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Doc Star of the Month: Victor Rios, 'The Pushouts'

By Lauren Wissot

Victor Rios, Doc Star of the Month from Katie Galloway and Dawn Valadez' 'The Pushouts.' Courtesy of 'VOCES.'

Dr. Victor Rios, the lead character of Katie Galloway and co-director Dawn Valadez's The Pushouts, is the first professor to be featured as "Doc Star of the Month." An Associate Dean of Social Science and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Rios is also the author of five books (titles include Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys; Project GRIT: Generating Resilience to Inspire Transformation; and Human Targets: Schools, Police, and the Criminalization of Latino Youth), not to mention a popular TED Talk. (1.3 million views and counting!)

But this isn't the first time Rios has been the subject of a documentary. Oddly enough, he first appeared on public television 25 years ago, in the Frontline documentary School Colors. Back then Rios wasn’t the sought-after educator portrayed in The Pushouts, a quietly sensitive mentor leading a summer program at YO! Watts, a youth center in South Central LA for 16-24-year-olds who've been "pushed out" of the system and are neither working nor in school. No. Back then Rios was a gang member who, by the age of 15, had three felony convictions to his name and no plans to ever graduate from high school. (A stereotypical bio that the earlier film unfairly played up, according to Rios—and caused him to initially tell Galloway he’d no interest in working with PBS ever again.)  

Fortunately for Documentary, Rios kindly found time in his busy schedule to fill us in on a variety of topics near and dear to his heart—from the "survivor’s guilt" of the formerly impoverished to finally finding vindication onscreen.

The Pushouts premieres December 20 on PBS' VOCES, Latino Public Broadcasting’s arts and culture series.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you get introduced to the filmmakers—and what made you trust them with your story?

VICTOR RIOS: Actually, my initial encounter with the filmmakers was not a very positive one. Katie Galloway reached out to see if I had any good stories to share about the work I’m doing. I said, "Well, what kind of work have you done?" And she says, "Oh, I've been working with PBS," and a few other media entities. I said, "I don’t work with PBS. They made me look really bad when I was a kid, a teenager in this film called School Colors." 

That kind of threw her off a little bit, and she said, "Well, I'm not PBS." I said, "You work with them and they’re probably funding you." Which was true. I said I don't want anything to do with them.

I was taking it out on Katie—but it turned out that Katie wanted to make things right. One of her mentors is [Senior Producer/Executive Producer] Sharon Tiller, who had actually worked on School Colors. I think she was the one who had an archive of all of the remaining footage of me as a teenager. In the one-hour Frontline piece, they just showed me in a gang fight. This was the 1990s, when mainstream media was really portraying kids of color as criminals.

D: Yes, the era of "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

VR: So I was just not wanting to be involved in any kind of filming. But Katie turned out to be very different, and over time I really gained trust in her. She just started to show up to where we were working with kids, and doing research with kids on how to improve their lives. Finally, I gained enough trust to invite her to Watts. 

In Watts it felt like more of a partnership rather than, "Oh, we're here to film our subjects." They were more like, "Can we get feedback? What is it that you need in this moment as you’re doing this project? How can we be of help?" And so it became a good partnership in which they were filming something objectively, as filmmakers should, and at the same time coming back with questions: "What is it that we could improve? How can we support you as you're going through this project?"

D: It was more like they listened to you. 

VR: Exactly. They were willing to listen to us. There was one instance where I felt like the kids were kind of vulnerable with the film crew following them around the neighborhood. I asked them if they could please refrain from following them around with cameras because other kids in the neighborhood, other people in the neighborhood, might think that they were snitches. It might put a target on their back. 

This is something that as filmmakers I don’t think they thought of, but the community gave me that feedback. So I took that feedback and gave it to the filmmakers, and the filmmakers then had to adjust. You don't see a lot of footage on the streets with the kids. It was a sacrifice I think they had to make as filmmakers, but it was a sacrifice in order to do justice to filmmaking in marginalized communities.

D: So was this a mostly white crew?

VR: I'm trying to recall. Katie's white. Her assistants were white. I might have run into maybe one or two cinematographers that were of color. But again, I felt like the direction Katie was taking them in was a direction that was guided by a lot of feedback from us. I think that's what made it work.

D: I was just thinking maybe that’s why the kids were wary of having the film crew follow them around on the streets. 

VR: I'll be honest, when I hang out with the kids, people think I'm a probation officer. It's also about age. It's also about professionalization. You show up as a professional working with them and people think, "Oh, the only professionals around here that work with us are probation officers or cops—so you must be one of them." 

D: Anyone that's not familiar in the neighborhood is deemed suspicious.

VR: Exactly. Being white adds suspicion. Also, like with the voyeurism of the Frontline piece, it makes you think, "Oh, you guys are just here to do another film about kids in misery." I also had to make sure that, personally, I wasn't getting involved in a project that just talks about…In the 90s it was about kids being criminals. And then in the new millennium it was more about, Well, they're victims. This trope of inner-city kids as victims. And you see some of that here. But then you also see that with a connection to mentors, things can change. With the schools shifting their discipline policies, things can change.

D: The Pushouts weaves in footage from the making of School Colors. How do the two experiences of being on camera, and watching that, 25 years apart, compare?

VR: It feels redemptive. I never felt personally attacked when they showed me in a gang fight. I was like, Yeah, that was me. What I felt as I developed a more critical understanding of the world is, Oh, I was just the character they were trying to find to really stereotype the Mexican-American population. This is what they're doing. This is who they are. So I was the character for them to use to fit the typology. 

