going on. And, I hope, from that intimacy comes greater understanding."