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Located in the Mojave Desert, Black Rock High School, overseen by Principal Vonda Viland, is a school of last chances for those most in need of them. Teenagers from in and around communities like Joshua Tree and 29 Palms from troubled backgrounds have the option of attending Black Rock when other schools have shut the doors to them. Many have disciplinary issues, but Black Rock imparts real world consequences on students instead of suspensions and ultimatums. The staff at Black Rock understand that students passing through their doors have deeper issues that start at the home. Instead of keeping school and home separate, Viland and her staff work to get to the bottom of what makes these often deeply impoverished kids from broken homes not want to perform in the classroom, and they enact plans to best help each student through extensive personal interaction with them.

Documentarians Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, who frequently collaborate and most notably directed the documentary Lost in La Mancha, follow several students through their time at Black Rock in The Bad Kids, which screened this week at Hot Docs in Toronto. Through access to both the home and school lives of three specific student with different needs, dreams, troubles, and families, Pepe and Fulton look beyond the stereotypical labelling and judgment heaped upon kids who can’t fully control the chaos of their lives.

We caught up with Fulton and Pepe during their time in Toronto to talk about how the project arose from an examination of larger schooling issues, what makes Black Rock a safe space for some, and the intelligence of the kids at the heart of the film.

It’s heart-wrenching to watch what these kids go through, but starting with the location of Black Rock High School, I don’t think you could find a geographic location that screams “you have no future” than the bleakness around Joshua Tree and 29 Palms.

Keith Fulton: The kids would agree with you on that.

Was that a major consideration for you guys when you constructed how you would capture the reality of their lives both in and out of school?

Keith Fulton: Lou and I had actually been spending years out in those locations making short films. It’s a really popular area for Angelinos to escape to and visit on vacation. For people like us, we think it’s gorgeous out there, but a lot of the people who go there as tourists rarely pay any attention to the locals that live there, for whom it’s a very different environment out there. We were making short documentaries out there within the school system before making the film about Black Rock. It’s a whole different world that people travelling out there is gorgeous, but to those living there, it’s bleak and oppressive. It’s an interesting dual way of seeing that.

Lou Pepe: When you talk to the kids, they definitely view it how you saw it. I know the first few times that I went out to the desert, the first thing that struck me is that there’s no other environment where you feel more insignificant than the desert. Insignificant in all respects: geological time and size; you see all the stars in the sky at night. It’s all a reminder of your smallness. The landscape is one of incredible beauty, but there’s a subtlety to it, which I think mirrors the lives of these kids, as well. When you look at these kids lives from the outside, you think they have no hope whatsoever. But when you get to know these young people, there are things that make you realize every single one of these kids have an interior hope and there are people trying to provide hope for them. That was always mirrored in a desert landscape. It’s the kind of place where there’s incredible life if you look for it, but the first impression is the only one they have. It’s just like the kids. They are looked at on a first glance as “bad kids” and that’s all some people see.

As filmmakers on a project like this, you have to keep yourself at a certain arms length, but something that struck me was the intelligence and eloquence with which these kids being focused on tell their stories. They can get across points about their lives and struggles without having to be placed in a sit-down interview with you guys.

Keith Fulton: This says a lot about who these kids are. I think when people see the film, one of the things people remark is, “Wow, your access to their lives was incredible,” but a lot of that comes from the kids just being open and honest about letting us capture everything about them. I think when you say these kids are smart, I think that’s because to a certain degree they know they’re exonerating themselves. They know that people are going to look at them and tell them to pull up their bootstraps and get their lives together, but they know more than the audience does going in that there are so many reasons why they can’t just do that. Their comfort in talking about their problems at home and what they face on a day-to-day basis has to do with them knowing that by sharing that with the camera, they’re showing that this isn’t entirely their fault. They can’t just get out of this shitty situation.

