At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that, more than academics,
it is love, empathy and life skills that give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age
story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty on the lives of these so-called “bad kids.”
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Located in an impoverished Mojave Desert community, Black Rock Continuation High School is one of California’s alternative schools for students at risk of dropping out. Every student here has fallen so far behind in credits that they have no hope of earning a diploma at a traditional high school. Black Rock is their last chance.
The Bad Kids is an observational documentary that chronicles one extraordinary principal’s mission to realize the potential of these students whom the system has deemed lost causes. Employing a verité approach during a year at the school, our film follows Principal Vonda Viland as she coaches three at-risk teens––a new father who can’t support his family, a young woman grappling with sexual abuse, and an angry young man from an unstable home––through the traumas and obstacles that rob them of their spirit and threaten their goal of a high school diploma.
At Black Rock, we have a level of intimate access to the students, their home lives, the principal, and the workings of the school that allows for an immersive verité film–a rare opportunity to present audiences with a memorable dramatic experience of the topic, instead of a polemic driven by interviews about the topic.
We employ an unobtrusive two-person crew (DSLR and sound/boom) and a non-interventional style that allows events to unfold naturally. Editorially, it is our intention to preserve this observational style and present the material without distancing, third-person narration or talking-head interviews.
Because our three primary student characters represent a larger population of at-risk youth whose voices have been marginalized, we also have a strong desire to privilege their perspectives in the narrative. To this end, along with our verité scenes, we will incorporate more stylized, poetic sequences, driven by intimate audio interviews with the main characters, to invite audiences into these teenagers’ inner worlds: their fears and their dreams for the future. Creating audience awareness of our issue through an emotional and visceral connection to our subjects is of paramount importance.
The Bad Kids' Mojave Desert location will also be an important character in our film, speaking powerfully of the abandonment and isolation that mark our subjects’ lives.
In 2011 Teaching Channel, a Gates Foundation start-up, commissioned us to make a series of short films about exceptional public school teachers. We felt it would be much more interesting to find exceptional teachers who were doing their best in difficult circumstances, and thus limited our search to inner city and rural schools. We found there our share of devoted teachers, all of whom were vocal about the same issue: there was only so much a teacher could do without the resources to handle the unique problems of an impoverished student body. From that point on, we found ourselves building an alliance not just with these teachers and their schools, but also with the beleaguered institution of public education itself.
It was during one of our scouts for Teaching Channel in the Joshua Tree area that we first stepped through the doors of Black Rock High. What we saw there left an indelible mark. Here was a safety net to catch the very problems that were causing other teachers and schools to ‘fail.’ Here was a principal who had a kind word or nod of recognition for each and every kid; a secretary who spent all day on the phone with parents; teachers who didn’t lecture but moved through their classrooms in quiet consultation with each student; and these supposed ‘bad kids’ lining the hallways with their guitars, their laughter, their clear and familial support for one another. All of this at a public school … with rising graduation rates.
It is the greatest hope of any documentarian to gain intimate access to a subject that dramatically represents a pressing human issue. At Black Rock High we have found precisely that. It is a school that tackles head-on America’s most serious education problem: intractable, generational poverty. About such a crisis, one can make a film that speechifies and rattles off facts and figures, but at Black Rock we have the opportunity to create a moving and immersive drama that brings to life an inspiring attempt to combat this issue.
--Keith Fulton & Lou Pepe
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Keith Fulton (Producer/Director/Sound) and Lou Pepe (Producer/Director/Cinematographer) are award-winning filmmakers of both documentary and fiction films, among them Lost in La Mancha, which was nominated for the European Film Award for Best Documentary, shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar, and winner of the Evening Standard's Peter Sellers Award. Lost in La Mancha stands as the first and only verité chronicle of the collapse of a major motion picture and was an international theatrical success. Fulton and Pepe also directed the narrative feature film Brothers of the Head, which won the coveted Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature in 2006.
As Low Key Pictures, the directing team received numerous documentary commissions from the Gates Foundation’s Teaching Channel, for which they produced a series of short films about excellent teachers and practices in California public schools. For Participant Media, they created I Am Education, a web series that explored pressing issues in education entirely through the voices and perspectives of school children.
Fulton and Pepe are also the authors of numerous screenplays, including The Wizards of Perfil, which made the Hollywood Black List in 2007. The team also created Malkovich’s Mail, one of the first original documentary programs for AMC. Fulton and Pepe hold MFAs in film production from Temple University and are alumni of the Sundance Institute’s Writing and Directing Labs. With The Bad Kids they were invited to participate in the 2014 Sundance Catalyst Forum and have recently become recipients of the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program Grant.
