MORAGA -- In a classroom on the Saint Mary's College campus on a sweltering, 96-degree July afternoon, 16 film students sit at desks semi-circled around a screen. When the raw, unedited footage ends, they hold their applause.
"When is the red carpet gala?" several students ask.
The answer, Nov. 4, draws a groan and a hailstorm of protest.
"Why does it take so long?" demands Tony Smith, 14, arching backwards and grumbling, "I know I have plans that day."
Next to him, 15-year-old Max Borlend is unconcerned, choosing instead to focus on how to use the time.
"If they saw the skeletons in front, that'd be better," he says, to a fellow camper.
It's year seven of Joey Travolta's Autism Spectrum Film Camp, a wildly creative 10-day affair that gives voice to children and young adults, ages 9 to 25, who have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome.
"Imagine, you have 50 hours," Travolta begins. "You have three groups and have to make three movies and a wrap around show -- kinda like a documentary of the whole camp. We dance for 15 minutes a day, the last day is all testimonials and screening footage, and then there's lunch. Imagine! That's 35 hours, tops, to make three short films and a documentary."
He shakes his head, but he returns every year with his team of Hollywood professionals to take a group of kids with admittedly limited communication and social skills and turns them into lean, mean(ingful) filmmaking teams.
"It's their script, props, acting, directing. It's pretty incredible," says Travolta, brother of actor John. "In seven years, we maybe lost three kids during the camp. That's pretty strong."
The strength of 59 eager minds, galvanized by Travolta's dynamic belief in the power of film as the ultimate inclusive tool, nearly blows the lid off the roof of a computer classroom on the other side of the campus.
Negating the misconception that autistic minds operate only amid ordered, simplified environments, nearly 30 kids zoom from one action-flashing computer screen to the next, pointing, shouting, laughing, questioning or just open-mouthed with respect for what a friend has created.
New to camp faculty this year is Dani Bowman, a 17-year old animator who Travolta discovered three years ago. It's impossible to distinguish her from the campers, until her caretaking aunt and uncle, Sandy and Patrick Eidemiller, provide introductions.
"I'm the teacher," she announces, in the tell-it-like-it-is language that often characterizes the conversations of individuals with autism. "It's pretty awesome. They told me how to be an art teacher and it's a success."
Bowman, who operates Powerlight Studios, her own business, and has illustrated two anti-bullying books written by Travolta, sees nothing exceptional in her position.
"I'm self-taught, and now I teach them," is her most reflective comment, and when a student interrupts, she's eager to turn her attention back to her work.
"I'm going to write 'The Heretics Guide to Autism' someday," her uncle jokes. "These kids don't have communication gaps, they just don't talk about what other people want to talk about."
The genius of Joey -- the name all the campers call Travolta -- is in stripping away conventional ideas about autism and using the collaborative nature of filmmaking to unleash their furious, fun, and fundamentally profound stories.
"What kinds of things worry you?" he asks them on day one.
"If I buy a $100,000 boat I can't afford and you play me and I play my wife, tell me what you'd say to me," he challenges, later that same day.
"This is about finding gifts," Travolta explains. "Everybody has a gift."
"Seeing these kids evolve and tap into their talents is incredible," agrees Dale Oprandy, who has performed and directed in the industry since the age of 15 and has taught at the SMC camp for five years.
David Krapf, a professor and Director of the Special Education programs at SMC, says the 17 SMC graduate students participating in an intensive summer course by assisting at the camp are gaining valuable experience.
"Having a relationship, having hands-on experience that will transfer to their field experiences in a classroom setting in the public schools this fall, is extraordinary," he says.
Futures Explored Inc., the Lafayette organization that organizes the camp, reports that this year 40 campers are funded in whole or in part by the Regional Center of the East Bay, 15 are private pay and four are on scholarships. With plans to implement a year-round film program for adults in the near future, Futures Explored Executive Director Will Sanford stands by, silent, like a proud papa impressed by the operation's success.
He chooses to defer to Travolta, who speaks to everyone's purpose when he says, "These kids are like an open canvas. You teach them to make a beginning, a middle, and an end. When they see the results, they have a sense of belonging, because their voices have been heard."