Pictured: Salvation Mountain in Slab City.
Stacy Peralta is an American filmmaker, former professional skateboarder, and original member of the Z-Boys. He joins Film Forward in Imperial Valley to screen and discuss his latest film ‘Bones Brigade: An Autobiography.’ Read Stacy’s previous blog here.
Thursday, February 28
We’re off to another early start this morning to cross the border once again in order to arrive by 10:00 a.m. at a local high school, Cecyte Misiones, in the outskirts of Mexicali. This school resides in a neighborhood dotted with visual impressions of war-torn Afghanistan. While many houses have been burned out or left abandoned with falling brick and exposed twisted rebar, next to it may stand a tiny well-kept, pastel painted cinder-block home often with solar panels. And everywhere are satellite dishes dancing off the roof-tops.
Over a hundred students have gathered in the concrete constructed amphitheatre covered with sail-cloth canvas awnings. We’re warned it gets up to 120 degrees in the summer months. Luckily for us it was relatively cool this day. The amphitheatre is about a hundred yards from the main school building. One of the administrators tells us that just yesterday they had laid electrical cables out so we could have an electrically powered sound system for our Q&A.
Jerry Rothwell and I partner on this one. The students have already screened our films and we each have some individual time to talk with them, but then he and I join together and connect with the students for a more intimate Q&A. What really gets us excited here are the students who seem to have no end of questions—not only about filmmaking, but about art and music, about following dreams, and about how to expand their lives.
They are questions that make us all realize they are passionate to understand what is the best way to make their dreams come true. Both Jerry’s film, Town of Runners, and Bones Brigade, are about young people who want something more in their lives and are willing to go to any lengths, physically and emotionally, to achieve those dreams and to surmount whatever obstacles stand in their way. We can feel from some of these young people that same kind of ambition and fire. These kids are hungry, and they aren’t shy about expressing this to us.
While our session with the students continues, at the adjoining elementary school whose playing field backs right up to us, someone gets wind that Tony Hawk is here—which of course is not the case. But these kids are insistent he is and they line the fence behind us chanting, “Tony Hawk! Tony Hawk!” And they won’t stop, they are unrelenting. I hate to disappoint them, but neither Jerry nor I are Tony Hawk.
After a couple of hours we’ve got to race back across the border once again and are grateful that the wait time to cross is only 45 minutes. Our next stop is the Juanita Salazar Lowe Art Gallery at Imperial Valley College. Marco Vera is tapped into every art scene happening between Mexicali and the Imperial Valley, and once again he’s our shot-caller here.
There are about 50 young artists at the screening, in a gallery space where a photography group show lines the walls. I have a very engaged Q&A with the audience members who once again ask smart, vigorous questions. Then the post-screening, post-Q&A gathering is another swarm of more intimate questions and the desire to be photographed together.
With each photo snapped from a cell phone, I learn a little bit more about each one of these young people—and further reiteration of what now sounds like a mantra with some version of: “Thanks so much for coming here and sharing your experience with us. We can’t believe you made the trek to our part of the world.” While I may feel some of my physical energy winding down, my emotional energy is recharged over and over again by their sincerity and by their hunger and by the genuine connection all of us make.
I get the chance for a quick rest back at our hotel before tonight’s late screening in Slab City, but Bethany and Stephanie head out earlier to meet up with Meredith, June, Jerry, Marco, and Rueben (an artist, filmmaker friend of Marco’s who has joined us on a lot of the trip). On the road out, Bethany and Stephanie pass what feels like miles of feedlots and are awed by two gigantic flocks of birds flying in formation. They arrive at what is known as Salvation Mountain right at magic hour. You have to see Salvation Mountain to believe it (which I didn’t) because the pictures, so I’m told, don’t do it justice.
Just up the road past Salvation Mountain is a community that is now known as Slab City. Formerly an army base during WWII, what is now left are the concrete slabs upon which the barracks and other buildings were built. Abandoned by the Army, these slabs are now home to RVs and motor coaches, cars and trucks that house a community of folks living quite creatively off the grid (think Mad Max, or if you’ve seen Into the Wild, you’ve had a glimpse of Slab City).
Charla Teeters organized with one of the members for us to screen Town of Runners and Bones Brigade, in the community area the residents call “The Range.” It’s a giant slab decoratively lit with twinkling Christmas lights and lanterns with a myriad of seating options from molded fiberglass chairs to low-slung, torn sofas in threadbare brocade. Folks are bundled up against the evening chill with dogs in tow. It could not be more informal and post-hippie like.
Charla has set up her trusty blow-up screen system, and I’m amazed how great our films look and sound out here in the middle of nowhere under a million stars screening for this unusual audience. The sense of community here is palpable. The people are laid-back with almost a crazy twist on Mayberry. An incident happens during the screening of my film when a man needed to borrow his friend’s cell phone to call the cops because he said someone came up and pointed a gun at him. The cops show up, but with no scene—all is mellow, the film keeps playing, the cops are just protecting and serving.
A lot of people often ask the question, What is art? What we see and feel in Slab City is a community of folks whose lives are a creative act. Nothing is provided for them so they make everything. That sense of home and community is because the people make it this way with music and lights and reclaimed furniture and painting mountains with gallons and gallons of paint and passion. We have a rather festive Q&A with them including many unusual questions and responses.
Sometime near 11 p.m., we depart and make the hour-long drive back to our hotel in Imperial Valley. Walking from our car to the lobby, we are once again hit with the intense pungent aroma of a nearby feedlot/slaughterhouse.