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Juvies - Poetry Reading Paves The Way For Film's Journey Into Dreams, Misery Of Teens Tried As Adults - San Francisco Chronicle


By Jane Ganahl

Joie Barnhart of the Richmond District is here because her friend said it would be a cool way to spend a Thursday evening in San Francisco. No age limit at CELLspace gallery, so a 16-year-old is welcome. Besides, says the dark-haired, black-eyelinered youth, as she puts her purse down next to her folding chair, "I like to write poetry, and I hear there are some good poets who are going to read. And there is a movie."

What kind of movie? She smiles. "I'm not sure."

The documentary in question is "Juvies," a grim look at what happens to teenage offenders when they are sucked into the adult prison system. This will not be an evening of "Must Love Dogs" jocularity.

Organizer Stephen Elliott is milling around the audience, looking worried. One of the four writers scheduled to do a reading has not arrived, and the event is past its 7 p.m. start time. He approaches his friend Dave Eggers and says, "Do you think you might be able to read if he doesn't show?"

Eggers starts to grimace, but just then Marc Bamuthi Joseph is seen in the doorway of the cavernous performance space. Relieved, Elliott hurries off to greet him. Elliott is one of those rare writers who is equally at home behind a keyboard or a podium. The Bay Area author and journalist had a banner year in 2004; his novel, the ironically titled "Happy Baby," was named one of the best books of the year by the Village Voice (among others) and garnered him both a Commonwealth Club medal and a finalist spot in the New York Library's Young Lions Award (which was won, coincidentally, by his local friend, Andrew Sean Greer).

But if literature inspires him, his own history drives him. Having spent much of his childhood in foster homes as a ward of the state, Elliott has become a writer-activist. For political causes, yes (including last year's presidential race, which led to his nonfiction work, "Looking Forward to It: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process"), but mostly for the cause of youth behind bars.

"I'd been researching an article about Proposition 21," he tells the capacity audience from the stage. "And learned that it's a terrible, terrible proposition. It passed in California in 2000, mandating that children be tried as adults."

A smattering of boos from the audience. Joie shifts in her seat. "I'm talking about kids who vandalize ... who break a window, ending up in adult prison." Elliott then reads a section of the story he wrote, focusing on one young offender, Alonso, who ends up in solitary confinement, just hoping to die, while still in his teens.

He is followed in readings by Kirya Traber, a stunningly confident young woman who took first place, with her team, at the recent International Youth Poetry Slam. Her poem, about a boy she loved who fought the law, is both poignant and harrowing. Newly acclaimed writer (and sometime SFGate.com columnist) Beth Lisick (now on the New York Times extended best-seller list for her "Everybody Into the Pool") heightens the mood by reading an unintentionally hilarious press release from HBO about the show "Entourage" and its own version of the "Boston T" (as in shirt) party.

And slam champion Marc Bamuthi Joseph is his usual tornado of activity, in and out of the audience, accompanying his own poetry with wildly inventive dance movements that make him look alternately like a flapping bird and a turtle. He finishes his set with a solemn pronouncement: "How much money does it take to educate a child? Seven thousand dollars. How much money does it cost to incarcerate a child? Ninety thousand dollars."

Elliott retakes the stage to introduce Leslie Neale, director of "Juvies. " "I'm humbled by the many voices onstage tonight," she says, brushing aside long blond hair. "I know that it ..." she trails off, as if fighting tears, "it would make the kids very happy."

She introduces the film by noting that it was "damn near impossible to photograph kids in detention." But somehow she managed, with the cooperation of authorities, to put cameras not only in her own hands, but those of the detainees.

Narrated by actor (and former juvie) Mark Wahlberg, who also executive produced, "Juvies" has circled the country on tour to campuses and theaters. (Information on getting a copy of the film can be found at juvies.net.) And the film has the audience gasping from the get-go.

It focuses first on Michael Duc Ta, who goes by Duc. At age 16, he was arrested when gunfire erupted from a car he was driving. Although no one was injured, and he had no prior arrests, Duc was put into the adult prison system and sentenced to 35 years to life.
When Duc is interviewed by his friends, he breaks down in tears, talking about having been beaten by his father throughout his childhood. When Duc's parents are interviewed, his father admits to the beatings -- one of which was so severe it led to his own arrest. Duc's mother weeps uncontrollably.

Asked what he would like people to know about him, Duc thinks, then responds: "I'm not such a bad guy after all. I'm not a lost cause."

And it's only the beginning. One girl already has a baby from whom she is separated; her own mother is schizophrenic and her father is in the state pen. Another girl, just 14 and the daughter of Armenian immigrants, is also probably in for life for a gang shooting.
Joie and her friend cover their mouths with their hands while they watch; others in the audience sniff audibly.

After the documentary is over, Neale takes the stage again and asks if there are questions. What happened to Duc? Everyone wants to know.

"Due to grassroots efforts, 25 years have been taken off his sentence," Neale smiles. "That's still 11 years to life, so there's a good chance he might not make it out." And, she says, there is still much to be done. "These kids changed my life," she says. "I hope you're moved to do something. Anything."

When Joie tiptoes out, she smiles and breathes, "Wow. Intense!"