A Different School of Social Work: Teaching Film

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Trayce Gardner is a former social worker who works to inspire people through moviemaking.

Bushwick residents go to the Moore Street Market to eat, shop, and discuss what is going on in the community.

Bushwick residents go to the Moore Street Market to eat, shop, and discuss. And soon, maybe, to learn about filmmaking.  (Natalie Meade/The Brooklyn Ink)

The metal gate creaks open and creaks closed. Suddenly there is a series of bangs on the heavy burgundy metal door of the room. No one moves to answer it immediately.

Then, someone rattles the burglar bars on the windows. It turns out to be six-year-old Tristan, who is trying to demand his way back into Trayce Gardner’s workshop on screenwriting.

Tristan bangs on the door again. This time his older cousin, Rahmeek, answers and says, “What? We’re learning about something. Bye.”

Tristan’s retorts are inaudible.

Gardner’s eyebrows rise while her eyes widen and a subtle smile graces her face. She proceeds to discuss screenwriting with the children attending the seminar.

Every Tuesday in August, The Last Tuesday Film Club meets and Trayce Gardner leads seminars about the film industry. The Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center (BYFC) is the host and Gardner is the owner and director of the volunteer-run, non-profit organization.

The lesson on Tuesday, August 5 was titled “Starting Out as a Production Assistant.” First, she grabs the students’ interest by showing a movie related to the weekly topic. For the production-assistant lesson, she played a clip from “Living in Oblivion,” starring Steve Buscemi. The movie is an independent film about the production of a low-budget film and all of the people involved.

The following week, when Rahmeek and his cousin were in class, Gardner played “The Wizard of Oz” to exemplify screenwriting and edits. Gardner handed out two screenplays to the students who later acted out the scenes.

After the movie, Gardner teaches lessons by engaging the participants through reading aloud and encouraging them to use their imaginations to develop characters.

The seminars are held in an empty community room in public housing located on Willoughby Avenue in Bed-Stuy. The burgundy chairs pop in a room with cream paint and matching tiles. There is one 6-foot table on which Gardner places the flat screen TV.

Established in 1999, the mission of the Center is to “use filmmaking as a boot camp to help teach life skills while creating new starting pathways for beginners into the film industry.”

Gardner’s goals–helping young people via study of film–are high, and the road to a self-sufficient center has been rough. After much uncertainty she thinks she passed a major milestone last week: She will move her operation to Bushwick, in a location where the Center can be a part of a community and continue to evolve.

Gardner is 57 years old, a fair-skinned black woman with a very short blonde haircut. “I started dying my hair blonde because I’m a winter-depressive,” says Gardner. “It helps me to look in the mirror and see light in the morning. That’s really why I became blonde, it helped my outlook.”

She seems to be in good shape, which could be attributed to her primary mode of transportation: her black bicycle. She is cautious in nature and wears a silver helmet when she rides.

Gardner lives in Fort Greene, and her social work background prepared her to do her present work in at-risk communities. She is an Oakland, California native with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and psychology from Raymond College. After graduation, she quickly earned a position at a rape crisis center within the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency. After that, she worked at a shelter for battered women, the Children’s Hospital Oakland, and ultimately a men’s halfway house where residents live after prison.

Gardner dealt with life and death situations as a social worker for much of her early life. But in the mid-’80s, she sought a change. Through meditation, she says, she had an aha moment and decided to pursue in acting and film.

Trayce Gardner is the founder and director of the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center.  Image source: www.wearebyfc.org

Trayce Gardner is the founder and director of the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center. (Image Courtesy Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center)

Initially she was drawn to acting and she found the storytelling component of film compelling. She did not consider working in the industry as a whole until much later in life.

Gardner moved to Fort Greene for three years in the late ‘80s. “I came to learn how to survive and take classes on the side,” she says. But she found the New York City lifestyle too arduous. After much contemplation, Gardner moved to Sante Fe, then Texas, and then returned to California. However, in 1992 she found her way back to Fort Greene.

Six years later, after producing her own short films, guest lecturing at Brooklyn Technical High School, and executive-producing many film projects, she founded the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center.

Adonis Williams, 28, is one of Gardner’s former students. They first met when Gardner was a guest in his media class at Brooklyn Technical High School. He is one of the students who gravitated to Gardner and the insights she offered. Williams is well versed in music video production, but one of the talents he wanted to improve was storytelling. Williams says that Gardner has a knack for stringing a story together.

