And a Child Shall Direct Them

Who does Tommy Reuff think he is, this preppy Stephen King-looking cat? And Steve Ramos, CityBeat's overgrown, bald camper-cum-film editor and Cincinnati Film Society (CFS) board member? Together,

Who does Tommy Reuff think he is, this preppy Stephen King-looking cat? And Steve Ramos, CityBeat's overgrown, bald camper-cum-film editor and Cincinnati Film Society (CFS) board member?

Together, these guys put their talents where their yaps are. They figured out the antidote to ignoring future corner-dwellers: Put something in their hands and minds to replace despair, disappointment, sacks of doom and other weapons of self-destruction.

And they did it without coming off like tired white shadows.

Reuff's Happen, Inc. organization and the CFS this year birthed a newbie project called "Lights-Camera-Learning in Action." A collaboration on a shoestring and a prayer, the two non-profits created a filmmaking opportunity that was equal parts Romper Room/Sundance Film Festival and respite for a group of 25 kids.

Project Connect and its staff, some of them Cincinnati Public School teachers on summer break, swooped up the kids from area shelters and took them swimming, tutored them and dropped some off at Reuff's Happen, Inc. facility on Beechmont Avenue. That's where Reuff, Ramos and a stellar group of hip film- and non-film-related tree-hugging volunteers nudged the fledgling filmmakers through their paces.

The collaboration resulted in The Wonderful World of Brady, a cautionary short tale written, produced, outfitted, directed, narrated and art directed by sassy, rambunctious, resilient and hope-filled kids.

A picnic in a shaded, sun-spotted lawn overlooking Eden Park's Seasongood Pavilion preceded the July 30 premiere in the Cincinnati Art Museum's auditorium.

The grown-ups didn't want the project framed in homelessness, but it must be said. Homelessness means more than not having a permanent place to lay your head.

For a child it can be the beginning of an identity crisis, an ugly toe tag. Remember how cruel — sometimes even evil — the kids were from your childhood?

But film is escape. It's a celluloid otherworld. And making one has to be like survival of the filmiest.

The kid producers came to see me a while back to convince me to write a column about what they were up to. I asked them if they had any cash: "Ever heard of payola?"

It dropped like a rock. They were nervous, and I was busting another deadline.

That Tuesday in the park on July 30 was smoother.

"We edited some of the parts out, like the mistakes," said Muraline, a 12-year-old from the production team. She said she'd like to try directing — for real. "I think I'd like to be a director because of this. They have all the fun."

She had a better summer break than her friends did.

"I was doing something different than my friends," Muraline said. "Instead of making a movie, they're probably sitting at home in the hot sun."

Who knows what she would've been doing if not making the movie? Kids must vacate homeless shelters during the day while their parents look for work. Teeming/steaming city streets don't nurture unescorted children.

Despite that reality, Paul McDole, Project Connect's director of operations for its summer program, says the kids don't realize the severity of their situations.

"I bet that if you went to any of these kids and asked them if they're homeless, they'd say, 'No,' because they live in a shelter," he says.

And that makes for bumpy learning, he says.

"The script was simple, but sometimes some of our kids are behind in school," McDole says. "I'm hoping this experience will put them (into) school."

Racquel, the movie's 12-year-old narrator, wears chipped blue raspberry polish on her nails and toes. When I tried talking to her at the picnic, she was squirmy and salty in a cute way. She couldn't understand why I couldn't understand her description of her work process.

"Were you nervous?" I asked.

"Because Mr. 'Zo kept telling me to do it all over, take a deep breath," she said. Mr. 'Zo is Alphonso Wesson III, filmmaker and president of Zomotion Productions. He coached Racquel in the booth.

"Sometimes I mess up on words," she said. "It seems like I know it by heart, but then I have to look at the script."

Her narration had that staccato cadence to it that inexperienced readers have. But she got through it.

"When I got out of there I didn't like it," she said. "I liked it, but I didn't like the way it sounded."

Yeah, hearing your own voice can be weird, I told her.

Her posture said, "Whatever, keep it moving."

What about the program? Was it fun?

"It's fun," she said. "Some people say they don't like it and some people say they do. It's all fun for me. I know that I can be a great actress and narrator."

That's who Reuff and Ramos are. Dream weavers, really.

Just ask the kids who got their dreams back this summer.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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