“What’s up?” asks the decidedly adolescent voice on the other end.

It’s around midnight when I return the call from Fred Heinrich of Inner-City Filmmakers, a nonprofit that recruits high school kids to get involved in filmmaking. So I’m surprised anyone picks up, let alone a kid, who in my day wouldn’t be out this late on a school night.

Apparently, a gang of aspiring cinemaniacs is burning the midnight oil, putting the polish on their summer-session movies. Since I’m in the neighborhood, I jump off at the 26th Street exit and head for ICF’s Santa Monica headquarters at the Lantana Center on Olympic Boulevard.

A freakishly large-headed guy with impossibly orange hair and a swollen, protruding tongue meets me at the door. I follow him through the maze of darkened, show-biz suites as we encounter another guy in a lab coat with a face that looks like somebody parked a Hummer on it for a couple of weeks.

We finally reach the offices of ICF and the Halloween masks come off, revealing clean-cut, handsome ICF alumni Anthony Torres and Sean Hernandez. They introduce me to a bunch of kids of various ethnicities who are glued to computer screens at rows of editing stations, maniacally cutting away at their movies.

“It’s kinda like reality slapping you in the face,” says Nestor, an American-born ICF grad whose parents came here from Argentina and Guatemala, of the rigors of the program. The kids write, produce, direct, edit and sometimes act in their own films. The grads return to mentor the new recruits.

The program got started in ’93 after the Rodney King riots. Husband and wife Fred Heinrich and Stephania Lipner, an editor and producer, were inspired to create a crash course in filmmaking for kids who lacked access.

The first screening I get is a sneak peek at a screwball comedy called Smoothie Criminal directed by adorably nerdish newcomer Mark Ayala with Nestor in the lead role doing a sort of Jim Carrey thing.

Across the hall, Freddy Borasso, a 19-year-old Hollywood High grad working a “young Che Guevara” look, leans back in his chair and scrutinizes a rough cut of In My Time of Dying. His film is about a soldier on leave who gets jumped en route to his young daughter’s birthday party. “In a way it’s kinda like a tearjerker kind of thing,” Freddy reflects, eyes on the screen as he talks.

“Yeah, it’s really like .?.?. sad,” 19-year-old Catelin Araujo interjects as she edits the master at the next terminal.

Freddy and Catelin have been collaborating on and offscreen. Their mercurial cinematic synergy began with Act Naturally, an ironic, lighthearted comedy wherein Big Foot’s son navigates the complicated social waters of senior year at Hollywood High.

The filmic foray takes an abrupt turn into darker territory with Nicole Cater’s Little Alicia. The Crenshaw High student’s film is a brutal, graphic account of sexual abuse and rape that ends when the victim shoots her mother with a .38 at close range.

You could hear a pin drop on the industrial carpet during the screening of Yanci Mejia’s A Mother’s Touch. In it, a teenage girl and her little sister escape their drunken mother’s violence in the middle of the night. The piece ends at the beach, where they both emerge at sunrise as floaters in the shallow surf. Fred Heinrich comes in during the screening, but doesn’t say anything when I look at him.

Anthony cues up Amor Amargo (Bitter Love), Edgar Perez’s film about a mother with a newborn who can no longer tolerate her husband’s violent abuse. She tries to stab him while he sleeps but can’t go through with it. When they struggle over the knife, he ends up doing the job himself, taking the full measure of a 12-inch blade in the stomach as the baby cries off camera.

I don’t have to ask if the stories are autobiographical. The truth in these films resounds. This isn’t the work of disenfranchised middle-class youth with a weekly allowance and too much unstructured time in the suburbs.

The mood lightens with Luigi Ventura’s Monster Kiss, in which a wild-tongued youngster seeks the advice of a friend when his girlfriend can no longer endure his reckless spittle. An ICF recruit out of Hamilton High who is currently attending Santa Monica College, Luigi admits the script was ripped from the pages of middle-school trauma.

But don’t turn on the lights just yet. Up next is Infected, a horror film on which Luigi, who is dressed this Hallow’s Eve as Leather Face, served as DP. “I listen to dark music for inspiration,” he says. “I don’t bullshit like some people do in horror movies. I have [the guy] run after her, beat her down and kill her right on the spot.”

LA Weekly