After high school, Williams attended the School of Visual Arts and when he was working on his thesis project, a short film titled “Back Streets,” he reached out to Gardner for insight once again. “I saw the passion the she had for film and how much she thinks about characters and story structure. She always thinks about layers,” Williams says.

Even though he reached out to Gardner for guidance, he soon learned that she could help him even more. She provided interns and production assistants from the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center to help Williams on set.

“The students at Brooklyn Young Filmmakers, who were probably aspiring makeup artists or who were interested in helping out with the lighting department, they would work as assistants for my lighting crew,” Williams recalls. “I even had someone who was just assigned to me as assistant to the director. It was a big help having Brooklyn Young Filmmakers executive- produce that short.”

Ever since Williams’s thesis, he and Gardner have stayed in touch. He remains involved with the Center and even hopes to lead workshops about music video production.

The Center is not solely for youths who live in Fort Greene. It is for people who are new to film as an industry. Gardner has been able to host a number of workshops throughout the years with funding from the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her setbacks have to do with finding a home for the BYFC and city-sponsored outreach programs, such as the “Made in New York” Production Assistant Training Program.

Late in 2013, Gardner says she was able to negotiate with the owner of Huey’s Chueys, a retro sweets storefront at 378 Myrtle Avenue. She had been hoping to earn revenue for the BYFC through sales at Huey’s Chueys. Both Gardner and the owner of the storefront had a joint goal of evolving the storefront into a neighborhood cultural center with a café. Gardner installed a school store that would sell training materials and short films that the Center produced. However, the Huey’s Chueys was forced to close and Gardner lost her space.

And now, Gardner finds herself at yet another pivotal moment in her life. The Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center is her pride and joy and she has been funding her organization out of her own pockets. Gardner earns steady income from freelance catering gigs; her typical role is managing the kitchen and the flow of food from the window to the tabletops. She puts all she can spare into the Center.

Her latest plan involves the Moore Street Market in Bushwick, and on August 18, her proposal to join it was granted by the executive director, Rosalie Drago. Although Drago was not available to comment, Gardner says that Drago approved her proposal because the Center satisfied a need for the Moore Street Market: to make it a cultural community center for all.

A woman who frequents the market often says that the Brooklyn Young Filmmaker’s Center would be a good addition to the market. She also thinks that the café portion of Gardner’s storefront will be well received in the largely Puerto Rican community.

A young woman named Alyssa, 15, and her younger sister, say they go to the Moore Street Market only with their mother. They both say that if the Center were there, they would probably visit more often. The sisters say they do not learn anything about the film industry in school, so they would be interested in learning about special effects and makeup in one of Gardner’s seminars. They even expressed interest in learning about being a production assistant on a short film.

Now that Gardner has secured the space in the basement of the market, she has a space for seminars and for sets for low-budget films. She says the Center must also promote the Moore Street Market’s mission to transform into a cultural community center.

The location also means that the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center may establish a place in a community and acquire more students in the process. Gardner is still dependent on donations and volunteers, the most recent of which is a gift from a film studio in Rhode Island: an abundance of lighting equipment. Her plan is to rent out this equipment, generating revenue for the Center.

Gardner is strategizing the next steps for Brooklyn Young Filmmakers. Her goal is to raise enough funds where she can partner with another business owner to secure a storefront within the market. Her vision is to open The People’s Hollywood Studio and Café where she will sell her short films, rent used books, and proprietary literature and screenplays.

Although the Moore Street Market it is the Center’s new home, Gardner will continue to host seminars around Brooklyn and continue to reach out to the community through art initiatives throughout the city, such as NeON Arts, an arts education initiative created by the New York City Department of Probation.

Tuesday, August 19 was the final of the Center’s summer film seminars. Rahmeek and his friends who attended the seminar the week before, and had asked for acting and improv lessons, did not show up. One boy’s mother said that he was in the Bronx. Gardner was not affected nor disappointed.

“I’m so used to rolling, and when you deal with people who come from working-class and low-income, life can change so quickly,” says Gardner.

She says a group of young girls did attend, so she was elated to give a lesson on the industry. The goal of the seminars is to establish Brooklyn Young Filmmakers in the neighborhood. But the larger goal is that people learn something from each workshop.

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