From paint brushes and spray cans, to film

Adolfo Flores

Henry Fernandez finds it funny how his short time in Scotland inspired him to write a script for a film based in his native East Los Angeles, but it makes sense to him.

‘When you’re so far from home, you become aware of all the subtleties from home, like the taco truck smells and the people walking on the sidewalk,’ said the 36 -year-old film student.

‘That’s when it really kicked in, and I was able to visualize all that because I was gone for a while’hellip; that’s where it started.’

The roughly 2,000 words he wrote have gone through many transformations to become a film he also directed, entitled ‘TAG’. It will be showcased next May at CSUN’s Annual Student Film Showcase.

The film itself is partially financed by the Princess Grace Foundation, which awarded him a $5,000 grant. The foundation was named after Grace Kelly, an Academy Award-winning actress who married the Prince of Monaco and anonymously donated money to emerging artists.
Fernandez became the first CSUN student to win the prestigious award. He decided to apply for the grant after receiving an email from Nate Thomas, cinema and television arts professor and head of CSUN’s film option.

While the grant covers only a fraction of the projected $40,000 cost of the film, the award had other benefits as well.

‘It has put me in contact with past winners and others in the film industry,’ Fernandez said.
Professor Thomas was not surprised that Fernandez won and is now in the same league as students at high profile universities, such as Julliard, University of Southern California and Columbia.

‘The honor is very prestigious,’ Thomas said. ‘It says a lot about Henry, a lot about the script and a lot about the story he’s conveying.’

Thomas noted that, although Fernandez might not be the typical student because of his age, his experiences have helped him express himself and his enthusiasm.

‘ ‘You can see the passion that is coming out of the script because he’s a product of East L.A. and can tell the story from the inside out,’ Thomas said. ‘It has a certain grittiness to it that gives it texture’hellip; and it’s very authentic.’

‘TAG’ deals with the disconnect between youth and older generations in East Los Angeles, using graffiti as the backdrop for the story of Rodrigo, a teenage tagger whose friends tag the garage door of Vietnam vet Castulo Guerra.

Several murals Fernandez grew up with are depicted in ‘TAG.’

‘When the mural by the Sloan’s dry cleaners by my house (in East Los Angeles) was tagged on, that was it for me,’ Fernandez recalled. ‘It’s always been a special place for me.’

The mural he referred to was painted during the Chicano movement and shows humans’ dependence on outside sources through metaphors, Fernandez explained. To show our constant need to be connected to technology, the mural depicts a man connected and bound to machines. Another illusion showing a young girl stuck to the TV, describes the influence media have over us. In the middle, an Aztec god comes down from the skies to a child who has his back to the TV and is reading a book.

‘It’s always had a special place for me, so when it was tagged, it really got to me,’ Fernandez said of the artwork. ‘The younger generation doesn’t have the same respect for these murals as the older generation.’

While some taggers try to incorporate their work into others’ murals, they don’t seem to fit, Fernandez said. He suggested that if youth had a place to vent their artistic talents, perhaps the murals would be left alone.

‘There’s a line between being artistic and destructive, using it to intimidate,’ said Fernandez, referring to gang tagging. ‘They even tag the Virgin of Guadalupe. Nothing’s off limits.’

Fernandez’s view is the original murals give the community a sense of pride; when they are tagged some older people get angry. The younger generation might not know the history of the murals, so they don’t mind as much.

Sometimes taggers from other backgrounds or neighborhoods tag the murals, something that Fernandez depicts in his film. ‘It’s not just Latinos, it’s also Asians and African Americans.’

In order to film some natural scenes from ‘TAG,’ Fernandez went around the neighborhood and spoke to different gangs so they could understand his efforts.

‘They were cool with it, and appreciated the respect,’ he said.

Fernandez explained how Hollywood fails to authentically convey the stories of East Los Angeles, which is why it’s important for the people of those communities to tell their own stories.

‘I really wanted to be able to tell my story, although the movie is not necessarily a Latino movie,’ Fernandez said. ‘It’s a Latino based movie in the sense that it was all shot in East L.A., but on a wider level, I want to show other kids who might not be Latino, that art deserves respect and hopefully people will stop defacing it.’

He also hopes that people who might not be familiar with East Los Angeles, or only see it in films, will gain a different perspective of the city.

‘I want them to see that not all of these kids are cholos,’ said Fernandez while sitting in front of a bright mural, painted this year by Paul Botello, depicting immigration and the history of families in the United States, going back to the days of the Aztecs and Mayans.

‘We have kids who are driven, passionate and artistic. They wear baggy clothes and shave their heads because everyone else is doing it, but they’re not necessarily in a gang.’

It’s when these kids are neglected of the resources and the means to practice their talents that they lash out, something Fernandez can relate to.

Fernandez had originally gone to the College of the Canyons to play baseball, but his dream was cut short after he blew out his shoulder. In the years that followed, Fernandez engulfed himself into what he describes as his ‘dark phase.’

‘I was in and out of jail for a while, went through a deep depression, life is 80 percent suffering,’ Fernandez said. ‘I wish I was the Dali Lama, enlightened all the time but the fact of the matter is that my life experiences have given me an edge.’

It was his friends, family and theater that helped him regain his confidence and pursue a higher education.

Theater had always played a role in his life since it’s in his family history. His aunt, Evelina Fernandez is an actress and writer who appeared in the film ‘American Me’, and his uncle, Jose Luis Valenzuela, is the artistic director of the Latino Theatre Company.

While Fernandez dabbled in theater in East Los Angeles City College, he realized that film was a better vehicle to tell the stories he wanted to tell.

‘It’s a lot easier to take the message to the people instead of trying to bring them to it,’ he said.’ Soon after, at the urging of a UCLA professor, he came to CSUN’s film school.
Fernandez’s ambition continues to this day.

Castulo Guerra, who plays the Vietnam veteran of the same name in ‘TAG’ and also played a role in a ‘Terminator’ movie, has known Fernandez for years, and was attracted to the project because of his friend’s commitment and authenticity to the project.

‘Henry has been at it for quite some time and putting the film together is about healing for him,’ Guerra said.

‘When Hollywood is trying to tell a story in East L.A., they will have a view that glosses over reality, and here you have Henry shooting a film about tagging, taking us to the corners and neighborhoods where he grew up. It’s beautiful. It’s not fiction because he rolled the camera and got East L.A. in full flesh.’

Fernandez and his crew plan to shoot the final scenes in November before going into post-production. From there he hopes his 17-minute film will be picked up by a studio and one day continue to tell his stories.

‘In the end, all we’re trying to do is leave some kind of mark in this existence,’ he said. ‘It’s very important that we express ourselves and leave a little someth
ing behind.’