The storm had passed over the snoball joint, which meant the film crew finally could get to work.
After pizza, of course. And, oh, between one and five snoballs.
Kids will be kids and all that.
The nine students who participated in the second School of Doc film camp, sponsored by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, balanced the professionalism and newfound skills they brought to each project with youthful exuberance.
It's tempting to pursue the narrative of supposedly "at-risk" children finding a measure of salvation in a camp like this. Indeed, the program's mission is to provide inspiration and a possible career path for young people who might otherwise never have considered filmmaking.
But the joy and the we're-totally-going-to-stay-in-touch-after-this camaraderie that exuded from this year's crop, along with supportive families and going-places intelligence, thwarted any Lean on Me-esque tear-jerking.
These fledgling auteurs managed to take their craft seriously without ascribing to the endeavor anything other than the desire to learn and produce great work.
That they did.
One need look no further than the subject chosen by the School of Doc to pick up on the kids-will-be-kids theme.
After batting around a couple of other ideas - food trucks (too obvi), "trash music" (whatever that is) - they settled on Pelican's SnoBalls, a popular frozen confection spot on Roxboro Street boasting 100 flavors, from cherry to Coke to mango to pineapple to, yes, pickle.
"I used to live two streets from here," says Rodnei Crutchfield, an effervescent rising senior at Durham Academy who has his eye on N.C. School of the Arts, NYU or Sarah Lawrence, where he plans to pursue a career in film.
"I saw how this place was revitalizing this little section of the community. I love how people of all colors are here."
He's right. Black and white, young and old gathered at the pastel-painted former gas station across from Braggtown Baptist Church.
But that almost wasn't the case. Thunderstorms raged all afternoon the day they'd set aside for the evening shoot.
"We decided just to go for it," says Nic Beery, who, with fellow accomplished filmmaker Todd Tinkham, led the School of Doc for the second year. "We got there and the skies cleared up. It was a beautiful night."
The students separated into two crews to gather interviews, ambient sound and color shots.
A popular question was whether people knew the difference between snocones and snoballs (the latter have a softer texture, more like, well, snow), and participants gamely took a stab at the answer. There were bemused looks at first as these whipper-snappers approached for an interview, but it only took a question or two for the subjects to fully engage as if they were on the CBS Nightly News.
Taking it all in, and sneaking in a snoball, was Duchess Tabb, mother of School of Doc-er Emmanuel Tabb, a rising junior at Hillside.
She says her son had fully embraced filmmaking and had developed dreams of pursuing a career in the industry.
Duchess has but one complaint. "We can't even look at a movie now," she says with a laugh. "He'll describe what's going on, all the different camera angles. I can't just enjoy the movie."
A small price to pay to see her son so engrossed, so passionate.
And competent. Nic says everything clicked that night.
"They were off doing their own thing," he says. "I took a moment and I said, 'Look at this. They’re asking the questions, they’re doing the shots, they’re using bounce cards.' And I just smiled and I thought, 'They really get it, and they’re doing it on their own.' It felt really great."
Pelican's was fun, but the School of Doc wasn't just child's play. The group, in addition to practicing editing interviews of their classmates, cut their documentary teeth on a rather serious project of Nic's.
Noah Powell is a jazz musician who spent years wrestling with drug and alcohol addictions that led to repeated incarcerations. Clean and sober now, he agreed to allow the School of Doc kids to interview him.
"I wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions," Rodnei says, a statement vouched for by Nic and Todd.
"One of the questions was about how he came to be incarcerated and what did he learn from that. He learned that he really needed to reevaluate his life and his life’s worth and that was one of the steps to him becoming a better person after he got out."
Deirdre Haj, Full Frame's executive director, was there during the interview and was blown away by the students' ability to elicit honest, emotional responses, and by the impact those hard-won lessons seemed to have on them.
"They were so well prepared," she says. "But I don't think they expected to hear what they heard. You could feel the temperature in the room change. It's the beauty of documentary. Real life is right in front of you, yet every day we just pass through. When you're focusing the lens on someone, you have empathy, and you see the world in a different way.
"What they don't realize," she adds, "is you can shoot for four months and not get an interview like that. Pretty cool."
Nic says, "I thought that was really an important story to bring to high school kids. Noah has overcome some challenges and still struggles with addiction every day. That message got across. So not only did they get exposed to filmmaking skills, they got exposed to real life. This isn’t all just making the next Hunger Games-type movie. This is a real person going through some real challenges."
He adds, "They figured out what the story was and how to tell it. I would not have had a better film if I had had a professional crew, and I mean that."
It was a scene right out of a movie: Standing room only on closing night, as not only parents but supportive community members turned out en masse to back the young filmmakers.
"We didn't know how many to expect," Deirdre says of the closing night screening.
"It was packed. I don't think we expected that much growth. It looked like Durham. You had police officers in the police force, the head of educational programs from the North Carolina Arts Council, and all those parents and all those families there. If you build something solid in Durham, people will support it."
Mishel Gomez, a rising senior at Southern, was there with her two parents. She translated for her mother, Irma Cespedes. "She's really happy, and it was an excellent movie," Mishel said. "She thanks the instructors for allowing us the opportunity."
Her father, Miguel Gomez, said in English, "I expected she would do something like this. I'm very proud."
As for Mishel, "I used to be a shy, timid person. Just meeting all these people and learning so much, it's really brought me out to be more open."
Arnold Chanakira, a Northern graduate who's at UNC-Greensboro planning to study theater, wants to be an actor, but says the School of Doc experience opens up his options in the entertainment biz. On closing night, he was nonchalantly proud. "It felt good," he said. "The hard work finally paid off. It came off better than I thought it would."
Turns out, the cinematic summer wasn't over for Arnold, Mishel, Rodnei or Matthew Krieg, an N.C. School of the Arts freshman who interned at School of Doc. All helped with the production of a short thriller Nic was working on called Trust the week after camp ended.
Instructor Todd (who took the pics you'll see in the accompanying slideshow) knows a thing or two about working with young people.
He spent 17 years working with at-risk teenagers and young adults, mostly in outdoor adventure therapy, Outward Bound-type programs.
"Are the kids we had this year at-risk or underserved?," he said during a follow-up interview. "I guess, maybe, in ways. We're all at-risk of something. They're at-risk for less-than-positive life outcomes, things such as prison, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, alcohol, at least truancy from school. But the kids we had, that wasn't them. Very intelligent, very capable, with supportive families. There are kids out there who are truly at-risk with so little support that for them to even find about something like this, get signed up and get a ride in could be an impossibility."
But this year's School did offer one unique outlet to help fulfill the promise of at least three of the students: the Emily K Center. Last year's camp was held at Southern, but students gathered this year at Emily K, the widely hailed after-school tutoring center.
Three of the students likely will be heading to Emily K's Scholars to College program this fall.
"It's the kind of place I wish they had when I was a kid," Todd says.
"I really got this year that we are making a difference." DM