Eleven-year-old Brian Estrada isn’t just a student at Van Wig Elementary School — he’s now a film producer and writer.
And he has the script to prove it, thanks to a cinema project from Edward James Olmos’ Latino International Film Institute that’s designed to help Hispanic youths develop a passion for filmmaking.
“He’s a person who has bionic abilities, and he got that when he was electrocuted by lightning,” Estrada said of the main character in the movie he and his classmates are creating.
His “Bionic Ninja” joins five other projects written, produced and filmed entirely by fourth and fifth graders in the Bassett Unified School District, all part of a first-year series that tracks into Torch Middle School and eventually Bassett High School.
On Thursday, the kids from Van Wig Elementary will take a break from moviemaking to tour Creative Artists Agency, well known for representing A-listers including J.J. Abrams, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. They’ll enjoy a screening of DreamWorks’ new animated film “Home” and then meet the executives behind it.
The youth program aims to demystify Hollywood for children in Latino communities, according Polo Munoz, a producer who started the program with actress and editor Jessica Just.
“This is about social justice,” Munoz said. “These kids need to be able to tell their story in a manner that people can hear it and in a manner where it won’t be distorted.”
Munoz and Just’s involvement is continuing in the classroom until the twice-weekly curriculum takes root, then Van Wig teachers will take over, bringing in working producers, directors and screenwriters throughout the semester.
As the class progresses, the breadth of film coverage becomes more complex. So while superheroes and action movies are the focus in elementary school, Munoz said high school students will branch out to documentaries and deeper stories about the issues impacting their lives.
The students write, storyboard and plan out their movies long before they even touch a camera, Munoz said.
“We’re not creating video kits,” he said. “This is not about a kid going down a ramp on a skateboard — this is about them looking at what they have in their mind, learning how to structure it and then making sure they know how to use the technology around them to present that story.”
Munoz expects the elementary students, who spent time revising their scripts on Tuesday, to be ready for production in another week. At the end of the school year, they’ll present their works at a film festival put on by the district.
Principal Andrew Candelaria embraced the program early on because it gives students a chance to see how their writing, reading and speaking classes can help them in the real world. He hopes to expand the class, as other students keep asking to join.
The youth film program began in Bassett earlier this year as a pilot program that officials will eventually be offered in other schools, according to Superintendent Alex Rojas. School board member Paul Solano sought out the program after learning of similar classes given in Los Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified school districts.
“We’re hoping it opens (kids’) eyes to the opportunities that exist to them,” Rojas said. “Especially as young Latinos in Southern California, there’s stories to tell.”