F R E E Documents Destiny Arts

Filmmakers David Collier and Suzanne LaFetra fall in love with five performing teenagers.


Destiny Arts Youth Company members.

Courtesy Lauren Stevenson


Filmmakers David Collier and Suzanne LaFetra believe in love at first sight. Not just because they’re partners in life as well as work, but also because of a Destiny Arts Youth Company performance they saw at Laney College four years ago. They fell in love—with a pack of 20 vibrant teenagers who could really dance. 

So they did what they do best and made a documentary about the group. The film, called F R E E, will premier at the Mill Valley Film Festival this month.

“We were looking for a project to collaborate on, something we could really care about, and that performance blew us out of our saddles,” LaFetra says. “The kids were so good, and they were dealing with pretty mature subject matter. How they expressed it through spoken word and dance was remarkable.”

 Destiny Arts is a community center with a mission: to offer East Bay youth a safe place to learn how to cope with a violent culture and to grow into global citizens committed to peace. The organization runs dance, martial arts, and leadership training classes, as well as two performance companies, one for kids nine to 12 and another for kids 13 to 18. And for 25 years, Destiny Arts has been proving that art is a powerful tool for personal growth and social change, LaFetra says.

“Art works if you do it right, but it always seems to be the first thing that gets cut from school budgets,” she says. “Kids need a way to plug in, a way to learn that telling their stories helps other people. Destiny Arts helps them compost the trauma they’ve experienced and use it to grow something fruitful.”

Collier and LaFetra aren’t new to filmmaking. Collier received an Academy Award nomination in 1993 for his feature-length documentary For Better or for Worse and is the principal and founder of Studio B Films in Berkeley. LaFetra is a freelance writer, journalist, and filmmaker; in 2009 she was the executive producer of the documentary She Wants to Be a Matador. Making a film about Destiny Arts was attractive not only because of the kids’ charisma, but also because they’re raising four teenagers between them.

“Being with teenagers who aren’t your own sparks this new appreciation of how they see the world and what they’re going through,” LaFetra says. “I know working on this film made me a better parent.”

Collier and LaFetra went to some of the group’s rehearsals and began the lengthy process of winning the trust of not only the Destiny Arts youth, but the group’s artistic director, Sarah Caldwell, and its co-artistic director, Rashidi Omari.

“At first Sarah was protective. She had a lot of questions,” Collier says. “We presented our idea for how to make the film, and in the end, she gave the project her blessing and opened it up for the kids and their parents. She framed it as part of that year’s Destiny Arts experience and let the kids know that the project could help them tell their truth to a larger audience.”

In the end, the two filmmakers racked up 50 hours of tape as they attended rehearsals and interviewed kids at home. And although the company consisted of 20 members, the film tracks just five of them through their year with Destiny Arts—Nee Nee, Tilly, Jamany, Omar, and Alaysia—tracing their experience from tryouts and script writing to choreography and rehearsal and culminating in a show called Free: Voices Beyond the Curbside.

Zeroing in on particular kids was part of the challenge, Collier says.

“There were a thousand stories we could have told,” he says. “It took a while to pick the five we featured. We were looking for kids who had a lot going on in their lives but who could also be reflective about their experience.”

Collier and LaFetra are white and middle class, while most of the kids in the Destiny Arts troupe were not. How did they bridge any potential gaps?

“We talked about this a lot throughout the filming and editing process,” LaFetra says. “The Bay Area is one of the most affluent places in the world, but a third of Oakland teenagers drop out of high school. We tried to avoid stereotypes and instead capture how multifaceted these kids are—and what makes Destiny Arts able to guide them through a rough time in their lives. Sarah and Rashidi helped a lot with that.”

The two filmmakers believe that, like Destiny Arts, documentary film can be a force for change, too.

“We didn’t want to make a film that left people feeling hopeless, especially because every time we were around those kids, we felt so inspired,” LaFetra says. “So many of them haven’t been taken seriously. We hope our film honors the hard work of self-discovery they’ve done.”


F R E E premiers at the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival, screening at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 11, at Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley and 2:30 p.m., Oct. 2, at Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. www.MVFF.com

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