Atlantic City teacher Devan Blackwell has spent the last year making a 40-minute movie he hopes will give teenagers, especially those in urban areas, a voice in their neighborhoods, their schools and their futures.
“The Spe@k Project” tells the stories of eight fictional teens as they struggle with bullying, drugs, mental health issues, dating violence, sexual orientation, tragedy and the isolation they feel when they believe no one is listening and no one can help them.
“I know there are people like me, the unseen, the unheard,” says actor Alexandra Gonzalez, 15, a sophomore at Atlantic City High School, whose scene opens with her long hair covering her face.
All of the actors are local residents who worked for free. Some were Blackwell’s students, and he recruited a couple from the high school theater club. The project was partially funded by a grant from the Atlantic City Education Foundation, but Blackwell has put several thousand dollars of his own money into the film as well.
He said he originally considered a movie just on bullying, but after another movie “Bully” came out last year he modified his vision to address all students who feel alienated and unheard.
“The message is when you don’t have a voice you become invisible,” said Blackwell, a teacher at Richmond Avenue School in Atlantic City. “I see kids walking around who have so much going on in their lives. If they can just find someone to talk to we may be able to prevent a lot of problems.”
The movie will debut Saturday night at a special invitation-only reception for the cast, their families and local youth advocates at Resorts Hotel and Casino. Blackwell would like to show it as part of panel discussions with the cast at area schools and youth events, and is also looking at entering it in film festivals. He has prepared a teacher’s guide with lessons and statistics on the issues in the movie.
Blackwell put an excerpt on his Facebook page for Be Unlimited (Beunltd) a motivational project for young people. On Wednesday the cast met at Atlantic City High School to talk about their roles.
Some have a personal connection to their characters. Janelee Marcial, 20, plays a lesbian who is kicked out of her home after “coming out” to her family, and winds up living on the street.
“It’s hard not to feel like garbage when someone throws you away,” her character says.
Marcial said as a lesbian she could definitely relate to her character. She said she had an older cousin she always looked up to when she was young, and she wants to be that role model for other young people who need someone to talk to.
“It was good for me to get the message out,” she said of her role.
Eric Haney, 15, of Brigantine, was inspired by a cousin with mental health issues in his role as a student struggling with the stresses of school. He had originally read for another role, giving it a mental health spin, and Blackwell ended up writing a role just for him to address that issue.
For others, the challenges were more physical. Stiven Salazar, 16, of Atlantic City, had to suffer getting beaten up, which even though it was acting, was still physical.
“It was not a good experience,” he said. “And I did get hit in the head once.”
April Kimbraugh, 17, of Atlantic City had to fall down in the street repeatedly for her role as a student who has a tragic accident that leaves her in a wheelchair.
“There was no stunt double for that,” she said with a laugh. “I just kind of went with it.”
“It did make you feel like what it would be like to actually have that happen to you,” Salazar said.
Other leads in the movie are Connor Conard, 18, of Galloway Township, Demond Cottman, 17, of Atlantic City, and Indra Aracena, 24, of Atlantic City.
Teachers or groups interested in showing the film can contact Blackwell at email@example.com
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