After decades of documenting the hardcore and skate scenes in NYC, famed photographer Angela Boatwright packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles. There, she was tapped by VANS to photograph the punk scene in Los Angeles. In the gritty photos, the subjects have on the typical punk attire you would expect, most are adorned with ill-thought-out piercings and tattoos. The difference here though, is that the kids are all Latino. The photos led to a series of short documentaries, directed by Boatwright, on Latino punk rockers that throw concerts in whatever backyard they can find in East Los Angeles.
In Off the Wall – East Los we learn that these punks take pride in being from places like Compton, Long Beach, South Gate, and East Los and think of each other as family. Boatwright’s doc uncovers that beyond the Suicidal Tendencies, Dead Kennedys, and Misfits T-shirts, beyond the mosh pits and aggressive music, are expressive, tenderhearted kids. There’s Anthony who was raised by an O.G. abuelo, Nekro who plays acoustic guitar while his abuelita serenades him with rancheras, and sweet-faced 14 year old Lauren who, when she attends shows, is always chaperoned by her mother. Off the Wall – East Los shatters your perception of what it is to love punk rock music. As a purple-haired young woman says in the film, “It’s something bigger than us.”
We got the chance to catch up with Boatwright to talk about discovering the East Los scene and keeping in touch with the kids in her movie.
I love East L.A and try to go every time I’m in Cali but I had no idea about the backyard Latino punk movement. How did you come across it?
You are from Ohio, did you imagine you would be making a film in East L.A. one day?
Not specifically, but in a way, yes. I lived in NYC for 19 years before I moved to L.A. so my teenage thoughts were more focused on the East Coast, however I’ve always been into aggressive music so in that regard, documenting the East L.A. scene wasn’t too far from my initial interests — geographically far but not spiritually.
What was the most important thing you wanted to say about your subjects?
It seems incredibly obvious to me (and potentially to you and your readers) that music is almost never the “problem.” These kids (and all kids, honestly) have valid, distinct and complicated lives. Life is difficult especially when you’re young and especially when your dad is in jail, as in Lauren’s case. Music is their salvation, their place to belong. (Side note: I use the word “kids” in the general sense – many of these “kids” are in their early to mid 20s.)
How did you gain their trust?
I make sure and keep my word for starters. And I listen to, and attempt to remember, the details of their stories. I was a very similar teenager, although I grew up on heavy metal and later, hardcore and grunge.
Who did you relate to most?
I definitely related to each character (and several of the kids that weren’t featured) in their own way. I suppose Lauren’s story is the most like my own, however.
I found the kids to be sweet and your affection for them is evident on the screen. Do you think people prejudge these kids?
Sure, and for millions of reasons. But people prejudge everyone, we all do it. It’s awesome to get to know individuals you might never speak to or think about in real life through documentary filmmaking. I think that deep down we are all so incredibly similar. I want the audience to be able to relate to the kids as much as possible.
Have you thought about checking in with the kids in film, later on in life?
Of course! I’m still in touch with all of them; there have already been some changes in their lives. I love projects through the passage of time. Almost everyone I’ve photographed personally I’ve kept in touch with. It’s one of my favorite things about being a photographer.
Who do you think they will become?
I have no idea! I hope they all go on to do amazing things!
What’s your favorite moment in the film?
Haha, I spent so many hours editing the episodes… My most favorite moments are very quick and brief. I love the shot of the skinheads in the teaser, for example. I love that shot! There are tons of quotes and moments that didn’t make the cut that I love, too. In Episode 3, I love the transition from Lauren’s seemingly bratty attitude directly to her father’s voice via telephone call from jail. That moment always hits my heart. I cry every time I watch that episode.
Have you thought about making a fiction film?
What was the VANS connection?
I had spent the four years previous to the VANS project documenting metal bands that tour all over the world and funded it by myself. I was working with VANS, photographing their Vans Girls’ look-books around the same time. I asked the VANS Girls’ Art Director if she could introduce me to anyone in the video department so that I could show them the teaser for my personal, heavy metal doc. The introduction was made, VANS loved the teaser and asked me to contribute to their 2014 documentary campaign.