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This Unique Effort Teams Fresno Students With Hollywood Stars

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Alina Iriarte wants to be a singer-actress. Yosef Aklilu isn’t sure yet about his future career, but filmmaking is one of his interests.

They may not be famous now, but these two Fresno teens soon could see their names in the credits of a Hollywood film.

Alina Iriarte

Alina, 17, who graduated last month from Sunnyside High School, and 16-year-old Yosef, who just finished his sophomore year at Edison High, were among about two dozen Fresno Unified students who participated this spring in a two-month filmmaking mentorship program, Left of Bang. The mentor sessions, usually about an hour and a half, were held virtually every other Saturday.

The program is the brainchild of Brian Hooks, a Hollywood actor, writer, director, and producer, who introduced students to how movies are made as well as to some of his friends and associates in the business, including actors Anthony Anderson, Vivica Fox, Craig Robinson, J.B. Smoove, and Kel Mitchell, make-up artist Araxi Lindsey and Disney executive Ralph Farquhar.

Learning the Ropes

For Alina, who is now taking classes at Fresno City College and hopes to attend film school in Los Angeles, the mentoring program came before she graduated and gave her valuable insight into preparing for a career as an actor.

For instance, Alina learned that movies scenes are shot out of sequence, depending on the availability of locations and personnel, “which is really interesting to me because I would like to be an actress.”

Students learned about things like “call sheets” (the schedules that tell actors and crew when they need to be on set), “locking a script” (when the scenes are locked in place and numbered), tips on scriptwriting and how to market scripts to producers or directors, and the costs of film production and the need to stay on budget, she said.

Yosef Aklilu

Yosef isn’t sure yet whether his future is in the film industry — “I just developed an interest in accounting, so I’m still having literally no idea what I want to do” — but he eagerly absorbed the PowerPoints and conversations with Hooks and others about how to be successful in the film industry, including the importance of being prepared and developing relationships.

If he doesn’t choose accounting or another field, Yosef might opt for film editing. As a seventh-grader, he helped produce a video for Fresno Unified.

“I really liked the editing work, even though it took a while, I liked doing it and seeing the final result because I knew every single piece of the editing was going into something great. So I like that. So that’s why I joined … so I can sort of go there and see if this is what I want to do in the future.”

More Than Filmmaking

Brian Hooks

Hooks said he had been mulling over a mentorship-type program for several years before moving ahead. He wanted to focus on inner-city students and show them they have options other than joining a gang.

“The Bang in our name stands for that action moment in a child’s life where they decide to pick up a gun, commit a violent act, anything that puts them on the wrong side of the law. And what we want to do is intercept them before that moment and keep them ‘left of bang’ and give them the skills, knowledge, and expertise that gives them hope and leads them to a very fulfilling life.”

Hooks had thought he might become a high school teacher when he headed off to college at CSU Northridge. But after he auditioned for roles and got his first major acting role as one of the leads in the 1996 comedy “Phat Beach,” his career took off and he spent the next couple of decades in roles in front of the camera and also behind it.

But something seemed to be missing, and the motto of his Santa Monica Rotary Club — “Service Above Self” — plus listening to his own mentors led him to realize that he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people, just as he had planned to do as a high school math teacher.

“I always tell the story about this youth I ran into at the Fox Hills mall when I was just trying to get in and out. And he approached me super-excited. And I was like, ‘OK, you must know me for some of my films or TV.’ And he did. But that’s not why he approached me. He went on to say, ‘oh, you changed my life. I am who I am because of what you said to me.’

“And I’m like, OK, this kid has me confused with Kevin Hart or somebody, he clearly doesn’t know who the hell I am because I’ve never met him before. But he went on to say,  ‘No, you visited my class 10 years ago. Your sister is Miss Hooks.’ And I was like, OK, he doesn’t think I’m Kevin Hart. He knows exactly who I am because Miss Hooks, as he calls her, is my sister. And I visited her class along with numerous classes over the years. And he went on to tell me about what he was up to. He was working two jobs, saving to start his own business. He had a new daughter and he said he always remembered what I said to him that day in that class. And it has changed his life.”

In the course of their sessions every other Saturday, Hooks revealed some news to the students — he has put together financing for a movie about a man (played by Hooks) who is completing his community service for unpaid parking tickets by driving special needs students and their counselor across the country.

Hooks said he wishes he could remember what he said that had so deeply affected the young man, because “maybe I could repeat it to other kids.”

But what’s more important, he said, is knowing the impact even a brief classroom visit can have on young people.

“That’s the beauty of it. That was a moment that I didn’t remember, but a moment he never forgot. And that’s the power of mentorship mixed with celebrity. We have the ability to change lives just by offering a few words of encouragement.”

Connections Are Key

Darrin Person

Fresno Unified students can thank the city of Bakersfield for their Left of Bang mentoring opportunity. It’s the hometown of both Hooks and Darrin Person, who manages the district’s mentoring office. Hooks jokes that Person always came in second to him — in track competitions.

Person, always on the lookout for potential mentoring candidates, was intrigued when he heard about Left of Bang, called Hooks, and the two put their heads together to develop a program.

Hooks said he didn’t want to wait until the pandemic ended to get going — he’d heard of too many students struggling with the isolation, with depression, and knew there was no time to lose. He started out visiting schools but decided to work on a more formal program that could connect with students virtually.

Person was glad to have another option for students to consider, because he considers mentor programs important not just for students who might be at risk of dropping out, but also for students like Alina and Yosef who excel at their studies.

“Just because you’re doing well academically doesn’t mean you don’t need additional support,” he said. “I’m glad mentoring is stepping into the role of filling those gaps, too.”

Making a Movie

In the course of their sessions every other Saturday, Hooks revealed some news to the students — he has put together financing for a movie about a man (played by Hooks) who is completing his community service for unpaid parking tickets by driving special needs students and their counselor across the country.

Here’s the exciting part: The students will have the opportunity to audition for parts or work behind the scenes. They’re even going to help craft the movie’s title.

“It’s just absolutely amazing, because it’s pretty cool to be able to have this opportunity within school,” Alina said.” It’s so difficult to get something like this. I’m really appreciative for it.”

“I hope to be able to work on something concrete and have an impact on their industry and possibly make this the best that I can be and whether it’s on camera or behind the camera, just having a role and just playing this,” Yosef said. “And I believe that Mr. Hooks brought up as well, just seeing your name in those credits that pop up after the movie, it would be a big thing as well, so whatever I can to work on this film — I think I might audition. But if I don’t get it I still would like to possibly work behind the camera as well. So just being able to work on an actual project and the movie is just huge.”

Person says that his first reaction upon learning about the film was to ask jokingly, “Can I have a role?”

He’s glad that Alina, Yosef, and the other Fresno Unified students might get that chance.

“My reaction was like, wow, what an opportunity. And I’m happy that we’re doing this because this is something that I always wanted them to be exposed to this.”

Making a Difference

For Hooks, the movie is a way to combine his creative side with his need for social impact and to make a difference in the lives of young people. He gave the public the opportunity to participate and launched a one-month Kickstarter campaign last spring to raise $50,000 for the project that netted $50,501 from 139 backers.

He expects Left of Bang will keep growing, giving youth from all over California and even from all around the world a safe place to be creative sides, learn about the film industry, and have fun.

“I want … for this to be this huge playground where they can come with this positive energy around cool, fun, and kind people and learn things that push them forward, and meet some of these people and see how normal, natural, and human they are, and connect with them. But ultimately, just this huge online playground where the kids can come and be safe, and it will be an exhale place from some of the craziness they have to deal with in the world.”

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