2013-01-15 / Front Page

Kids shooting kids

Students’ violent videos prompt warnings
BY DARCIE MOORE and JT LEONARD Times Record Staff


A BRUNSWICK-AREA TEENAGER brandishes a fake weapon in this screen grab of a USN Video. A group of Brunswick-area teens received warnings for trespass after their violent and gun-centered videos — some of which were filmed on public property — grabbed the attention of local police. 
USN FILMS PHOTO A BRUNSWICK-AREA TEENAGER brandishes a fake weapon in this screen grab of a USN Video. A group of Brunswick-area teens received warnings for trespass after their violent and gun-centered videos — some of which were filmed on public property — grabbed the attention of local police. USN FILMS PHOTO BRUNSWICK

The film opens with scenes of recognizable buildings in downtown Brunswick and a backdrop of sad music.

An alarm sounds. A character, played by a teenage boy, wakes, jumps to his feet, grabs a handgun and runs to a window, peering from a crack in the blinds.

The scene from “The Biohazard: Part 1” is like dozens of graphic videos posted to YouTube by a group of local youths: A violent, bloody shootout ensues, often filmed on public property.

Acting on a complaint from the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, Brunswick police issued trespass warnings Friday to 13 Brunswick High School students who taped the above scene in Curtis Memorial Library’s Morrell Meeting Room.

Police they believe a total of 20 students, ages 16 to 18, may get the warnings.

Brunswick police Captain Mark Waltz said School Resource Officer Aaron Bailey and the assistant principal talked to the students individually Friday about the trespass warnings and the safety implications of their film-making.

Bailey also called parents after issuing the warnings. Most knew their kids were filming something but didn’t know what, Waltz said.

No charges were issued, and Waltz says there probably won’t be.

Other than occasionally filming on railroad tracks, “they haven’t committed a crime,” Waltz said, with the exception of entering posted buildings on the former base, which he said police are still investigating.

“We’re just concerned about the safety aspect of them running around with these guns that look real,” Waltz said. “Our goal is to make them think more before they do things, about the repercussions of using people’s property without permission and having shootouts with guns that look real.”

‘No permission’

Footage for the “Biohazard” series described above was filmed at various locations — including the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now known as Brunswick Landing — by a group of youths calling themselves USN Films.

Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, found out Thursday from a Portland Press Herald columnist USN Films had been shooting videos depicting gun violence at the former Navy base. His agency called police, asking them to ban the youths from Brunswick Landing property.

That was the first police first learned of the videos, which they then began reviewing, Waltz said.

Police then alerted Elisabeth Doucett, director of the Curtis Memorial Library, who also asked the kids be banned from the library after learning about the scene described above.

The teens “had no permission and were not observed filming by the staff at the library,” Doucette said.

“Obviously, it’s not something we support and condone,” Levesque said Monday. “If people want to film on the property, there’s an application process that we go through,” which includes a harassment agreement and insurance requirements related to filming on the property, “and we have a number of people who have filmed on the property.”

Levesque said a USN Films request to film probably wouldn’t be supported in light of events such as Columbine High School shooting and the more recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, “given the issues we’ve had with youth gun violence.”

“We have to deal with this,” Levesque said. “Guns were one thing, but we have an issue in our society where we are desensitizing our youth to violence such as this. That’s a concern that I have personally.”

He described an incident last summer when a group of kids entered the back gate and were “kind of simulating a zombie attack,” evidently for one of the videos.

At the time, “we called police and the police came and asked them to leave.”

“Obviously, it’s pretty disturbing but we’re dealing with it right away,” Levesque said. “If we see anything suspicious here, we call police.”

The bottom line, Levesque said, is “those kids were trespassing. They didn’t have permission to be there.”

In supporting the trespass warnings, Doucett said the library is probing whether real guns were brought into the library and identifying anyone who may have violated library policies.

“I think the biggest concern I had was centered around public safety,” Doucett said.

“We also decided on Friday that we would get the names of all those issued the trespass order and invite them, and their parents if they are minors, to meet with me,” she said.

