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On the Nickel

Fifth Ward, first-time director Greg Carter's film about inhabitants of Houston's most notorious ghetto, is a charmingly amateurish effort that takes pride in its low-budget bluntness. With its cut-and-paste editing, low-pitched soundtrack, jittery cinematography and actors spouting lines like they're giving the last performances of their career, Fifth Ward is the most ambitious attempt at homemade, do-it-yourself filmmaking I've seen since Pink Flamingos.

But don't expect any of the characters in Fifth Ward to eat dog poo or sing out of their assholes. Despite its almost in-jokey conceit of filmmaking, Fifth Ward has a serious story to tell.

The central character is James (Kory Washington), an inner-city teenager so brimming with promise he should have the words "good potential" stamped on his forehead. When he's not earning his wages working at an Asian couple's convenience store, James goes to the museum and sketches. Yet danger and temptation lurk everywhere. When the movie begins, James's mack daddy brother is gunned down by two street punks. James and his mother (Donna Wilkerson), a former prostitute and strip-club dancer, live with James's stepfather, a recovering heroin addict who gets back on the hypo when his workman's comp runs out. James's father, who also loved art, was mysteriously killed while having an epileptic seizure. James has no choice but to make something better of himself.

But all of his potential soon dissolves into unpredictable slumming when James hangs out with his neighborhood boys. The oldest and dearest of his pals, Rip (Lee Carter), is a ghetto-regulated loose cannon who'll bust anyone upside the head if they look at him funny. Rip sells illegal guns for the same kingpin who employed James's brother.

To give the story a diverse buzz, Carter trots out more substantial characters: Earl (Thomas Webb), James's uncle and a paramedic whose motivational-speaker-like elocution and preachy dialogue give the movie its most moralistic moments; Greg (Jack Hernandez), a UH grad student accompanying Earl for his thesis research; Officer Gibson (Louis Guesmano), a racist cop who goes out of his way to treat African-Americans "like they are children"; and Haan (Junie Hoang), the Asian couple's attractive daughter, who stirs up a Romeo-and-Juliet thing with James.

While offering easy parallels and allusions to Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jersey Drive and every other recent 'hood movie, Fifth Ward is more of an ensemble character study. The movie rolls more like a melodramatic soap opera -- Peyton Place with guns, blunts and hoochie mamas.

Although the story is soaked in predictable low-key bathos, Fifth Ward is actually quite credible. Carter's well-structured plot sparks adroit, believable moments. But the actors who play the residents of the Fifth Ward are the ones who make the characters effortlessly convincing. They come across with enough facile verve and strength to make them pass for scholars of ghetto method-acting -- ready for any August Wilson play or New York Undercover guest shot that comes their way.

But anyone who desires Titanic-sized production values (or even Good Will Huntingsized production values) should steer clear of Fifth Ward. While a movie with, say, more money would have come off as condescending and laughable, Fifth Ward's straight-faced rookie storytelling gives it a persuasive slant. With Fifth Ward, Greg Carter has made an audacious first try.

"If 'guerrilla filmmaking' is the word that most people use for independent production, then we just had 'guerrilla war.' "

It's this notion that makes Carter chuckle as he recounts the experience of making his debut film. "There were times where [I thought to myself], you know, do I buy film or do I pay my rent?" says Carter, a 30-year-old Houstonian who works as an environmental engineer when not moviemaking.

A year has passed since he finished shooting Fifth Ward, and Carter is calmly psyched about the upcoming unspooling of his film as part of the Museum of Fine Arts' "Local Spin" festival. Although Carter thinks he needs to trim a few edges to make his film presentable ("I feel like we're still finishing it now," he laments), he's proud of his work and confident that the film will stand on its own.

But when you make a quantum leap from environmental engineering to writing, producing, financing, casting, catering and, most important, directing your very own movie, you're taking a chance with everything you do, from day one. It all started for Carter when he was listening to his car radio and heard what sounded like an opportunity.

"What happened was, I was driving to work one day," says Carter, "this was probably about four or five years ago, and I heard this voice on the radio, and he was talking about how he'd like it if we had some black men to come volunteer and work with the group."

The man's name was Ernest McMillan, and the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program was the group he was promoting. Eager to volunteer, Carter pitched the idea of teaching a film course. In 1993, he got a thumbs-up on his proposal, and a year later he officially tagged it the Fifth Ward Young Filmmakers Project.

"That's where I really got involved in making [the movie], because I spent a great deal of time not only being a teacher to the kids, but being a mentor, a role model, a father figure, that whole thing," says Carter, a native of El Dorado, Arkansas, who moved with his family to the Fifth Ward in 1979. Although he moved away from the northside neighborhood by the time he was in fifth grade, Carter feels he can still bond with the people in that little part of the world. "I really got to know the people in the community really well, and the neighborhood well. And the history."

All of this laid the groundwork for Fifth Ward's development. In 1995, Carter wrote the script and used some of his pupils as interns. He spent most of this time financing the movie's $70,000 budget himself, and also got contributions from family, friends and investors. An open casting call was made in November 1996 at UH. Shooting for two weeks straight in and around the Fifth Ward, Carter had finished most of the filming by the end of that year.

"I didn't want to make another 'hood movie," Carter admits. "Normally, the movies you see of this genre, it's always about a young black male coming of age, and that's the only movie you follow. But in this one, I wanted to follow some cops, [James's] mother and her live-in boyfriend, and his uncle and his grad student. I wanted to weave it all in there."

The MFA showing won't be the first for Fifth Ward. Last October, a special screening was staged at TSU's Hannah Hall Auditorium so Carter could get feedback on the movie from family and friends and curious viewers. But four days before the TSU premiere, disaster struck.

"We were editing on a computer. And the weekend before the show, which was on, like, a Wednesday, the computer broke down," Carter recalls. "I had to re-edit the whole movie. So when I was at the show at TSU, I hadn't slept in, like, three or four days. I had to rush over to TSU with a hot tape -- literally, the tape was still hot from the edit machine -- and pop the tape in [the auditorium's projecting VCR] and push 'play.' You never count on that happening, but it happens."

With that exercise in panic control safely behind him, Carter drew a favorable response when he presented Fifth Ward at the Austin Heart of Film Festival later that month. He plans to screen the film this spring at WorldFest Houston and Austin's SXSW Festival, and he's hoping to hold screenings in New York and Los Angeles. He's talking with distributors about optioning the film, but he's also thinking of distributing it on video.

There's more good news for Carter: The monthly cable show At the Angelika, on the Independent Film Channel, will air an interview featuring the Houston director at 9 p.m. on January 30, and Carter is profiled in an article in the March issue of Details about the new wave of black independent filmmakers.

Although Carter isn't giving up his day job -- he has a wife and a three-year-old daughter to support -- he feels secure enough to start planning future projects, including an ensemble romantic comedy and an enthusiastically layered science-fiction fantasy.

"My hard-core, realistic look at Fifth Ward is that it was a low-budget film. Actually, I call it a 'no-budget' film," says Carter. "So it's kinda like you can have a classic car -- and I don't wanna use the word 'shabby' -- but you can only do so much at polishing it to make it perfect. We just didn't have the tools that I wanted in the beginning. But on my next project, that won't be the case."

Fifth Ward.
Directed by Greg Carter. With Kory Washington, Donna Wilkerson, Lee Carter, Thomas Webb, Jack Hernandez, Louis Guesmano and Junie Hoang.

Not rated.
105 minutes.

Playing 7 p.m. Sunday, February 1, The Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515. $5.


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