Raise your hand if you’re hip to the mysterious space portal that’s situated somewhere in La Colonia district of Oxnard. Didn’t think so, and you’re probably not alone. That’s because it exists only in the minds of some aspiring filmmakers and on the sci-fi short film they made, called Port Holonia (a merging of Port Hueneme and La Colonia). For $5, you can experience it at the Oxnard Student Digi Film Festival this weekend.

The festival — both a competition and a celebration — provides a showcase for the talent of western Ventura County youth who have found an outlet for expression via digital filmmaking. Entrants include students at the high school and college levels, but many younger kids also participated in the filmmaking process in various capacities.

Though it’s been around in different incarnations for the better part of a decade, the festival finally found its footing as a student-centered event through Oxnard College a few years ago. Television production specialist and part-time Oxnard College faculty member Kitty Merrill, has served as festival director for two years and feels strongly about the importance of independent filmmaking in contemporary culture.

“I think there is something exciting about people together in a room, watching a movie on a big screen,” she said. There is something powerful about people watching the same thing together.”

The Port Holonia project emerged from a little-known but badly needed program based out of the housing authority complex in La Colonia. Barrio Productions, headed up by video production coordinator Julio Alcala, gives kids with seemingly few options an opportunity to find purpose, direction and expression through the creative process.

“Many of them have never had their stories told,” said Alcala, who, in addition to teaching the kids how to make short films, also guides them through commercial production for the city of Oxnard.

One example, says Alcala, is a troubled young girl who ran away from home but was able to work through some of her difficulties via the film she made. Together, the other students, under Alcala’s direction, wrote a rap song for it. “It became something she was able to express,” he said, “so it became a community dialogue.” Her film will be shown during the festival.

Earlier this year, when a young boy was killed in Oxnard, Barrio Productions rallied elementary school students to write a song about it. Alcala said they were able to process the raw emotion the kids were experiencing, the tragic elements of everyday life, via art.

The central theme in Port Holonia is that something amazing can exist in what might otherwise appear to be a hopeless situation. Inspired by the Twilight Zone series, students from elementary and junior high schools shot the film in the projects of La Colonia. The idea was that in the location’s main “strollaway” a portal exists.

“We took an area that was perceived as negative and made it magical,” said Alcala.

Merrill says that even if kids don’t plan to pursue filmmaking as a career path, there is much to be learned and applied to other areas of life. “They’re learning amazing skills, taking an idea and bringing it to creation, organization,” she said.

“The culture of coming home and watching TV at the end of the day is never the same after you make a film.”

Like other arts-related non profits, Barrio Productions is nearing the end of its funds and facing an end to its successful run in La Colonia neighborhood. The benefit of creative pursuits to low-income and at-risk youth cannot be overstated.

Alcala would like the program to continue to help these kids who often don’t grow up in the best environments for learning, but when given a chance, thrive. “We’re trying to show the other aspect of Colonia, not just the gang element,” he said.
Merrill agrees. “You can see that it gives them focus and direction, they have a clearer vision of who they are and what they think of the world.”

Oxnard Student Digi Film Fest is open to the public Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17-18, 7-9 p.m. Tickets are $5 per evening. A series of workshops will be offered on Saturday to anyone interested in film and video production. The event will be held at Plaza 14 Cinemas in downtown Oxnard, 255 W. Fifth St. For more information visit www.studentdigifilmest.org. To learn more about Barrio Productions, visit www.barrioproductions.wordpress.org.