And then they took the black youths in the film and made them look resistant and defiant. And then they took the white kids in the film and made them look like victims—like they were just trying to get their studies done. We all were fitting an idea, an ethnic idea, a racist-ethnic idea.

So for me, all these years I had just been saying, Yeah, they made me look bad. They made us look bad. And I had this resentment brewing. All of a sudden Katie Galloway shows up and says, "I'm going to make it a point to not do this. I want to show the other side." 

As you go back to the [unused] footage from Frontline, you see that they had a lot of good footage of me. At the time I was changing my life around, from being a street kid to trying to go to college. You see me talking about it. But they didn't want to show that. 

I guess the answer here is that it just feels like redemption—not so much for me, but for others. So they can see the potential. I've gone to film screenings where people start crying during the Q&A sessions. They say, "I saw myself in the film," or "I do this sort of work with youth," or "I am one of those kids and now I'm in college." For them to have this as an example is a really beautiful experience. 

D: It sounds like this experience was more collaborative than that first experience.

VR: Yeah, for sure. It's interesting because journalists, researchers, filmmakers—they have one thing in common, and that's they’re all supposed to be objective. 

D: Well, that's actually debatable.

VR: They're supposed to be that way, but yet in my research I make sure to get input from the community. Even though I’m a "top scholar" in my field, I get criticized and actually have debates that put me in the spotlight in my field of sociology. I have debates with people about being objective. I'm like, No, you have to get community input. For me to study street kids…Like even in that Watts project, we have to get permission from the guys in the projects, the older guys, to even be there in the community center. You have to know who to talk to, and how to do things right. In order to do that you have to expand your understanding of what it means to be objective. 

I think you can be subjective and objective in a project—there's room for both of those things. To be there, to help people, to understand them, to get critical feedback and input. Some people might say, "Well, that's not objective." That's okay because objectivity comes later, or in between, or after. We are really thinking about the content, and how we curate it to really represent the full humanity of the people—I call them participants, participating in our daily lives and in the projects—that we're following.

D: One of the topics you address—which I can't recall ever having really seen onscreen—is a very specific form of survivor's guilt. Those that are able to make it out of their impoverished circumstances often feel guilty about the ones that they've left behind. It seems to be both your main driving force and a terribly heavy burden. Was it important for you to present this difficult subject on camera—or was this something the filmmakers intuited? 

VR: I think that in film, like in a good book, even a good research study, you’re supposed to show conflict. I think Katie was grappling with it. I was grappling with it.  

And of course we know that the conflict is us against the system. But on a more interpersonal level, what was the conflict? I think Katie was good at checking in with us at a deep personal level. "Where you at? How are you doing? What are you thinking?" I'm always very transparent, too, about where I'm at.  

I remember having a conversation with her where I kept telling her the whole time that I don't want to be portrayed as a hero. I just want to be, us collectively to be, portrayed as a community, and struggle as a community trying to find solutions. As I was having that conversation with her I started to think, What's going on here with me? I realized that the reason I don't want to be portrayed as a hero is because, obviously I want to be humble about it, but also I don't want a community effort to be pinned onto one person. 

But then there's a third piece—that this endeavor is by default a selfish endeavor. In order for me to heal, in order for me to live with that feeling of survivor's guilt, I have to go and try to help others. In that trying to help others I'm really fulfilling a personal need rather than, "Oh, I'm selfless. I'm going to help others." No, it’s deeper than that. 

And I think that's the conflict: It is about me. It’s about me trying to heal me, trying to make up for this leaving others behind. This is the way I do it.

D: It's fascinating because it's such a soldier’s mentality. War vets want to give back to honor those left behind. It's fascinating because it's very similar.

VR: Based on how you're breaking it down, that does support the PTSD idea in the inner city. A lot of us who come from the inner city have seen violence at the same levels, if not higher levels, as military veterans with PTSD.

D: You're the author of five books, and your high media profile includes a much-watched TED Talk—which makes me wonder if you see the film as an extension of your other educational work. Are your hopes any similar or different?

VR: I never thought of it that way, but that's interesting because I know I'm a subject of the film, but I very much feel like a partner of the film. In that sense I think Katie came around to meet me because some other professors had told her about me and my ideas. So in that sense my ideas, you know, fortunately had gotten out there and then they kind of influenced the way that the film was shaped. 

I take pride in that because I feel like I can say, "Wow, I've changed the way people think about inner-city kids." Whether it’s the new reform that's passed in the state capital here, that the governor’s signing—you can’t call kids "at risk" anymore in the California education code. It's called the At-Promise Youth Bill. A group of us set about advocating for it and it finally came through. So I very much see the film as an extension of the work, in that I've always tried to figure out how to reach the audiences. I got lucky in that a great filmmaker showed up and said, "We're going to help you now visualize for others some of the work you’ve written about."

D: So you're doing community screenings?

VR: For sure. We're doing a lot of local screenings. It's been very exciting because, like I said, you've got communities that we go to and they're like, "We've been waiting for this." I’m trying to be humble about it, modest about it, like it's no big deal. It's a film about our work. But then the way people are reacting it’s like, "Whoa! So now they can use it to create a program like this." Or use it to be inspired and go get a doctorate degree, or a law degree. You can use it to teach students with, or to train teachers with. Use it for whatever it is that you get inspired to do.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.