South L.A. rugby program ICEF Rugby took its first international trip to compete in Hong Kong in 2006, and film and T.V. crews have been scouting its two high school teams ever since. First there was the Academy award-winning documentary filmmaker who shot a movie reel he intended to turn into a feature. Then there was the reality television producer who saw potential for episodic teenage drama. And finally, there was the Hollywood director looking to make a fictional blockbuster based on the charter school's outstanding sports program.
None of these projects panned out -- either the budgets were too high or the directors didn't meet eye to eye with the charter school system -- but one thing became clear to ICEF rugby coach Stuart Krohn: his globe-trotting high school rugby teams were an inspiring inner-city sports story that needed to be told. When he finally found the right film crew -- albeit on the other side of the world, with New Zealand-based Cloud South Films -- he took on the dual role of coach and producer for the new documentary Red, White, Black & Blue, which chronicles the teams' rugby competition in New Zealand and subsequent return to Los Angeles.
A former professional rugby player who previously coached teams at Dartmouth College and the Santa Monica Rugby Club, Krohn founded the ICEF rugby program in 2003 to serve Inner City Education Foundation's 15 public charter schools. In the decade since then, the program has allowed hundreds of ICEF students from South L.A. to travel to South Africa, England, New Zealand and Hong Kong to compete in international rugby tournaments.
"It's much less expensive to make a movie with a New Zealand crew, apparently, than it is [to work with] Academy award-winning documentary filmmakers in America," says Krohn, a first-time producer whose $75,000 film budget was raised partially through Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns.
The ICEF Rugby program, comprised of a boys' and a girls' team from View Park Preparatory Accelerated High School and various other high schools in the ICEF charter system, had already fundraised for their travel and competition expenses in New Zealand, so hiring a film crew already based overseas became surprisingly practical for their limited budget.
"We teamed up with this really young director -- this is his first film that he directed -- and [his local crew] traveled with us in New Zealand for 15 days. One of the cameramen came to L.A. for a week and filmed several main characters in their home, school, driving around L.A., and that's how you get the back story in the film.
"Meanwhile, the kids are hearing back from colleges, getting accepted, getting rejected, all of those things, but each time [the film] goes back and shows [the students] in L.A. That's how [director/editor James Brown] weaves each character's arc and plot, by going back and forth between our journey in New Zealand and the journey of each kid and what their life is like back home, which varies for each kid," Krohn tells us over the phone while driving from L.A. to San Diego to screen Red, White Black & Blue at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
Krohn thinks part of the reason why so many festivals are embracing the low-budget, grassroots documentary shot in less than a month is because of its timing. "Not just for rugby," he says, referring to the 2016 Olympics, in which a rugby competition will be held for the first time in 100 years, "but with the president, with politics and everything. This is a time for us to stand with positive representation [for the African American community]," which he says is one of the most heavily stereotyped communities in L.A.
Parent liaison Monique Bacon says the rugby players break down stereotypes about gang violence in South L.A. "by just being the way they are. They're very well-spoken, they're sensitive, they're just who you want your kids to be like."
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"I'm not saying we haven't experienced hearing about gun violence. But the way [the media] portrays it, it's like it's an every day thing for us. There are times when we hear helicopters and gun shootings, but it's not that we're living in a war," Bacon tells us via phone, noting that several of the rugby players address the issue of violence in the film.
And while Red, White, Black & Blue has its heavy, tear-jerking moments, Bacon notes, Krohn counters by comparing the film's funny, light-hearted moments to an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: "You see us traveling around the world, eating food, playing rugby. It's very revealing about us and the rest of the world. Its not just rugby. It's a bigger story. It's a story about people."
Krohn, Bacon, and all of the ICEF Rugby players featured in Red, White, Black & Blue will be in attendance at the film's hometown screening tonight at 6:00 p.m. at the Pan African Film Festival at Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15. The film screens again on Feb. 17 at 2:30 p.m.