‘Backyard Philly Project’ film focuses on four teens’ search for hope amid hardship

A documentary about the lives of four Philadelphia teens hits the big screen this week.  “The Backyard Philly Project” tells the stories of lives of four teenagers from the same public housing complex, Penn Town, at Seventh and Spring Garden streets. 

At first, filmmaker Amanda Danziger wasn’t sure how she felt about the neighborhood. 

“I was really freaked out when I first came here,” she said. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Danziger had heard about a place called Helping Hand Rescue Mission, where teens from Penn Town went after school to tutor younger kids and help them with homework.  It was a friendly, safe space for the kids.  Still, she was hesitant. 

“It’s located in the projects — and you know your first reaction when you’re living in Philadelphia for a while — but you try to avoid these areas so much,” she said. “And I came up here and I was scared I didn’t know what to do.  And then I fell in love with the kids and the program and what they do here.”

Danziger was inspired to make a documentary about the kids, their families, and what it’s like — in their words — to grow up here. 

Danziger says life here is different from her childhood in suburbia. 

“There’s so much hurt and loss when you grow up in a neighborhood like this,” she said. “Here it’s going from street to street, from city block to city block, and it’s concrete … there’s not a whole lot for kids around here.”

A representative perspective on Penn Town

The four teens were selected to represent all the kids in Penn Town, so it’s not just troublemakers or the high-achieving kids who leave the place behind.

Part of the filmmaking process put cameras in the hands of the main characters.  In one scene, the face of one of the teen stars, David Cole, takes up most of the screen.  A red dot in the corner indicates the camera’s recording. 

“They was shooting. Somebody was shooting over something stupid and it was just crazy like I don’t even know what to say cause it’s getting — it’s getting closer and closer to where we live at,” Cole says.

Now 18, Cole still lives in Penn Town with his mom. 

“It’s violent, people gotta watch their backs.  Cops are constantly in the neighborhood looking for people,” he says. “I don’t know why, but they’re always here.  A lot of fights and shootings in the neighborhood.” 

Cole says the neighborhood’s not all bad — many residents are friendly and he says likes coming to the Mission.  And he’s trying to keep his 16-year-old brother out of trouble.

Once he graduates from high school in June, Cole hopes to study photography.

Scenes of a drug addiction

Some of the most emotional moments in the film come when teen Tasia Ellington talks about her mom’s drug addiction. 

“It makes her act different toward me and it gets out of control sometimes.  This time it got way out of control, she didn’t want me there, so she ended up calling the cops and wanting me to get out,” Ellington says. “And then when the cops arrived she’s crying.”  In the movie, Ellington’s mother admits she’s made mistakes.  The teen says she’s still not sure how her mom will handle the film. 

“I think it might actually hurt her feelings a little bit, but … at the same time maybe she’ll understand some how I felt,” Ellington says.

Now attending college in New York, Ellington says she chose to study criminal justice so one day she can help guide teenagers in the right direction.  

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal