Photo courtesy of Youth FX
When Ejanaii Clayton was in her early teens, she knew she wanted to be an actress. The trouble was finding a place to do it. In the Albany area, there didn’t seem to be an inclusive place for her to explore theater with her peers. Instead, community groups she encountered were populated by much older, predominantly white casts. She couldn’t picture herself in the community until she came across Youth FX.
While participating in a play with Albany-based theater performer and outreach teacher Noelle Gentile–who had recently begun teaching classes at the nonprofit 501(c)(3) film and digital media organization Youth FX–Clayton enrolled in the organization’s spring program and worked through the summer. She was hooked.
“The way it all happened was very cosmic, I guess. It was crazy that we were in the same circle working on the same projects, so I feel like it was meant to be,” Clayton said of her side-by-side introduction with Gentile. “I fell in love with the environment and the people–being surrounded by people of color who are doing these really creative things that I didn’t think were possible for me.”
Now 19, Clayton is a staff member at Youth FX with film roles under her belt that include directing, writing and editing on projects such as the 2014 documentary “Food Fight” and the narrative film “Project One”–two of the 34 original films that have been produced by the organization.
“Seeing everyone in their niche–camera people, directors and whatnot–gave me this bug to branch out of acting,” she said. “It’s being more involved in the backgrounds of film.”
Clayton’s story is not unlike the ones of her fellow staff members — all up and coming filmmakers who joined the constantly developing Youth FX program as young teens.
“One of the things I love about that is that we’ve created this pipeline for people who are able to come into the program and learn these skills,” the program’s executive director Bhawin Suchak said.
In addition to running productions through Rogue FX, the full-service commercial production company filming promos, commercials, industrials and live events for local small businesses, Clayton and her fellow alums teach incoming students in workshops and programs.
In the after school program–for students age 8 to 14–at the Albany Public Library alone, Youth FX gathers nearly 500 in regular attendance. The organization also enrolls students in their Albany High School program, summer intensive program and part-time employment for those aged 14 to 24.
“[They] have been amazing educators. Not just in developing skills to make their own projects, but in all turns,” production manager David Easton said. “They’re teaching the next generation way better than I can teach or Bhawin can teach because there’s a different age gap.”
“It feels so good to pass that on because I know when I first started Youth FX, I was blown away, it was crazy. I don’t know how to explain it but it was just mind blowing,” Clayton adds, mimicking an explosion with her fingers. “The fact that I can remember that feeling and pass that on to someone else is really gratifying.”
“It’s so ingrained in us because that’s how we started. We started doing this from the jump in high school,” Michael Mejia said. “I didn’t know when I first came to Youth FX that this was going to be where we are now. Having that growth together has led us to this place for better or for worse.”
Mejia had already been involved with film projects in high school when he met Suchak in 2010. The program was only two years in but he jumped at the chance to take part, so he signed up through the City of Albany Summer Youth Employment program and has been working as a program assistant and educator at Youth FX ever since–returning to the organization after earning his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute.
“The first year, I wanted to do everything, I wanted to be the lead actor, write the script, shoot–I wanted to do too much… [Youth FX] was the first outlet where I was like a kid in the candy store, let me take it all and absorb everything,” he laughs. “Now I eat less candy, so I’m chillin’.”
For the past year or so, the organization has operated their monthly 4-week youth program in a back room of the Albany Public Library, bordered by computer monitors and littered with gear. One of its only limitations was a tricky one for a team with lengthy production, film and editing schedules: They had access to their space in the library, just as long as the building was open.
For the first time in 10 years, Youth FX has a space of their very own–a roomy screening room and editing lab located at 25 Warren St. in the Albany Mansion District.
Now, Suchak says excitedly, “We have our own space to do our programs whenever we want.”
Youth FX will continue to collaborate with their Albany Public Library partner as well as their many other community collaborators such as WMHT, The Albany Free School and the Carey Institute for Global Good–through which the organization operates NeXt Doc, the week-long intensive residential program for a selection of diverse filmmakers.
The group started moving into the building in the end of December 2017, spending the last few weeks settling in. The building, which was previously owned by a church, came with three pre-installed screens anchored by steel beams, several lighting fixtures and a projector. In the days before their grand opening, staff members are in the process of rewiring and learning how to work with the systems. They’re hanging frames and arranging furniture, making it a home.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, right around the corner,” Suchak said. “I first came into this building 7 years ago for an event that was put on by AVillage, they were just doing a fundraiser for a step team. I had never been in here because it was always closed. I was shocked that the space even existed. Steve Longo, director of the Albany Housing Authority, gave Suchak a call, explaining that AHA had purchased the building and offered for Youth FX to rent the space–an open room connected to the South End Children’s Cafe.
“I think they wanted to see the place full of life rather than just sitting here empty,” Suchak said.
“That’s been really awesome to have–the support of those kinds of city organizations. It’s also in their interest, they want to see really good stuff happening in the South End. In this area specifically, you have the Capital South Campus Center, you have Radix, you have AVillage in the housing towers, the African American Cultural Center–within a one mile radius, you have some amazing community organizations that could have some incredible synergy in lifting up opportunities, not only as young people, but for adults to really engage and have cultural activity.”
The organization has already started to grow their relationship with the nearby Howe Library. Suchak and Easton have started a program for adults interested in filmmaking and screenwriting, an expansion from their youth-focused programming that the director said they had been talking about for years.
“It was this packed crowd of people ranging from 23 to 65 who are interested in making films because they have a story they want to tell and they want to know how to do it,” Easton said of one of their first classes. “This is a cold, January, Monday night where the sidewalks are icy and people are there with their notebooks like, ‘Let’s talk about film.’ It’s really exciting.”
“Things we’ve been wanting to do a lot more is film screenings and events–not just programming for youth but films for the community to come see that they might not see in local theaters or even the Spectrum,” Suchak said. “We’ll obviously be continuing with our workshops and start to expand into more young adult programs. We hope that this place can help create that community. It’s also just a workspace.”
Darian Henry, who has been with Youth FX since day one, is a co-founding member alongside Suchak, Majestic Tillman and Rashid Howell. She has produced, directed and filmed over 20 short films, including award-winning works like “Inside the Ring” and “Tyler” and is looking to take Youth FX to the next level. “We’re trying to be Youth FX International,” she grins.
“I wanted to make my own films and I wanted to create films that I wasn’t seeing on TV,” Henry said about her emergence in Youth FX. “It definitely has helped in building my confidence and providing a platform of a community that supports my ideas and my train of thought.”
Henry also spends a solid chunk of time teaching and mentoring new students. “It’s such a major part of our identity because it’s a given that you never stop learning. Even internally, we’re always teaching eachother something,” Henry nodded. In her own experience as a young up-and-coming filmmaker, its Suchak who has played an important lead role in developing the organization and her role as a co-founder.
“I just remember saying, ‘Hey you’re going to this meeting? Can I come with you?’ Suddenly I was just at all the meetings–the only kid in a room full of adults. Those experiences have provided me with a level of agency and knowing that my ideas and the things I am concerned about have value–even if I’m younger than everyone or I don’t look like everyone else,” she said.
“I’ve never heard ‘No, you can’t do this.’ It’s always, ‘Yes, how are we gonna do this? How is your idea going to transform if we can’t do it that way? There’s gotta be another way.’”
At Youth FX, there is a special importance placed on building trust with the students and putting them at the same level of respect–and responsibility–as the adults in their field.
“You tell a young person ‘yes’ and they’ll take over the world–in the best way possible,” Mejia said.
The expectations are high, only because mentors know they have provided the opportunity for students to be proficient and confident filmmakers.
“We often times run into the way that the word ‘kid’ is used as a slur. It’s a way to disrespect young people and diminish what people are capable of,” Easton said.
