When independent creative agency Omelet began delving into the stories of ex-gang members for a client project, Mike Wallen, the shop’s chief content officer, quickly realized there enough material to go well beyond their planned 12-minute fundraising film.
The endeavor turned into a two-and-a-half-year-long passion project that this month makes its digital debut as a full-length feature documentary. "License to Operate" is an hour-and-40-minute film that follows 20 former gang leaders in their mission to rebuild the Los Angeles communities they once destroyed.
"It was shocking, the first time we were introduced to these men and women, to realize they weren’t in some far off different land, they were five blocks from where we lived," said Wallen, who served as producer on the film. "These war-torn communities are our communities."
The film started out as a fundraising venture for A Better LA, an LA-based organization that works to improve the lives of inner-city citizens. Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and executive producer of the documentary, established the organization in 2003 when coaching at the University of Southern California. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, there are more than 450 active gangs in L.A., involving over 45,000 individuals. Once members of violent gangs like Bloods, Crips and Florencia 13, these transformed leaders are trained as community interventionists working to prevent crimes and protect youth.
"We felt compelled to amplify their story to bring much needed resources and support their way," said Wallen. "About a month into filming, we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we kept going and made a film?"
The film dives much deeper than the topic of gang violence, it gets to the root of the solution, added Wallen. It focuses on the impact the inventionalists have on kids in the community. For example, viewers are introduced to 16-year-old Jasmine Falls and her twin sister Carissa. The girls were living with their aunt when Jasmine was arrested and started to struggle in school. Interventionalists take the sisters in, and the girls become part of the family.
"This intervention work isn’t just about stopping bullets, but showing these kids that they have value and potential, and opportunities like any other kid," said Wallen.
Although Omelet has done documentary-styled work for brands like Walmart, Microsoft, Whole Foods and HBO, "License to Operate" is the agency’s first foray into unbranded feature-length films. "It’s a big leap," said Wallen.
"If any agency can, they should use their storytelling strengths to tell stories for those who are not getting their stories out there," said Wallen. "It makes us better as creatives to push our own limits and go beyond what our daily activities are. It’s also about survival and being as good as you can be for your paying clients."
The film, which first premiered at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, is available through iTunes, Amazon and other digital outlets.