To get an audience’s attention, there are certain commercial techniques that are absolutely necessary,” John West tells his neophyte filmmakers. “You must have action, some skin, a song or two and something to smile about. It’s okay to be artistic, but only within certain guidelines.” Not that West’s young charges are especially starry-eyed. They are students at Chicago’s Roberto Clemente High and live in one of the country’s most crime-ridden ghettos. But they have already established impressive credentials: Two of their fictionalized documentaries have been shown on PBS or network TV, and one won several awards. Their gritty movies are a far cry from musical comedy. One was about Chicago’s ferocious street gangs, the other about teenage VD.
Remarkable as their achievements have been, West claims only a small credit. “Our kids are hungry to learn, and they’re enthusiastic because they can see results,” he says. “Once they learn the basic techniques and equipment, I sit in my office and smoke cigars. It’s their world they’re filming; they know it better than I do.”
So far that approach has paid dividends. The Ogilvy & Mather ad agency is so impressed it has treated West’s students to thousands of dollars’ worth of instruction in its Chicago film lab. After seeing their gang-warfare movie, Too Late for Me, CBS executive producer Joel Heller gave them a $13,000 grant and lent them the equipment to make VD: Less an Illness Than an Attitude; it has been shown twice on 30 Minutes, CBS’s young people’s version of 60 Minutes.
West is gratified by such attention, but not overwhelmed. “I want a public platform for the kids’ work because that’s a job credential,” he says. “I know there isn’t room for all of them in the industry, and I don’t even really care whether these kids learn everything about film.” The greatest value of moviemaking, he believes, is that it requires students to come to terms with themselves. “You’re spending money, time and effort to etch something in celluloid for permanence,” he tells his class. “Thus your thinking must be logical, precise and discernible to the audience. In other words, learn to think.”
The students also learn to make do. Their equipment is secondhand; their facilities are less than first-class. “Is this what Burt Reynolds goes through?” cracked Too Late for Me star Oscar Monterrubio, stretched out on a sweltering garbage pile for one scene. In fact, that movie was conceived, written, shot and edited by class members, and they knew their subject only too well. During filming, brothers of two crew members were gunned down in gang executions. The VD film was Heller’s idea. “I knew the subject would appeal to them because it was sex-related,” West says. “We used every cliché, but it worked beautifully.”
West, 43 and single, was born in the well-to-do Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., studied film and TV at the University of Nebraska, and after a stint as a theatrical press agent, worked for Playboy’s theater chain in 1965. “I was spectacularly unsuccessful,” he admits. “I managed to turn down Zorba the Greek. I thought no one would be interested.” He began teaching film part-time in 1971, first at Columbia College in Illinois, then at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He moved to Clemente in 1974.
If anything about his job gets him down, says West, it is scrounging for equipment and money. He is currently concerned about cuts in the federal CETA funds on which his course relies, and is trying to raise money for the class’s next movie, which deals with a family of Vietnamese refugees in Chicago. The cost of the film, for which Polaroid has kicked in $2,000, may reach $28,000. “That’s peanuts,” West says, “but not to a system that can’t afford paper clips.” As for the government, he fumes, “They never read the success stories. They think all we do is boogie and rumble.” But he has only praise for his students. “There’s so little hope in their lives and so much inclination for disaster in a neighborhood like this,” he observes. “Yet what I see here on a daily basis is brains, talent, curiosity and energy determined to rise above the dead end so many of their older brothers and sisters have reached.”