Lou Pepe: I think a lot of the comfort that they had in front of the camera had a lot to do with the fact that no one has ever expressed an interested in these kids’ lives before. Yes, the teachers at Black Rock High School do, but they’re aren’t accustomed to having adults – either by way of the presence of a camera or by having someone sit down with them face to face – say they want to know more about them and their experience of the world. That kind of acknowledgement that we gave them just by being there was something where comfort came from. This idea of keeping an arm’s length, that dissipated very quickly on this film. We became very close emotionally with all the kids at that school, partially just by asking if they would come out and sit and talk for ten to fifteen minutes. That validation was something they don’t get at home or in the broader school system. It’s something they really only got from Black Rock High School and us. At a regular high school, they’re accustomed to hearing that their problems at home stay at home. Here, they’re in an environment where they can talk about what’s happening at home to prevent them from getting their school work done.

Keith Fulton: I think when you look at kids in mainstream schools, sure, I think everyone that goes there has troubles in their lives, but if you have a supportive family at home with either one or two parents or stable guardians in your life, chances are you have a leg up. I think that if you have a somewhat stable home life, you don’t have to bring your problems to school. I think schools only have so much time and so many resources as it is. Curriculum is important to those mainstream schools. What’s different is that these kids at Black Rock quite often don’t have that. Few do, but the characters we chose to follow didn’t. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of a handicap that really is. It’s almost impossible for these kids to change their situation. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any emotional support. They don’t have stable places to live and places to get a meal. These problems make it hard to make school a priority for them.

Lou Pepe: In the United States, there was a trend to label schools as failing if teachers could not get students grades to improve from the time they enter a grade to when they graduate from that level. If a student’s grades didn’t go up, then the teacher must be a failure. That was the conventional wisdom in the United States, and that works only if you’re dealing with kids that come from stable backgrounds. Where it doesn’t work is if you deal with kids that come from poverty. But there was this unspoken expectation that teachers should be able to solve all of these problems, which is preposterous. Schools would get shut down and labelled as failing, but it would happen primarily in area where many live below the poverty line. When students are dealing with bigger issues, it was part of our agenda with this film to make it known that a teacher on their own can’t solve all of these kids’ problems. A student won’t care about learning algebra if they’re worrying about where their next meal is coming from. That has nothing to do with your ability to learn. Part of our mission was to document this system of measurement that was resting on a faulty premise.

Keith Fulton: And these kids have to want to be there. When they arrive, they have to sign a contract. That choice is an important part of how the students go about the challenge. If they’re sent there, and they’re forced to be there, it’s not going to be the same. If you send them as a form of punishment, it won’t have the same effect.

Lou Pepe: One of the strongest aspects of this school is how it gives students agency over their own lives. Making their presence at the school a choice is the first step towards giving them agency. There are students who will walk five miles to get there. There are some who commute an hour and a half to get there in each direction. The school is very much a safe haven for most of the student there. For any other kind of student, quite often home is the safe space and school is an iffier place to be for eight hours a day.

Keith Fulton: I think there’s this assumption that people make about these kids that they somehow aren’t aware of the hand they’ve been dealt in life. Even in my own mind, I was thinking if it was okay to talk to them about poverty and the actual situation, but they would easily talk about it. I think in America, we’re so uncomfortable talking about our class system, which is becoming more and more extreme. We’re particularly uncomfortable talking about poverty with poor people. We somehow have this idea that kids in this circumstance aren’t aware of what they’re in, but they are. I think that’s why we made this film the way they did. We wanted a film that could showcase their agency. These kids are making an effort and doing their best. These are people that would be judged as potentially being a tax on the system in the future. They aren’t behaving that way.

These are kids who have already found out the hard way that the world can be a very dark place, and I think that people with a lot more privilege don’t want to acknowledge that people this young would be attuned to these harsh realities of life first hand.

Keith Fulton: And according to popular statistics, if I’m not mistaken, there are close to fifteen million teenagers in the United States today that fit this same description, which is horrifying.

Lou Pepe: A lot of times during the editing process when talking about story structure and the underlying mission of the film, we found ourselves talking about Charles Dickens a lot: this idea of young people who have to grow up really quickly. You grow up when you have to. There’s a strong sense with these kids that by the time they turned 18, they’ve witnessed and dealt with problems most Americans will never experience.

Keith Fulton: Lou teaches college and I’ve taught some classes myself, and you get these sometimes coddled kids who don’t have this kind of wisdom. But the attraction for us was that these kids are quite wise and knowledgeable far beyond their years. It makes them much more interesting and dimensional.

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