Filmmakers Madeleine Bair and Betty Bastidas did not want to produce another film about an at-risk teen. The only way to capture his life struggles was to involve the subject in the storytelling.

By Madeleine Bair & Betty Bastidas

Of every ten Latinos who begin high school in the United States, only six walk out with a diploma four years later. Our assignment was to highlight the stories behind those numbers. The story we found was an inspirational one: Fernando Parraz Jr. was a 17-year-old student on his way to become the first in his family to graduate from high school, when pretty much everyone around him had dropped out.

You can watch the film online this month, as part of the 2013 PBS Online Film Festival—but Fernando did not only tell his story in front of the camera. The decision to involve him in the storytelling and the filmmaking benefitted all aspects of the project and all of the people involved.

The two questions we wanted the film to answer were: why was educational achievement so rare among his community? And, what drove Fernando to pursue, and attain, success? Problem. Solution.

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Fernando Parraz Jr. interviews his father.

There was one main challenge: Fernando was in Detroit, and we were in Brooklyn. How would we track important moments in his last few months of high school if we were not there with cameras at the ready? How would we maintain continuity if we were only there for a few weeks at a time?

Fortunately, Fernando had learned filmmaking through the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, a local youth development organization. We decided to equip him with a flip camera so that he could document those moments of his life.

What began as a fix to a logistical dilemma became an integral part of our storytelling process, one that has changed our subject’s role in the film and relationship to it in ways we never expected.

Over the course of several months, Fernando sent us video diaries—community events, freestyle raps with his best friend, drowsy trains of thought at the end of a long day. Only a handful made it into the film, but as a whole they gave us a view into his life that we wouldn’t have gotten from sit-down interviews. They slowly revealed parts of who he is, and those layers informed the overall story.

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Fernando sent in first-person video diaries, speaking directly to the camera and explaining what was happening in his life while the filmmakers were across the country.

We learned of the immense stress he was under, trying to balance a job with schoolwork and his commitment to a youth group; of his admiration for a history teacher who set high standards for his students, despite society’s low expectations for them; of the contradictions he lives with—a sense of pride for his community on the one hand, and of the frustration that it is filled with violence, poverty, and disrupted families.

We had researched Detroit and its public schools. We looked up test scores, gathered news clippings, and talked to experts. But in the end we decided to let Fernando’s voice tell the story, and through his rap lyrics, video diaries, and interviews with important individuals in his life, answer the questions we had set out to ask.

Weaving Fernando’s perspective into our own footage meant that we were not telling Fernando’s story for him. Fernando was telling it too. And by telling his own story, our film became his film, not just a story about him. This is what he recently shared with us:

After I watched the documentary, I was over joyed with how not only how I was represented but how my community overall was represented.  From the very beginning although the doc was about myself I wanted the overall message to show how my community is thriving and that we as a whole can be successful all we need is a helping hand and some guidance along the way. I felt like the doc not only spoke for me but also spoke for my fellow Latinos.

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Fernando Parraz Jr. interviews his best friend, who had dropped out of school.

How did two filmmakers who had never been to Detroit capture our characters’ sentiment in just four months? Our secret was seeking out Fernando’s voice, and listening closely to what it had to say.

Because he had a hand in making the film, Fernando shifted from subject to storyteller. And because he was telling the story, it became not only a story about him, but about his world and his community.

I am just glad that I had gotten the chance to share my story and to be the voice of the voiceless… I am very happy that my graduation was captured and highlighted in a film that I can relive forever. I can only hope that the documentary can inspire Latinos and anyone living in poor urban areas that anything is possible. All it takes is some hope, determination, ambition, and most importantly faith.

Now that Can’t Hold Me Back is out, it is not only our film but his, and Fernando is receiving feedback and support from his peers, and playing an active role in outreach. Local schools have asked him to speak to their students about his journey to success.

The story of that journey, we’ve learned, is one that only Fernando can get right.

Can’t Hold Me Back is part of the 2013 PBS Online Film Festival going on through March 22. It is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America address the dropout crisis.

Fernando Parraz Jr. is a writer, artist, activist, and freshman at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Betty Bastidas and Madeleine Bair are the founders of Maracuya Productions and the creative team behind Can’t Hold Me Back. Betty is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, photographer, and teacher. Madeleine is the Human Rights Channel curator at WITNESS.

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