When Vee Bravo first proposed a filmmaking class for teenage inmates at Rikers Island, officials from the New York City jail laughed.
"They immediately thought that I wanted to bring cameras into the space," Bravo, VP of education at the Tribeca Film Institute, told an audience at Fast Company's Innovation Festival. Cameras were, and still are, forbidden for inmates. But Bravo turned the meeting into a short lesson on film, explaining that much of the work of making a film happens in the editing room.
Soon after, Tribeca Film Institute launched a pilot class at East River Academy, an alternative high school at Rikers. Students watched and dissected episodes of Orange is the New Black, learning about plot and character development. Using stock footage, they started learning how to use Final Cut Pro.
Tribeca Film Institute focuses on bringing film education into New York City public schools. Bravo, who grew up in a Queens neighborhood seeing high rates of incarceration among his neighbors, saw the opportunity to reach an overlooked part of the community.
The program also started making new connections: when girls at Rikers wanted to start writing their own scripts, but couldn't take footage, Bravo paired them with girls from a local high school who acted as producers.
For the girls in jail, the program can give a new sense of purpose. "It begins to redefine the narrative of what your life is about," he says. "If people see you strive for something, people with respect that."
The program is now expanding with new classes and connections with more schools. Tribeca Film Institute has also started working with adult prisoners; prisoners now host film screenings and lead discussions. A small group of prisoners is working on a script that will be produced by high school students. Working with a tech company, the organization will soon start streaming films into other prisons on tablets.
"When we come in with these ideas to help them tell their stories and teach them how to write a script and teach them how to deconstruct film, it's a release, it's an educational release," Bravo says. "As one guy told me, while they're watching a film and having a conversation, it's like they're not in prison anymore. It's a way to validate them as intellectual, critical human beings."
None of the work in jails or prisons is part of Bravo's job description. It's just something that he thinks is important to do, and he managed to convince his bosses and other collaborators to agree.
"Part of it is recognizing that you have an idea, that it's an important idea, and being courageous," he says. "And fighting for it."