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Annette John-Hall: Philly students' reality captured on film

They say art has the power to transform, but what happens when the art transforms right in front of your eyes?

They say art has the power to transform, but what happens when the art transforms right in front of your eyes?

Well, you go with the flow, and hopefully make magic. That's what nine students from Arise Academy Charter High School discovered during the perfunctory process of putting together a short film based on their lives at the school.

Turning Left to Go Right, produced by Art Sanctuary in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Arts in Education Partnership, will premiere June 1 as part of the 27th annual Celebration of Black Writing. The event began Monday and runs through June 4. (Writer and playwright J. California Cooper will be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award June 2 at the Church of the Advocate.)

Arise gets its share of publicity for being the only charter school in the country created for students who have been in the foster-care system.

Which can be a blessing, but is mostly a curse, students say.

"I don't need sympathy," senior Zakia Boatwright says.

"They [the media] come here, they treat us like puppies in the window," adds senior Kalea Baker. "At the end of the day, they make us feel bad."

Sometimes overlooked

Ordinarily, Arise wouldn't have been the best choice to commit to a funded project. Through no fault of their own, students who move from foster family to foster family probably wouldn't be the ideal candidates to make regular rehearsals.

Yet, the school was selected anyway "because we thought it would be great for them," Art Sanctuary managing director Tarana Burke says. "Students like these tend to get overlooked."

There were challenges. Students didn't always show up. Some tried to undermine classmates who were chosen for the production.

Even Ed Shockley, the Philadelphia filmmaker who wrote and directed the project, found himself threatened by a student who accused him of disrespect - because he had the audacity to ask the student a question.

"The school was a difficult place to work," Shockley says. "Creativity requires sensitivity, and it's easy to miss creativity when someone down the hall is freaking out."

Yet, through the chaos, Shockley stuck it out, turning a fictional film into a documentary about making a fictional film.

That's when he saw magic happen.

Looking inward

What was intended to be a "cute comedy" about a female student who bullies her male classmate became an introspective look into personal struggles.

Once Shockley changed the film to a documentary, the kids started showing up, and taking on the roles of the ones who didn't show. They learned the value of teamwork and pivoting in the face of adversity.

By conducting interviews with the student-actors about their lives, "the strength of the school came through," Shockley says.

It was as though they were featured in their own reality show.

It's a role in which Baker starred.

The petite 17-year-old with the dimpled smile was only in the seventh grade when she fled her mother's troubled Germantown home.

"She was doing drugs and she was getting worse," Baker says. "I saw her doing it with my own eyes."

After living sporadically with her grandmother, Baker entered foster care in September.

"I was bitter and angry," she says. "I was the kid who didn't like anybody. I didn't like people looking at me, coming next to me."

Baker says that with the guidance of her older brother, she has worked through her anger toward her mother. And, through acting, she has found an outlet for a gift she didn't realize she had.

"Kalea's acting is at a level beyond a CAPA student's," Shockley says, referring to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

"We've seen the power of art in young people," Burke says. "Young people need consistency. When they see you following through, they'll rise to the occasion.

"And that's what happened here."