Meet the Former Foster Youth Who Founded a Film Festival to Help Youth Tell Their Stories

Growing up in foster care in Los Angeles, Johna Rivers didn’t always get the opportunity to express her creativity.

Once she got older, Rivers wanted to offer something for kids like her. So she founded a film festival to tell their stories.

Now 24, Rivers is the founder and executive producer of the three-year-old Real to Reel Global Film Festival. It began in October 2015 as a way to showcase films produced by youth ages 14 to 23 that shine a light on social issues. The film festival is put on thanks to the support of Better Youth, a creative development agency for urban youth that provides mentoring and technical skills through media arts training.

Rivers said she first found her passion to develop a program for youth when she was in high school, thanks to her mentor Syd Stewart, Better Youth’s executive director. As their relationship flourished, Rivers was introduced to the media industry, where she learned about entrepreneurship and business opportunities.

Rivers is spoken-word artist who has performed across Los Angeles County. Through her work with the United Nations Foundation and the Spirit Awakening Foundation, she has had the opportunity to work and perform in Africa and Brazil.

Rivers hopes that her festival provides greater awareness to the issues that foster youth face daily. The third edition of the Real to Reel Film Festival takes place on Saturday, October 7. This year, the theme is reunification. Attendees will watch winning submissions created by youth, as well as a panel discussion with industry professionals.

Rivers talked to The Chronicle of Social Change about her inspiration for the festival, her own film work and why creative expression is so important for foster youth.

The Chronicle of Social Change: What is the goal of the Real to Reel Festival for those who don’t know?

Taking a real-life social issue and turning it into a cinematic address, to capture on film the issues that shape and inform the global or local community.

Why did you want to start this festival?

Coming from Watts, a low-income community, there was no space for me to be creative. I made a script and sent it out to Hollywood for approval. I came to find out that they wanted to take full ownership of my script. My mentor Syd educated me about the film industry. Because she is an actor herself, she taught me how to walk from that opportunity. The timing had worked out because I had a network of people to help me make my own film festival.

How can youth today watch these films and get inspired?

Youth can get inspired by going to the Real to Reel Global Youth Film Festival and seeing films that have already been submitted and be inspired by watching those, or you can show up this Saturday at the Los Angeles Film School and have a chance to network with other people from the industry.

This year we have the whole platform dedicated to foster kids who created, produced, and directed their own films. It is important that youth see them in action, doing what they love to do and being a part of the atmosphere that day.

 What is the importance of storytelling for foster youth?

I believe the first step is owning your narrative: to use it as a stepping stone and motivation to help other people. My story, my foster care story, me struggling as a filmmaker, is the reason why I committed to Real to Reel, the reason why I do spoken word. To use my story as power instead of pain. It can take you places you would never imagine. You don’t always have to do the old-fashioned way of storytelling just by talking; there are [other] creative outlets to tell your story.

What kind of narratives does the Real to Reel film festival aim to tell?

The narrative that we are trying to put out is that there is space for young people like me in Hollywood, to let them know they can believe in themselves. This year we have performers coming out, special guest like the casting director of Empire, Leah Daniels Butler, on the panel. We are really expanding and growing.

What don’t we see in popular culture that you would like to add to the conversation around foster care?

The struggle. Someone real close to me passed away this year, my “Big Momma.” She raised me and got custody of me when I was in foster care at the age 10. I had to push through it. So I made a film named Beautifully Flawed. It talks about a struggle of an artist, being successful and the everyday battles that one is faced with. You hear people talk about how they made it to success but never about the trial and barriers, and that was something I had to learn from.


Sunshine Decosta is a graduate of California State University, Northridge, and an intern with The Chronicle of Social Change.

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