Jacob Bricca (Editor) is an award-winning film editor, director, and teacher. His editing credits include the international theatrical hit Lost In La Mancha, the New Yorker Films theatrical release Con Artist, and two films that have shown on PBS’s Independent Lens series. His directorial credits include Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore, which won awards at the Newburyport Documentary Festival and the Santa Cruz Film Festival, and Finding Tatanka, which premiered this year at the prestigious Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film and Television.
Mary Lampson (Editor) is an awardwinning independent documentary filmmaker and editor. Lampson coedited the Academy Award–winning
documentary Harlan County USA and acted as an editor on many other independently produced documentary features. She has worked with Emile de Antonio, Ricky Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker. Recent projects include: We Still Live Here(Anne Makepeace), Trouble The Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal), Kimjonilia (NC Heikin), Camp Victory, Afghanistan (Carol Dysinger), Gurukulam (Jillian Elizabeth), Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield), and The Bad Kids (Fulton & Pepe). Mary has been both a fellow and advisor at the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Editing and Story Lab and is a member of the Academy.
Molly O’Brien (Co-Producer) is the Producer for Indie Caucus a national organization of independent documentary filmmakers who believe in the public mission of public media. Prior to her work of Indie Caucus, O’Brien was the producer of Catalyst Forum for Sundance Institute, an innovative annual convening of creative investors, industry, and independent filmmakers. In its first year, Catalyst Forum raised over $2.6 million for independent filmmakers. Additionally, she was the Sundance Supervising Producer for Selfie a short documentary and centerpiece of a new collaboration between Sundance and Dove. Selfie has garnered over 5 million views on Dove’s YouTube Channel and won a 2014 Clio Image award.
O’Brien won a prime time Emmy for producing in 2000 (American High, FoxTV), was nominated for a prime time Emmy in 2001 (American High) and made a 2010 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow (Cesar's Last Fast). Her first documentary film, (A Pig With Hair, PBS), was shortlisted for the Academy Awards in 1998. O'Brien received initial training as assistant camera with Ken Burns (Frank Lloyd Wright & Lewis and Clark, PBS). She has collaborated with some of the most distinguished members of the documentary community including: RJ Cutler (American High, FoxTV), Lauren Greenfield (Queen of Versailles, Magnolia Pictures), Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon (Various films for PBS, HBO, National Geographic), Robert Greenwald (Sierra Club Chronicles, Sundance Channel), Caroline Libresco, and Diane Weyermann (Countdown to Zero, Participant Media.)
In 2014, O'Brien's film Cesar's Last Fast (producer/executive producer) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, US documentary competition. Cesar's Last Fast sold before its first Sundance screening to Participant Media’s Pivot TV and Univision for an unprecedented simultaneous national broadcast in English and Spanish, and is available for streaming on Netflix.
O’Brien is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and lives in Los Angeles where as an adjunct professor of Documentary Film at Chapman University she recently discovered a love of teaching.
After a twenty-five year career in venture capital, Ted Dintersmith is now focused on issues at the intersection of innovation, education and film. He is actively involved with a number of initiatives that seek to deliver vastly-improved learning experiences to people around the globe. He is particularly interested in the role of film in effecting social change. His Executive Producer credits include Most Likely To Succeed and The Hunting Ground, both of which premiered at Sundance 2015.
In 2012, Ted served as part of the delegation representing the United States at the United Nations General Assembly, where he focused on global education and entrepreneurship. Ted is a Partner Emeritus with Charles River Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital firm. He has been an early, active investor in numerous successful start-ups. Ted has served on the Board of the National Venture Capital Association, chairing its Public Policy Committee. Ted earned a Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University, and his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary, where he earned High Honors in Physics and English.
Donna’s career focused on the financial industry. She worked for North Carolina National Bank from 1985 through 1987, trading stocks for the Trust Division. In 1987, she relocated to New York City and worked for Oppenheimer and Company as a Convertible Bond Sales/Trader. As a Vice President at Oppenheimer, she worked with large institutional clients including investment management companies, mutual funds, insurance companies and banks.
Donna left Wall Street after the birth of her first child. A joint decision with her husband, Kevin, Donna began to focus full-time on family and philanthropic giving—both in terms of time and expertise, as well as financially. With their family foundation, Donna and Kevin strive to be leaders in implementing social change with particular focus on the environment, quality education for all children, and improving the plight of women and children worldwide.
Donna is actively involved with the Sundance Institute. She is currently Chair of Sundance’s Utah Advisory Board, and takes a leadership role in the planning and execution of the Sundance Film Festival’s opening night event and fundraiser for the Sundance Institute, An Artist at the Table. She also works locally with the UAB to promote the Sundance Institute’s Filmmaker Labs and create a broader base of financial supporters in the Park City area.
She is passionate about education and choice in education, and was Chairman in theprocess of combining two local independent schools, Park City Academy and TheColby School, into one successful, sustainable school—The Park City Day School.Donna is past Chairman of the Board at Park City Academy and a founding trustee of the Park City Day School Board. The bulk of her work on both boards centered on long-term sustainability, finance and governance. She is a past member of the Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) at The Waterford School in Salt Lake City and is a past board member of the Park City Institute (formerly known as the Park City Performing Arts Foundation).
Donna and her husband, Kevin, are members of Impact Partners which bringstogether philanthropists and filmmakers so that, together, they can create great films that entertain audiences, enrich lives, and ignite lasting social change. Through Impact Partners, Donna has been involved with films such as CHILDREN OF INVENTION, NO IMPACT MAN, SECRECY, MEET THE PATELS, THE HUNTING GROUND and the Oscar-winning films, THE COVE and FREEHELD. Donna and Kevin are also part of Gamechanger Films which aims to shift the gender disparity in the film marketplace by tapping into the enormous yet undervalued talent pool of women directors and providing the financing necessary to bring their work to audiences worldwide. Gamechanger, founded in 2013, enjoyed success with its initial film LAND HO!, which received acclaim at several film festivals (such as Sundance, Tribeca and LA) and won the John Cassavetes Award (aka best feature made under $500,000) at the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards.
After having a second home in Park City for over eight years, the Gruneichs moved to Park City from Connecticut permanently in 2005. They have three children—Allison, Alex and Anna—all of whom attend schools on the east coast.
Kevin Gruneich is an investor and philanthropist. Before retiring in 2004, he worked eight years as Senior Managing Director, Co-Head of the Global Media Research Team, and Senior Publishing/Information Analyst at The Bear Stearns Companies. Prior to that, he worked 14 years at CS First Boston as Managing Director and Senior Publishing/Information Analyst. During his career, Kevin was named to Institutional Investor Magazine’s All-America Research Team for 20 consecutive years, and in many of those years was ranked number one in his sector. Euromoney magazine named him among the top publishing analysts in the world. He has served as Chairman of the Media and Entertainment Analysts of New York and holds a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. He has extensive experience in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and private equity.
Kevin currently serves on the Board of Questar Assessment, an educational testing company based in suburban Minneapolis, and as Senior Advisor to Methuselah Advisors, a boutique media investment bank in New York. He serves on the Advisory Board of Salt Lake City-based Spy Hop Productions, one of the country’s leading youth arts organizations, focused on film, music, radio, and digital design. Along with his wife Donna, Kevin is one of the early members of Impact Partners, dedicated to funding social-impact documentaries, as well as Gamechanger Films, a slate financing organization supporting women directors.
Kevin is also a member of the Board of Directors of The University of Iowa Foundation (and its Investment Committee). He is very active at The University of Iowa, underwriting The Iowa Edge, an orientation program aimed at retention of minority and first- generation students, as well as leading the launch of a philanthropic education curriculum. Kevin graduated with an MBA in Finance from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and earned a BBA (double major: Finance and Industrial Relations) from The University of Iowa. He resides with his wife and three children in Park City.
In 1988, Mr. Ioannides founded what is now Emerald Data Solutions™, Inc., where he helped leading companies like BellSouth and Turner Broadcasting deploy and operate critical, enterprise-level computer systems.
Mr. Ioannides pioneered the hardware and software designs for the first “on demand” digital music-playing system used in professional sports, ultimately used by the Atlanta Braves, Falcons and Hawks, and during qualifying events at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Mr. Ioannides developed and launched the premiere board management system for public governing bodies. As the Chief Software Architect of BoardDocs, Mr. Ioannides has been able to enhance the governance process of more than 1,200 local governing bodies by leveraging the power of the Internet to publish and distribute information.
Christine Ioannides owned and operated Emerald Graphics, a successful print management business in Atlanta for over 16 years. Christine's team executed large scale, multi level promotional programs for many clients, including Coca-Cola and Kroger. In 2006, she sold her company and the family moved to Utah for a simpler life. Christine graduated from University of Florida magna cum laude.
Christine resides in Park City, Utah. She has two daughters, both who have exercised distinct, alternative paths for their education. A proponent of Sundance Film Festival and Institute for many years, Christine volunteers annually.