In the Audience
For those of us invested in the world of youth and their development, Michel Gondry‘s latest film, The We and the I—which will screen this Wednesday at 7pm at the American Theater in the Bronx—may have a special resonance. A welcome, refreshing change to the often monochromatic and monocultural New York City seen in film and on TV, The We and the I showcases South Bronx teens of color, including queer youth. Gondry was inspired by the experience of entering a Paris subway car and being surrounded by the irrespressible and complex world around him. It is precisely this moment that opens the film, as several teens board the fictional BX66 bus. And while the movie isn’t technically a documentary, Gondry and his young collaborators have still captured something that feels essentially fresh and real.
The We and the I had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, as part of the Directors Fortnight program. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the Speed movies and Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi, Gondry’s film deploys the trope of forced coexistence: A group of people are brought together by time and circumstance and then embark on a literal and figurative voyage together. In this instance, the microcosm is youth-controlled and Metropolitan Transit Authority–fueled; the film chronicles teens and other passengers traveling through the South Bronx as afternoon becomes evening on the last day of school.
On the Bus
Divided into three sections, featuring bullying, confrontation, self-discovery and identity, The We and the I presents a full range of contemporary issues and interpersonal dynamics. It presents a veritable heat map of how teens bond, alienate, retaliate and reconcile in endless cycles. These micro-narratives are depicted through quips, zingers, social humiliations, flashbacks and reenactments. The dramatic punctuations and beats are part melodrama and part fanciful Gondry flourish, resulting in a narrative that is touching, at times surprising and grounded in experiences drawn directly from the actors’ lives.
Although The We and the I touches on a range of pressing youth issues, it’s no “social problem” film. It doesn’t bracket its story with alarming statistics but instead concludes with the personal: As the end credits roll, we hear a touching, funny letter read by the mother of one of the teen performers to Gondry—a communication from caregiver to director. For those of us attuned to teens’ creative development, it’s gratifying to see the straightforward portrayal of their demonstrated interests, whether digital-media production, manga, music or car-racing. One of my favorite moments in the film shows a trio of young women bounding off the bus toward a nondescript building. Although we don’t follow them inside, their purposeful stride and the sign outside their destination—“Art Farm”— provide the necessary clues about what awaits them: people to welcome them and encourage their budding interests.
To THE POINT
Thanked profusely in the credits but never named in the film, THE POINT, a youth-development, arts and culture, and community advocacy group serving the Hunts Point area in the South Bronx, is the real-life organization that centers The We and the I. The movie is the result of an extensive collaboration between Gondry, Partizan Entertainment and the educators, artists, activists and youth-development experts who are the lifeblood of THE POINT. (See The We and the I THE POINT’S Point of View for more details) It is this organization’s extended network that helped fuel the film’s production and perhaps explains the grounded sensibility that defines The We and the I. Based on the teens’ experiences, the film was workshopped at THE POINT, a process that was mediated by the group’s creative and therapeutic professionals. This joint project between Gondry and THE POINT typifies the organization’s drive not only to make meaningful change in Hunts Point but also to transform how outsiders understand life there. As Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, THE POINT’s executive director tells me when we discuss the film, “Nine times out of ten, when Hollywood comes to the Bronx, we don’t see our lives reflected anywhere.”
Depending on your approach, as you enter THE POINT, you may pass a mural in celebration of a multitasking Ganesh, kids maintaining an herb garden, an auto-parts-shop factory, black-and-white photographs sparkling with the glow of actual film and emulsion, or a subway car graffitied by the world-renowned Tats Cru. Inside the building, each nook and cranny houses its own small enterprise, community project or service, such as Blank Plate Culinary Arts and Design Classes, the young women’s empowerment group, Where Our Minds Empower Needs (WOMEN), Open Hydrant Theater Company, Society for Aquaponic Values and Education and many others.
Peer To Peer
On my recent trip to THE POINT, it’s noon on Saturday; I had just seen The We and the I at the IFC Center the night before. Open Hydrant is doing a script reading at a table in the atrium. A few doors are open, but many of the warrens that make up the space are sparsely inhabited. As I head up to the Teen Loft, though, it’s a different story: I see that educators and kids from Global Action Project (GAP), a youth-development organization that focuses on using media analysis and production to address social-justice issues, have joined the teens from THE POINT’s Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood (ACTION) grou[ for a Hive Digital Media and Learning Fund–sponsored workshop entitled, “Making Media, Shaping History.”
Together, they are an impressive group, comprising youth who have made real change in their communities and travelled widely sharing skills and knowledge. But now they are eating pizza and breaking the ice by kidding around; later they’ll break into a game of Ninja. It’s great to see a couple of familiar faces from The We and the I, the two actors in the film who are still in high school. This is also one of those great Hive NYC moments when you see in action some of the core beliefs that bring our learning network together.
Essentially, what I saw that afternoon was just some of the real story behind Gondry’s fictional film: THE POINT’s free workshops and its focus on leadership, social change, creativity and college and career readiness. As Terry-Sepulveda emphasizes, “We work with a youth-centered model. Every issue you see in the film is something that THE POINT addresses on a regular, sustainable basis.”
The We and the I is being screened on Wednesday, April 17, at 7pm at the American Theater in the Bronx. After the screening, actors from the film and educators from THE POINT will be present to discuss their role and their objectives in working with Gondry. Tickets are $9 per person and can be purchased online. For additional information, please call THE POINT: 718.542.4139