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Monday, November 19 , 2018, 8:12 am | Fair 47º


A Year Later, Santa Maria Gang Prevention Documentary Racks Up Thousands of Viewings

Life Facing Bars screened this month at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and is requested routinely by prosecutors and professors nationwide

Lt. Dan Cohen watches the Santa Maria Police Department’s gang prevention documentary, “Life Facing Bars.” A year after its debut the documentary has been viewed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube and was shown during the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
Lt. Dan Cohen watches the Santa Maria Police Department’s gang prevention documentary, “Life Facing Bars.” A year after its debut the documentary has been viewed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube and was shown during the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Lt. Dan Cohen figured a few thousand people might watch the Santa Maria Police Department’s documentary on gangs.

A year later, the YouTube viewings have climbed to more than 193,000, Life Facing Bars: A Gang Prevention Documentary showed at the San Luis Obispo Film International Festival and the film has attracted interest from law enforcement agencies across the country.

Cohen, a 16-year member of the Santa Maria department, carries the title of producer for the documentary, which tells the perils of gang life using interviews of convicted criminals from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

When they first made the documentary, Cohen figured 5,000 or maybe 10,000 people — “that would be amazing,” he recalled thinking — would see it.

“Just the fact that it’s as big as it is far, far exceeds our expectations,” Cohen said, recalling that he hoped to get a number of viewings from people in the city. “It’s gone way beyond that. And it’s a year old now.” 

He recently heard from the Suffolk County Commonwealth prosecutor in Virginia, who asked to show the Central Coast documentary as part of their gang prevention program. Their film was 12 years old.

“It’s been surprising how much interest we’ve gotten from around the country,” Cohen said, adding that college professors have called seeking a copy to show in their classes. “It’s good that there’s an interest out there. What it really showed me is what a need there is. There’s so many groups and nonprofits and people that just want to share the message of gang prevention.”

The 40-minute documentary debuted in March 2014, with a showing that attracted city leaders, judges and others to the Edwards Stadium Theater. It remains available on YouTube plus other sites.

Police Chief Ralph Martin had suggested entering the movie in the local festival, and Cohen found out it met the criteria for the SLO event. Since it is available on the Internet, the documentary could not be entered in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The showing at Mission Cinemas in San Luis Obispo on March 11 was followed by a question-and-answer session with Cohen, who holds the title of producer; Matt Yoon, director; and Ryan Wiczek, sound mixer.

Cohen said he was told 700 filmmakers applied to have their productions shown in San Luis Obispo. Approximately 100, inducing Life Facing Bars, were chosen. 

He said he didn’t realize how prestigious it was until he heard the number of applicants.

“That’s a lot of films,” he said.

In December, Cohen announced the debut of the documentary for Spanish-speaking viewers, created in hopes of reaching that vital demographic and fulfilling several requests from all the country. But the numbers of viewings for the Spanish version are much lower so far, numbering fewer than 900.

“It hasn’t taken off as much,” he said.

However, it has been put to use, being aired at a Santa Maria Valley event attended by several hundred people, he said, adding the number of people who viewed the Spanish version may exceed the actual numbers on YouTube.

The project occurred because police officers found that the short video clips of comments from gang members caught audience members’ attention during presentations.

Police knew the gang prevention tale would be more compelling coming directly from gang members.

“They’re going to think he’s the police, he’s supposed to say that," Cohen said. "But when a gang member says, ‘Trust me, I was you and I got hooked into this lifestyle. Stay away from gangs,’ — all of a sudden people are sitting up straight. They’re now intrigued and they’re listening. They bring a credibility when they’re telling the truth.”

Cohen said one gang member in a cell claimed the documentary changed his life. 

“I hear more from the people who are using it than the people who are seeing it,” he said.

Comments on YouTube run the gamut, with some labeling participants as snitches and one person recognizing one of the participants.

“Dang it’s a trip,” one man wrote, who recognized an old best friend’s younger brother who was so good at sports he could have "made it out" of Santa Maria.

“I hope this really sinks in for (people) and save them,” the man wrote. “This is nothing but real stuff they talk about here.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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