The city of Santa Maria’s innovative 37-minute documentary “Life Facing Bars: A Gang Prevention Documentary” delivers a powerful message to youths and is drawing nationwide interest from law enforcement, nonprofits and educators. Selected by the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival as one of 2014’s top short featured documentaries, the film exposes kids to reality about the gang culture’s manipulations and consequences. This is done by convicted gang members and through compelling interviews with prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and educators. Hundreds of DVDs of the film have been sent to organizations across the country.
Year after year, when the Santa Maria Police Department’s gang suppression officers traveled to schools and organizations to urge kids to stay out of gangs, the police always did the speaking. Outreach efforts lacked the compelling impact of firsthand perspectives from gang members, some of whom joined at young ages.
In Santa Maria alone, there are more than 1,000 documented gang members and in one year alone, 88 percent of the city’s homicides were gang-related. An alarming trend nationally is the gang recruitment of children in junior high school. Many kids are told glamorized versions of the gang lifestyle by older peers, and find an appeal in protection from bullying, attention from girls, and respect from their peers. Notorious for never speaking with police, it was rare for gang members to renounce their gang code and share information about the realities of gang life and about the stark reality of Life Facing Bars.
Santa Maria Police Department Lieutenant Daniel Cohen, who has been investigating and policing local gangs for 14 years as a detective and a supervisor, believed that vivid testimony about the real truths and consequences from those who lived the gang culture could serve as a powerful warning for young people.
Cohen has seen the multitude of victims left in the wake of gang crimes. He has witnessed young men mature behind bars and others who never got the chance. He remembered one particular interrogation with a gang member, a young man who confessed to shooting someone. The man broke down into tears at the interrogation table. “I asked him, ‘Do you have any regrets?’” Cohen said. “And he said, ‘I wish someone would have warned me.’”
That interrogation confession gave the lieutenant and idea. He wanted to find a way to expose young people who are intrigued by the fascination of gang culture to the realities and consequences that it brings.
In the early 2000s, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office started rigorously applying several gang enhancement laws that had been on the books since the 1980s. Local gang members were being sent to jail for longer stretches of time, which re-shaped the local gang culture in an unprecedented way.
More gang members came forward with information and shared their own experiences — but these interactions were not being captured on video. Cohen recognized the need to proactively reach the community’s youth before their exposure to gangs. By capturing and sharing these stories, the department could positively influence these impressionable minds, but faced the challenges of financing and generating a professional-quality video, and of course, gaining permission to access and interview convicted gang members.
Every time Lieutenant Cohen used a few video clips of comments from gang members at the end of his outreach presentations, they resonated with his audiences; however, he knew that was only scratching the surface. This led him to consider the idea of a more meaningful film that covered all the bases, with an appealing production quality for the young crowd he targeted. The gang prevention documentary, Life Facing Bars, was Cohen’s brainchild, which he executed in addition to his full-time regular duties.
Cohen had three objectives for the film: to uncover the lies gang members use to manipulate and brainwash kids to join the gang lifestyle, to drive home the harsh reality of the gang lifestyle and the serious consequences of their actions, and to give the kids practical ways to avoid the lifestyle and to get involved in more positive activities.
He recruited Cal Poly San Luis Obispo senior and filmmaker Matthew Yoon. They showed samples of Yoon’s work to Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin who gave approval for the documentary. Cohen asked the Santa Barbara Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors community projects and philanthropy, to sponsor the project, and additional funding came from the Santa Maria Police Council.
Cohen worked with the District Attorney’s Office. Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, a gang prosecutor in Santa Maria, quickly understood the powerful potential. With her assistance, Superior Court judges were apprised of the project and discussions took place with defense attorneys.
Cohen and Yoon spent months on the project, driving to prisons for interviews and then producing and narrating. Several gang members from all over Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties were interviewed for the film, showing their tattoos and recounting their time in prison with some having spent only months outside of prison since jumping into gang life at the young ages of 11 or 12. Behind bars they talked about having children who barely know them and missing out on birthdays and holidays. One of the most moving moments of the film comes from an interview with a gang member’s tearful 8-year-old son, who is only allowed to see his father every three months, and will never spend time with him outside of prison.
By participating, each gang member surrendered the gang code of snitching and each of them was aware that they or their loved ones are a target while they are incarcerated or upon their release.
Also spotlighted in the film are many of the community’s high-profile personalities who work with gang members in the justice system, such as Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores, Prosecutor Ann Bramsen, and Defense Attorney Michael Scott. They remind viewers that time for a crime can double or even triple if gang allegations are involved, and the person accused of a crime does not have to be a gang member themselves to face those allegations — association is often enough.
The film took more than a year of planning, interviewing, and editing. The Santa Maria Police Department released the film at a local movie theater in March 2014, before an audience of 350 people including prosecutors, judges, city council members, school district officials, and nonprofit leaders. It was also uploaded to YouTube the same month and has received more than 240,000 views, with an additional Spanish version released in December 2014.
The documentary was shown at the 21st Annual San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March 2015. Lieutenant Cohen has also sent hundreds of DVDs of the film to organizations across the country, as the poignancy of the film is not lost on organizations outside of Santa Barbara County or even California.
When producing Life Facing Bars, Cohen had junior high and high school students specifically in mind. Classroom presentations were the intended audience, which is the main reason why the film’s length was kept to shorter than 40 minutes. This allows for a screening of the film with 20 minutes left over for questions and discussion, all within the usual hour time slot allotted for visiting presenters.
While Life Facing Bars does address a hugely negative issue, the film also provides a wealth of content that offers a potential solution to the complex issue of gang involvement. The fourth chapter, titled “Escaping Your Environment,” includes interviews with local educators like Pete Flores, Santa Maria High School’s assistant principal of student affairs, who explains the importance mentors have in education and shares his own story of a counselor who kept him in school. The film is being used by numerous local nonprofit groups, including the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Maria.