Some members already have their own set of keys to the new building so they can come in and work in the editing room or open space whenever they want. It’s something earned over years in the program and allow the students to hone in on their skills their own time.
“Putting young people in a position of power and actually giving them–literally and metaphorically–keys to the whole organization is an important part of it,” Suchak explains.
“A lot of youth programs tell you and teach you what to do but they don’t give you the tool and say ‘now that you’ve learned it, you can use this tool whenever you want.’ Access, to me, is the number one reason to me that we have an issue in this country with a real racial and class divide. Not only who’s making films, but the content, all of it. Those stories are not being told because those people do not have access to the tools… That’s what we’re trying to unlock for people.”
In their decade of existence, Youth FX has garnered a pretty successful legacy through the creative efforts of the local youth. The filmmakers have screened their documentary and narrative films at more than 80 festivals including the Tribeca, Chicago, Woodstock, Harlem Seattle and L.A. International Film Festivals, winning with works such as “Falling”, a 2015 narrative exploring the challenges that LGBTQ youth face as they find themselves; “Inside the Ring”, a 2014 documentary profiling the Albany youth boxing program under longtime coach Jerrick Jones; and “Tyler”, a 2012 documentary following the heinous 2011 murder of 17-year-old Tyler Rhodes, as voiced by his mother and young people he knew–speaking out against community violence.
“When our work goes to festivals, our presence is challenging every other ‘youth’ group to up their game,” Mejia said of their close-to-home content and steady developing technique. “They’re shocked. Even in our earliest work, people were like, ‘You had a jib on that.’ We didn’t even know what a jib is. We were just figuring it out.”
Nothing about the Youth FX learning experience is conventional. Instead–in the opinions of film school graduates like Henry and Mejia–they’ve turned film curriculum on its head. It forces students to be hands on with equipment and editing programs from the very beginning, to collaborate with others fairly and to speak up and take the lead on major projects.
“We never know how, when a kid comes through our program, it can shape their life forever. It’s bigger than making films,” Mejia said about their technique. “ It’s a tool for navigating life.”
“I feel like other filmmakers going through the process–either by themselves or through a university –it’s like sharks in the water. You’re all chasing the same thing and it’s not communal at all. Film is such a communal process and when you go through that system, it’s so dog eat dog. You’re fighting for the same thing,” Henry said. “Our legacy is in all the people we connect with. That one instance can shift their perception of who they are or what they can do.”
As the filmmakers begin to settle in to their surroundings, Suchak says the neighbors and community members of the South End will be the first priority of Youth FX, come their grand opening on Jan. 25.
“[We’re] just trying to create a network of support for filmmakers. Specifically, filmmakers of color from our communities that we live in because those are places where there’s no access to stuff like this,” Suchak said, “Without that connection or community, it can be a struggle.”
“We want to be responsive to the community. Obviously our focus is film and digital media but we also want to partner with other organizations that might need the space to do a program or want to incorporate film into something they’re doing and give the opportunity to partner with us. Our organization is built on a lot of partnerships and trying to find a way to connect each other and strengthen what we’re all doing.”
The organizers have high hopes, given the success they’ve already had with community collaborative projects–such as the Howe Library workshop.
“There’s this film culture here and people want to make film and appreciate good film and there’s room and tools to make it,” Easton added.
The executive director says their new space is an important step in the organization’s 10-year legacy. From here, he hopes to bring on more full time employees, build on their developing programs and projects–such as the recent success of their 11 short documentary project Piece of the Dream–and continue to educate and involve the local community.
“Not to hype it up too much, but [it’s] transforming the culture. Giving them that power. People are making YouTube channels, creating a music video, creating a brand of clothing, designing and imagining possibilities and that’s what programs for young people should strive to do–give them the actual, real life experience,” Suchak said.
“This is just the beginning–even though it’s been 10 years,” Henry said. “We have so many ideas, we’re trying to take over the world.”
Youth FX celebrates their grand opening Jan. 25 at 5 PM in their new location: 25 Warren St., Albany (12202)