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A new film premiering virtually in Boston on Wednesday seeks to reflect and tell the stories of young people in the city impacted by gun violence.
The hour-long movie, “Senseless Smoke,” features an all-Black cast and was created and filmed by young people of color working with the nonprofit Teen Empowerment, which focuses on employing, training, and empowering youth to create “peace, equity, and justice.”
Each year, young people working with Teen Empowerment put on a theater production at the Paramount Theatre, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted that tradition in 2020.
Instead, the young leaders and creators decided to make a film.
Carrie Mays, 20, a member of the movie’s cast who has been working with Teen Empowerment since she was 14, told Boston.com the project was a new experience for everyone who participated.
“This story is meant to reflect the lived experiences of young Black and brown people in Boston who are struggling with losing somebody due to gun violence,” she said.
The purpose of the film is to talk about community healing and how peace can be promoted “through the power of the people,” Mays said.
“We know, hurt people hurt people,” she said. “And the violence that we’re seeing in our communities is not a reflection of who people truly are, but more so a reflection of young people needing help — mental health services, and outlets, and more programs, and more youth employment opportunities. It’s really a reflection of systemic inequities … So how can we as a community take power back into the hands of the people and promote peace? … How do we as a community come together to heal and speak about forgiveness instead of vengeance and violence?”
Her castmate, Wilington Vuelto, 21, told Boston.com the goal for everyone was to tell a story that reflects the issues Boston communities face in a real way.
The term “smoke,” used in the film’s title, refers to tension or animosity towards another person, Vuelto said, and what he and others working on the movie really wanted to examine is the way such friction and antagonism can reach the point of senselessness — both from the outside looking in and for those experiencing it.
“The spirit of the cast was there and everyone there was really onboard and really bought-in to what we wanted to do, which was really to tell the story and why we’re telling the story,” he said. “We really want to make an impact with this film.”
The young people spent most of the last year working on the filming almost every day, taking into account social distancing and measures to prevent spread of COVID-19. Youth artists from Teen Empowerment’s music and arts program, TE Studios, produced an original soundtrack for the movie. Throughout the process, a bond was formed for the cast and crew, rooted in their dedication to the story they were determined to tell.
It was an emotional experience, the two actors agreed.
At times it could be an emotional rollercoaster, Vuelto said. But one of the aspects of the project that stood out most to him was that, any time they were filming outside in the community, there would be interactions with residents and members of the public witnessing them at work, asking how and when they could see the movie.
It was inspiring to hear some of the community response to what they were doing, he said. In another moment, filming what Vuelto described as an “active scene” near a train station, the film crew had police officers coming over to check and make sure no one was in danger or hurt.
“Seeing real people — the people that we want to see this movie — see what we’re doing and get excited — it definitely motivates us … Those kinds of moments [show] the kind of work we’re doing here is important and is what matters,” Vuelto said. “We want to stop, basically, all of this senseless smoke. All of these stigmas that are placed on my community and really making sure that our voices are heard. It has been an emotional experience for sure.”
There were times when Mays was watching scenes being filmed that she said she found herself crying seeing the work of her castmates, and the questions being raised in the story that she knows reflect the real experiences of people in her community being exposed to violence.
It is a movie about Boston acted by Bostonians who aren’t typically represented in stories about the city that are put on the big screen, she said.
“We want people to see themselves in each and every one of the characters, or at least have the characters resonate with somebody that they know,” Mays said. “We really want people to resonate with this film.”
But she also hopes the movie sparks action from the audience — that it prompts people to think as individuals about the power they have in their own community, and what they can contribute towards violence prevention.
“I really want this conversation to spark a movement of collective action from the community, from everyone in the community, whether that’s elected officials, stakeholders, teachers, parents, young people, school — everybody is a village to come together to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to do about the violence prevention plan in Boston and how is it going to reduce this summer’s violence?” Mays said. “How are we going to give more opportunities and give young people what they need? Not just young people. But also people who are just coming out of jail. How do we take care of each other as human beings and see the humanity in each other?”
Both Mays and Vuelto said they feel honored and appreciative that they have gotten to work on the movie.
“Being a part of an organization like Teen Empowerment really does empower me to feel like I can make a difference,” Vuelto said. “These organizations really need all the credit in the world for doing the job that they’ve been doing and just facilitating all of this, with this film and with this process, and just staying focused on what their goals are and what they want to do with things like this film — which is really just give people like myself this platform to be able to speak on the issues that affect us, each and every single day.
“Senseless Smoke: Promoting Peace Through the Power of the People” will premiere Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in conjunction with the launch of Teen Empowerment’s summer peace campaign. Reserve tickets to the free virtual event here.
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