Documenting the Anacostia

Youth Program Puts the River in the Spotlight

Posted February 28, 2007 at 4:58pm

It’s freezing. Everyone is decked out in knit caps, fluffy scarves, warm hoodies and cotton gloves. But the impending night and 20-degree weather seem beyond the worries of Abrille Bynum. The young actress is shivering in her skimpy blouse and blue jeans; her high heels and large gold earrings complete the outfit. She’s waiting for her call to the stage: a small circle of parking lot in Northeast Washington, D.C., framed by a dusty car and the door to a warehouse studio. As the film crew adjusts expensive digital cameras and sets up bright lights, she hops between the warmth of the studio and the brightness of the makeshift stage.

Of course, nothing goes smoothly. Extension cords, light stands, cameramen — they all go missing at some point. But finally the crew is ready, and the director gives the go ahead to shoot the first scene of a new film: “Baby Mama Hassle Drama.” [IMGCAP(1)]

These actors, the director, the crew — they’re all teenagers. They make up the Multimedia Training Institute, a nonprofit that teaches at-risk youths to be filmmakers, entrepreneurs and writers.

The plot of “Baby Mama Hassle Drama” hints at the dangers these students face: In a crime-ridden neighborhood, a young drug dealer shoots the father of his ex-girlfriend’s baby. It’s the group’s typical fare — a film that deals with the dangers of falling into the wrong group of friends.

But recently the students found themselves directing, filming and editing a documentary about a completely new subject: the Anacostia River.

“They might not have found it related at first, but at the end they were like ‘We got to stop littering,’” said Maria Jones, the institute’s screenwriting instructor. What first began as a straightforward documentary about programs that clean up the river became an exploration into the widespread effects of pollution, she said.

The Anacostia definitely has seen better days. Once a paradigm of lush nature, it has been on a downward spiral for the past century, absorbing the city’s runoff and eroding in the face of overdevelopment.

Cornell Lyons has lived along that river his entire life. He fished there when he was younger (“We always threw them back,” he says, because of the pollution) and identifies his Anacostia neighborhood with the river’s polluted streams. But even he was surprised when he captured a picturesque shot of a bird swooping across the water’s surface to catch a fish.

“Hopefully, it will continue to become a whole new environment,” the 16-year-old said, “where people say this is a district, not a hood.”

“Lessons From the Waterfront: The Anacostia” follows four organizations that teach residents about the importance of the river: the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association. Its $25,000 price tag was partly funded by the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a quasi-government agency that is tasked with developing the waterfront. The agency gave the grant with the help of The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Corp.

The AWC hopes to show the film during community meetings, said Melissa McKnight, director of grants and partnership.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “We’re all very excited about it. It gives them the opportunity to learn about the media and to learn all the technology behind it.”

The atmosphere in the organization’s small Northeast studio is cozy and comfortable — much like what you would find in a high school drama class. Bright green and orange wood panels are stacked in the television studio, and students are able to control different camera angles from inside a small closet with three old televisions. In the editing room, half a dozen Mac laptops line the walls; the seemingly professional trailer for “Lessons From the Waterfront” can be seen on one of them. Jones’ 3-year-old daughter, Laci, wanders freely throughout the rooms, taking candy offered by the working students and forcing her way onto any available lap.

Outside those doors, that family-like environment stands in stark contrast to the beige-colored warehouse and surrounding dark streets. One graffiti artist has scrawled the atmosphere in words on the building: “Trust No One.” But the young filmmakers sometimes use the area as their stage, transforming it into whatever scene needed for the latest project.

To film “Lessons From the Waterfront,” the students traveled farther than usual. For many, it was the first time they had been on the river. The young filmmakers saw everything: a grocery cart floating in the water, birds fishing, plants covered in algae.

One day, 14-year-old Rinita Hutchinson was shocked to see someone wind surfing. She didn’t know much about the river’s history or its current dismal state. She had never sat on its banks or canoed down its path, which weaves through D.C. But she learned how the river’s fate is tied to the city’s future. And she caught that wind surfer on camera.

“I knew that it was an old river,” she said. “I didn’t know it had so much of an impact on people’s lives.”

While students like Hutchinson learn from these unfamiliar scenes, they also keep out of trouble, said Multimedia Training Institute President and founder Lyn Dyson. The summer program keeps them occupied all day with either classes or film shoots, while internships and special projects provide activities for after-school programs during the year.

And while filming the Anacostia River, students got an extra perk: a hands-on science lesson, Dyson said.

“They’re being introduced to the river,” he said. “They’re beginning to understand ecology. That’s the key thing that they’re learning from it.”

Some of the organization’s students have gone to college for filmmaking. Others pursue something completely different. But all work on something that’s fun and educational, Jones said.

“It’s very empowering,” she said. “It boosts their self esteem. You can see it.”