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Mobtown Beat

Cinema Verité

Kids on the Hill Releases New Documentary on Drug Dealing, Filmed and Produced by City by Teens

By Laura Lewis | Posted 12/17/2003

"Out of my room window I can see people buying drugs in the alley," says Tony Martin, a 17-year-old Reservoir Hill resident. "One morning I woke up for school. It was warm. I saw these junkies shooting up in their necks."

Martin's experience is, sadly, not unusual. Many teens look out their windows in the morning and see similar scenes all over the city. Some take it for granted, but for others, like Martin, watching drugs destroy neighborhoods and lives makes it hard to just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.

While some kids join in the drug activity they witness every day and others just accept it, many try to fight it.

Martin is fighting. He is one of about 20 African-American teens from the Reservoir Hill/Penn North area, a struggling neighborhood in midtown Baltimore where drug dealing is as common as boarded-up houses. He is also a member of Kids on the Hill, a nonprofit organization based in Reservoir Hill that offers inner-city kids, ages 7 to 18, an outlet for their creative energy. The group works with 50 or so kids, teaching them to use art--painting, crafts, music, video--to make their voices as loud and strong as those of the adults in their communities. Just last week, Kids on the Hill, founded in 1994 by Reservoir Hill resident and New York City native Rebecca Yenawine, released its biggest project to date: a video documentary made entirely by its young members, including Martin, that shows the drug trade through the eyes of children.

Over the past year, the members of Kids on the Hill have been working on this documentary, which Martin says he hopes will help "drug dealers get it through their heads" that drugs lead people to lie, cheat, kill, and steal.

The 25-minute video, titled The Streets Calling, made its debut on Dec. 11 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. It features interviews conducted by Kids on the Hill members, scenes of street life, and video shots of actual drug dealing.

Under the direction of executive director Yenawine, an artist herself, the oldest members of Kids on the Hill came up with the questions to ask their subjects, shot all the interviews on their own using a tiny digital camera, and edited the piece using Final Cut Pro software. Martin even managed to shoot some images of the drug users and dealers he watches through his windows.

The cast of characters in the short video includes city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson; Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Smith; filmmaker John Chester; Reservoir Hill Improvement Council executive director John Ruffin; police Officer Bonnie Woodson; community leader Ruthie Winder; City Council President Sheila Dixon; Richard Burton of the city's Believe campaign; former drug user Carlos Hardy; Tweety, a local drug dealer whose face is not displayed in camera; and some Kids on the Hill members imitating the dealers they see on the corners.

A local DJ provided a hip-hop score to keep the video lively and to introduce The Streets Calling's segments, which include first-person accounts of how drugs have impacted the interviewees. For example, Smith tells the story of a drug deal gone bad, Winder tells the story of her son who was incarcerated for drugs, and Burton talks about his Uncle "Soft Crab," a well-known dealer on the city streets. One day, Burton relates, he asked his uncle why he sells drugs; the answer Burton says he received was simple: "'Because I'm good at it.'"

"It's an incredibly emotional topic," says Yenawine. "Everyone has a personal experience."

Over the past year, the young documentarians gathered in groups after school and on weekends to work on the video at the Kids on the Hill headquarters on Brookfield Avenue, a rundown street filled with vacant houses and corners where drug dealers are a common sight. Each teen had a voice in the project--everyone had a hand in some part of the documentary's production, and the group made all of its decisions together.

"Each kid, even if they are not editing, has a say," Yenawine says.

The teens came up with the idea for the video project while attending regular meetings of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council's crime and safety committee during 2002. A common theme that kept popping up at the meetings was how to reduce the drug activity in the area, which has led to an increase in crimes like burglary and car theft in the neighborhood. Adults kept suggesting the traditional approach to curbing the problem: more arrests, more incarcerations. But the teens noted that the users and dealers are not anonymous criminals: They are friends and neighbors, people they know by name. They objected to the thought of locking up their acquaintances.

They decided to make their opinions on the matter known through this documentary. The participants say they wanted this video documentary to show adults what the dealers and users in their neighborhoods are thinking, and to show the drug abusers how their choices are hurting their communities.

"It was our way of responding to what they were saying about drugs in a positive way," says Kids on the Hill member Alayne Francis, 16.

"You can't be part of fixing the problem unless you fully understand the problem," Yenawine says she told the kids, and she encouraged them to talk to the people who deal with drug abuse every day. Through various interviews conducted during the course of making The Streets Calling, many of the kids say they were convinced of one thing: that when one makes the choice to get involved with drugs, there are only two places to go from there--prison or the morgue.

"I wouldn't want to go to jail or risk my life over selling drugs," Francis says.

The young videomakers are not so idealistic that they think their documentary will solve the drug problem--they realize that the drug dealers they talked to, and who might someday see their documentary, may never understand the message. And if they do, they may choose not to listen, like one girl in the video who says, "I'd definitely sell drugs. I'm a material girl. I like nice things."

"You can't change their minds because their minds are made up," Martin says. "They'll sell drugs if things get bad. . . . Unless you give them a bunch of money for free."

And the young videomakers acknowledge that for some drug dealing is less a lifestyle choice than a matter of survival. For the youngest dealers, on the streets at 10 or 11 years old, there are few alternatives for making money.

"Some people don't have a choice," acknowledges 16-year-old Kids on the Hill member Yosef Gales, who played a drug dealer in the documentary. "That's the only way they can survive . . . fast money."

As long as drugs are on the streets, people are going to sell them," says Kids on the Hill member Ahmad Lambertis, 17. "That's the American way."

So why bother to make a documentary at all if it won't stop the dealing? For some kids, it's optimism. "I don't think drug dealers understand what they are doing," Francis says. "They're killing people."

For others, it's hope. Francis says she has decided not to risk her life for a quick buck and is hoping other kids might see her video and make better choices.

"A lot of teens don't think they have any other choice but to sell drugs," she says. "If they see this, they may say, 'I don't want to die. I don't want to go through this.'"

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