An Emmy award-winning filmmaker directs a portrait of Terrance, an LA kid battling with his black dog

For this week’s Doc X, Emmy-award winning filmmaker Joris Debeij, founder of documentary propject I Am Los Angeles, premieres an intimate and thought-provoking film about Terrance, a 17-year-old from California who suffers from a severe depression. It charts his days as he struggles to cope with the many setbacks in his life. Read our interview about the making of the film with the Dutch-born, LA-based filmmaker below.

How did you find Terrance? Was it difficult to interest him in getting involved?

Joris Debeij: I had read that statistically, kids living in a lower income area within larger metropolitan city are much more likely to be dealing with deep depression and/or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I hadn't thought about it much -it came as a big surprise to me and I wanted to learn more about it. I found Terrance through the Los Angeles Unified School district. As you can imagine, kids don't often come forward saying they're dealing with depression and/or PTSD, so they've set up a program to help detect this at an early stage. I let them know I was very interested in making a film to create awareness about this. They connected me with Terrance so we could work together directly. Terrance was shy at first, but from the beginning he was also eager to break through all that and share his story. He's worked hard with his counselor to gain awareness of himself and perspective for his situation - I think he's at a point where he wants to have his voice heard, to feel understood. We didn't start filming right away. First I spent a lot of time with Terrance, just getting to know him, hanging out after school, eating pizza. 

How did he experience the process of filming? Was it hard for him to open up about his experiences? 

Joris Debeij: I like to think he enjoyed it. I'd even say it seems to have helped him, opening up and processing from top to bottom what has happened in his life so far. He's had a crazy roller-coaster ride, and at times it continues to be one. I think stepping back to see the bigger picture may have helped him see and value his own resiliency. Besides that - and I am really talking from my own point of view now - I think we both added another friend in our lives. He's someone I'll always be glad to call a friend. I'm also very proud of Terrance for having the courage to share his story, and I think he has grown from the experience. I’m seeing a Terrance that’s a lot more upbeat then the first time I met him. 

DD: Why do you think there are so many kids like Terrance in LA - and what could be done to solve this?

Joris Debeij: There are a variety of triggers that can cause depression and PTSD. To take Terrance's example, the loss of his parents and caretakers were traumatic life events. In the longer term, someone like him might miss out on the guidance he needs to see the opportunities for his own future. Add the presence of gangs in the neighborhood, and there's a greater level of risk that teenager will turn to violence. But even if he pulls hard against that influence, he's bound to be on edge if he thinks he doesn't have someone looking out for him. When a teenager is exposed to these levels of stress continuously, it can affect his/her mental health. 

If one thing is taboo in our society, it's talking to somebody and really being honest about your problems. Terrance at some point realized he needed that help. But when problems like his are not recognized, and not treated, teenagers get into all kinds of trouble. We see these kinds of results all the time, ranging from substance abuse, participation in gang activity, and teen pregnancies. But that's when the damage is already done. In some of these cases, these kids are taking a turn in the wrong direction at a very important juncture in their lives. These kids are our future and I think it's a problem that I think merits more awareness in society. If you’d like to learn more about it, check out the program that helped Terrance.   

How did I Am LA come about? What do you have in store for the future?

Joris Debeij: I live and work in Los Angeles, but I'm from the Netherlands. Being a Dutch transplant I found it hard to get settled in LA at first. To go out and experience the city in the most obvious ways was far from interesting to me. I was looking for ways to discover something more hidden, more unexpected. I wanted to meet the people who make up the real fabric of the city, just by being who they are and doing what they do. That is when the idea for the website came about. We showcase short documentaries focused on different people in Los Angeles, each with a unique story. I have been working on it for a while now and one story just seems to lead to the next. The mosaic of people gets more varied, but I am far from being done. 
I make a constant effort to keep the series fresh and ensure it represents a range of people from varying backgrounds, with different interests. The next story we're releasing is one that's a little more upbeat. It's about harnessing creativity and putting it to work according to the two main subjects of our film. To see the latest in the collection of I Am Los Angeles films you can visit us at iamlosangeles.com