Ambyr Rose was raised in foster care and began using drugs in early adolescence. At 15, she got pregnant and was forced to sober up because she did not want to end up like her drug-addicted mother who abandoned her and her five sisters and brothers.
At a graduation ceremony today at the San Fernando Gardens Youth Center, Rose will tell the story of her difficult, young life in a short video she produced in a filmmaking course for troubled youth.
"I wanted to be what my mom wasn't," said Rose, 18, who has big, blue eyes and long, brown hair that brushes her waist.
Taught by documentary filmmaker Pamela Cohen, the filmmaking course was designed to teach young people, most of them continuation high school students, technical skills in video production and to give them an opportunity to reflect on their lives. The course is offered through New Directions for Youth, a nonprofit agency in Van Nuys that provides social, academic and vocational services to at-risk youth and their families.
The 10-week course, paid for by a $10,000 grant from the city's Cultural Affairs Department, began with students writing down their ideas in a journal. Next, Cohen taught them how to use the video cameras and instructed them in technique. When they were finished filming, they added music and narration with computerized editing equipment.
"This gives these kids, who have been through a lot, the opportunity to tell who they are and where they come from," Cohen said. "They're not encouraged to do that. If you look at TV and movies, it doesn't reflect their lives."
Cohen, who once taught video production at Van Nuys High School, has worked with low-income, troubled youth for years, encouraging them to express themselves through art, she said.
Her 1990 documentary, "Maria's Story," about a Salvadoran peasant woman who became an anti-government guerrilla leader after her daughter was killed in an army ambush, won the Blue Ribbon and Edward R. Murrow awards from the American Film Festival and was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
Without Cohen's encouragement, Rose never would have set her life story to film, she said. Her video about a wild girl on "coke, weed and speed" opens with a close-up of Rose's face and pans into a tattoo on her arm of her biological mother's initials.
"I'm going to save it for my daughter to see," said Rose, holding 22-month-old Chanyce during a recent video-editing session in Van Nuys.
Rose said she is earning straight A's at Albert Einstein High School, a continuation school in North Hills that provides day-care for students' children. She and Chanyce live with a foster family in Granada Hills.
Another student, 17-year-old Robert Falcon, made a video about a fish tank left behind when his parents' stormy relationship ended in divorce and he moved in with his father. In the end, the goldfish dies and the tank is empty.
"It was a lot of work and time, which is good because it kept me out of trouble," said Robert, dressed in baggy jeans and an unbuttoned plaid shirt.
Robert said he was sent to Evergreen High School, a continuation school in Sylmar, after he was caught with alcohol at his previous school in the Antelope Valley. He said completing the filmmaking class gave him a sense of satisfaction.
"Man, I never thought I'd get my hands on a camera like that," he said. "The only camera I had ever really seen was my dad's Polaroid."
Some of the other films are about a girl who began drinking and using drugs at the age of 7; a boy who was inspired to sober up and stay away from violence when his nephew was born; and a teenage mother who is scared, anxious and lonely.
Cohen said simply: "I was very impressed with their work."