Two sisters cope with an abusive father and a broken, bruised mother in denial. A young man gets passed around from foster family to foster family, acquiring parents but never a home. Another one, a decent kid, winds up dealing drugs because his crackhead mother can’t pay off her debt. And there, slouching into class, is the angry, wounded, molested teen who won’t tell a soul until it’s almost too late.
Rough stuff, tough teens. So it goes in “Fast Life,” a feature-length drama conceived, acted and scored by Schenectady High School students in Revolution Studios, an after-school video-and-music club run by the district’s energetic and enterprising multimedia specialist. They came up with the stories from their own lives and the lives of kids they knew.
Shot on a dime with exactly four pieces of equipment (camera, tripod, boom mike and field light), the film is a complex, hard-hitting ensemble work with huge ambitions and a sleek finish that belies its amateur origins. It looks good. It sounds good. And it has a lot to say: about life, death, hope, pain, the forces that shape teenagers and the need to go beyond the walls of high school to help them.
“Kids are not monsters. They can be created to be that way according to their environment, but they’re not born animals. They’re not born monsters. They’re not born as troubled kids. No kid is a troubled kid,” says Prince Sprauve, the 28-year-old director, multimedia guru and mentor who has guided the film from its first inklings in the fall of 2010.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, “Fast Life” will have its big-screen premiere at Proctors. It’s noon on a recent Monday, and Sprauve is sitting at Newest Lunch, the venerable hot dog mecca on Albany Street. A confrontation scene between a sleazy drug lord and Anthony, the kid with the crackhead mom, was filmed in the booth behind him. He credits the folks at Newest with letting them shoot there, just as he credits Holiday Inn for lending a room, Daly Funeral Home for lending a casket and Price Chopper for donating flowers. Schenectady Police Department helped out, he says. Vale Cemetery. New Bethel Community Church — that’s where Sprauve worships — and its pastor, Vincent E. Teague. Parents pitched in. Teachers. The list goes on.
Interest and participation in the film grew gradually, he says. The first year, only 19 minutes were shot, as Sprauve and his charges figured things out on the fly — and won over plenty of skeptics. “People were kind of incredulous,” he says, “kind of, ‘Uhhh, I don’t know if I want to give my free time to something that’s gonna be cheesy.'” But in the second year, everything clicked. “Then all of a sudden I had this swarm of people, like, ‘Yo, can I have a role? Can I be in the movie? I wanna be in the movie!'”
The idea for the movie started, simply enough, when Sprauve gave the kids some beats he produced and suggested they write raps to lay over them. A couple of students came up with a song called “Fast Life.” “This is pretty good,” he told them. “I think I wanna shoot a music video.”
He suggested they add a story line to make it more cinematic, like Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller.” So they added scenes. Then they added more scenes. Then more. Sprauve told them to stop. “Eventually, one day, I had about 70 kids right in front of me, and I said, ‘Look, we have to stop making scenes!’ And everybody just started saying, ‘Sprauve! Why don’t we just make a movie? Turn it into a movie!'”
That’s what they call him — “Sprauve.”
“He’s awesome. He. Is. Awesome. He’s not only a teacher — I consider him my older brother,” says Akiti Hazard, who plays one of the sisters struggling with an abusive dad. “Aside from teaching video production or doing this movie, he gives us great advice on life.”
Confirms Deasia Mayers, a junior at Schenectady High who wrote one rap for the soundtrack and co-wrote another: ”He’s like everybody’s older brother.”
In the booth at Newest, Sprauve pores over the poster for “Fast Life.” That mature-looking guy at the left with the beard: He’s a student who plays a cop. The fellow next to him, playing the drug lord: a Schenectady High social worker. That serious-looking boy in the middle, the one in the yellow hoodie: He’s Ashante Davis, who plays Anthony. Davis made up three years of high school in one, graduating on time.
As Sprauve talks, his enthusiasm never sags. He speaks wicked-fast, in passionate, articulate surges that swell with the rhythms of a sermon and illuminate his unflagging faith in life. He talks about his present (he’s rearing two kids alone, one his own, one his ex-wife’s little sister) and his past (he grew up in the Brooklyn projects).
Eleven years ago, he says, he came north with a history on the streets and an attitude to go with it. He had planned on staying with his grandfather in Schenectady for two weeks, “and my grandfather, he’s from down south, so he hates grown boys sleepin’ around the house.” Get a job, he told the kid. Sprauve did. Discovered he liked working. Got churched. Got his GED. At 21, got hired at Schenectady High School. Went back to school, planning to become a teacher. He’s now in his last year at Schenectady County Community College.
He was tough on the kids during shooting, he says. “I said, ‘Don’t come to my set late.’ I said, ‘Be on time. You don’t have a ride, walk. Because I want to show you how to go get something, something that you love.'” Keeping them on track wasn’t always easy. “It was almost like I had to keep convincing them. I kept saying: ‘It’s gonna work out. Just keep going. Don’t stop. Whatever you do, life has a way of working itself out, if you just stay on the right path.’ ”
There were nights that went on forever. “Three. I was up till three. Three! I saw the daylight,” says Schenectady High junior Saidah Jackson, who plays one of the sisters struggling with an abusive dad. Wee hours notwithstanding, the “Fast Life” movie shoot inspired her to become a director, she says. And she’s proud of the message it sends: “This movie was necessary. This movie was very, very necessary — just the awareness,” Jackson says.
At the same time, the film itself — just in getting made — illustrates the upside to Schenectady High, which is often at the butt end of bad publicity. “A lot of things happen all around the world, and at so many different schools, and I just think that it’s very unfair to be thought of as That School, you know?” she says. “Because our school is great.”
Adds Mayers: “We’re gonna be able to perform and show people, not just Schenectady but basically America, that there’s good in teenagers.”
The film pulls no punches and lands a few that hurt; when Sprauve talks about the “10, 15 bottles of blood” he purchased from a costume shop, take heed. All is not sweetness and light on the streets of Schenectady, but that’s just the point: to turn an eye on the real problems of real kids in real cities across the country.
“The problems that are going on in the movie are happening around America — not just Schenectady,” says Mayers. “It’s just shedding a light on it, and letting people know that these problems are real and we need to deal with them.”
Next up for “Fast Life”: A screening this September at the Williamsburg International Film Festival in Brooklyn. “I’ve been telling ’em, ‘Stay humble, because you’re gonna get a lot of accolades,'” Sprauve explains. “‘This is not the time to become big-headed, because fame leaves. Just as well as it comes, it leaves.'”
As for that other little movie shot in Schenectady — something about pine trees, starring someone named Bradley — Sprauve and his charges heard about it. “They shot a scene at Schenectady High School, so we were very aware of it,” he says. “But I told the kids, ‘Stay focused!’ Don’t worry about the competition.'”
This article was originally published at Times Union.