Director of Sundance selection The Bad Kids discusses documentary filmmaking
by Logan Beck
Louis Pepe studied computer science as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before taking a few film classes and realizing his true passion lied in filmmaking.
A few short decades later, one of his films would be screened in the Sundance Film Festival.
Pepe began his film education after seeing a presentation of films presented by Temple University graduate students in the Department of Film and Media Arts (FMA) master of fine arts program. Soon after, he enrolled in the program himself.
Now, he is the faculty director of FMA Los Angeles Study Away program, and teaches courses in film history, film directing and career skills.
“I actually started teaching for Temple back in 2011, which at the same time was when I started making a series of documentaries about public education,” Pepe said. “I actually was doing a lot more I was teaching for the university and spending a lot of time watching public school teachers, and got to thinking, ‘What makes a good teacher?’”
His growing interest in documenting education would lead to his film The Bad Kids, an official selection in the Sundance Film Festival, detailing the unknown story about Black Rock Continuation High School, a remote school in the Mojave Desert dedicated to students who are at risk of dropping out of traditional school.
They discovered quickly that at Black Rock, there was certainly a story to be told.
“There was a moment early on in filming when we knew that we had a film, you don’t always know you have a film when you make a documentary,” Pepe said.
When Pepe and his filmmaking partner Keith Fulton first began exploring the possibility of filming at the school, they were sitting in the principal’s office, witnessing a meeting for a student who was set to graduate at the end of the semester. Her smiles quickly turned to tears.
“She started explaining that she was terrified to graduate from high school because graduating meant she had to grow up and be on her own,” Pepe said. “For this young woman, graduating high school meant she would be rushed out into the world that she had seen been so harsh to the people in her life.”
Over the course of filming, Pepe and the rest of the filmmaking crew immersed themselves in the lives of these students, learning about their aspirations, difficult home life and plans for the future.
“To my mind, the relationships you form with your subjects, are entirely the art of documentary,” Pepe said. “A lot of people think about filmmaking about the shots and the story, but for documentary, it’s the people.The craft is in building a relationship with someone where they feel comfortable sharing the truth of their lives with you.”
Luckily, their hard work, determination and observations paid off.
“That was very exciting, my partner and I have been making films for over 20 years together and this was the first film we got the chance to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival,” Pepe said. “With that excitement comes a tremendous amount of nerves because it’s a big deal. “
Pepe’s biggest advice to students is to not wait for anyone to give permission to be creative, and to just go out and do it.
“A lot of young filmmakers think it means making that one film and coasting through the rest of their lives...that doesn’t happen, ever,” Pepe said.
Pepe is excited for his past Temple University professors to see the film. In fact, since Pepe works out of Los Angeles, many Temple students were involved with the film, including student interns in the study away program.
“I’m a firm believer it’s possible to keep it all in the family,” Pepe said.