USN Films

USN Films, the teens’ self-described independent video production company, has posted at least 26 videos on YouTube with more than 8.3 million views and 28,868 subscribers as of Monday.

The videos mostly contain no dialogue and serve as vehicles for violent scenes of semi-automatic gunfire, blood splatters and explosions. As in Hollywood, the films are produced with fake guns and computer-generated special effects.

According to the USN Films website, “We make short films with a lot of visual and practical effects. We use Airsoft guns in our videos, and in post production we add in sound (effects), muzzle flashes, bullet hits and explosions. Some effects, such as explosions, are done on set instead of during post production.”

The website boasts that “a lot of our videos have been filmed at Brunswick Naval Air Station (which is now closed) near where we live.”

The filming has been taking place more than two years.

The central figure in the group is a 17- year-old Brunswick High School senior. Entering the 2012-13 school year, he carried a 3.8 grade-point average and was ranked 13th in his class. He is an honor student who has been accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. — one of the top postsecondary institutions in the nation. The Times Record is not naming him because he is a minor who is not charged with a crime.

His parents, reached by telephone Monday, said they are distrustful of the media and were hesitant to comment.

“(He) is extremely talented. There’s not a violent bone in his body,” his mother said. “And I’m worried now that anybody who reads that story and doesn’t already know him will get the wrong impression.”

The student said he understands that the reaction to USN Films is a by-product of the current national sensitivity to school shootings and gun-related tragedies. But he’s still frustrated by the judgment cast upon him and his friends.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and now all of a sudden people are taking this more seriously, even though we haven’t changed,” he said.

“I’ve been called into the principal’s office a bunch of times in the past month, and it makes me feel like people expect that I’m going to do something just because I film violent videos, just because of recent events. I don’t think it’s a fair judgment.”

Another student, who also declined to be named, said she considered it sad that his talent for digital film-making, directing, scripting and special effects were being overshadowed.

“They’re films, it’s not reality,” she said. “He’s not going to go out and do something just because they’re making these movies. It’s like a video game.”

In a touch of irony, it was a middle school teacher who introduced the boy to moviemaking in seventh grade.

“I did an iMovie project in school. A friend and I did a movie on the physics of sledding. The teacher loved it and gave out different awards for films. We got ‘Best Action Film,’ and ever since then I’ve been making videos,” he said.

He started a film channel on YouTube and began making movies with Nerf guns — large, pastel-colored, foam-andplastic toy guns which fire soft, harmless projectiles.

But with high school came a need for more realism.

“I started using Airsoft guns, because they’re more realistic. That’s when I started the USN Films channel.”

He said 10 or 15 people are involved in each production, depending on the plot and location. All are students. Some attend Brunswick, some go to other schools, some are people he knows through sporting events at rival schools.

“My parents have been very supportive, right from the start,” he said. “In the beginning I used my dad’s video camera. Before I got my driver’s license and could drive to locations, they drove us around so we could film.

“They’ve been really involved. It’s not like they don’t know what we’re doing,” the teen said.

“My dad has actually been in one of our films: He’s the guy driving the boat in ‘Amphibious Assault’.”

Could the student be capable of a Newtown, Aurora or Columbine-style rampage?

“No,” he said. “We’re not those kinds of people.”

He said it was upsetting that he and others would be banned from Brunswick Landing and the Curtis Memorial Library for a year, and that he and others have considered hiring an attorney to contest the bans.

“Some of the people that got warnings and were banned from the library weren’t even in that film or on that location,” he said.

He suggested his films have been given the official thumbs-up from teachers at Brunswick High School.

“Sometimes in class, when we have study halls or free periods at the end of the day, some of my teachers have actually played the videos on projectors,” he said.

Happy ending

Having issued the trespass warnings, Waltz said, “Obviously you hope that they will get permission before they film some place,” and if they’re going to do something like use fake guns, “mark them as being fake, or put signs up if they are filming something.”

Doucett said she hopes to open a dialogue with parents to get straight the facts of what happened, as well as to find out “if we should be doing something differently and try to make it as constructive an experience as possible both for the library and the kids.”

“I think our goals is to build relationships, so we’re trying to figure out how to turn this into a positive thing for the community.”

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